Volume 24, Number 04, Summer, 2006

In High Places

By Harry Turtledove

Tor, 2006
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
July 2006

In High Places is the third volume in Harry Turtledove’s series of young adult novels, Crosstime Traffic. These books have a shared background, a late 21st-century Earth that’s supported by trade with alternate timelines, in the style of H. Beam Piper’s classic Paratime stories. But each book is self-contained, with different central characters and a plot that’s completed in one volume, so that they can be read independently without difficulty.

Turtledove is a historian by training, and these books reflect this: all of them have been set in worlds with less advanced technology and archaic customs. A running theme is the confrontation of young people from a modern society with the harsher realities of the past—and the economic constraints that created them. In High Places will be of special interest to libertarian readers, because its focus is on slavery. Turtledove offers a straightforward economic interpretation of slavery: technologically advanced societies have machines to serve as slaves, but societies without that advantage have no choice but to have human beings occupy that role. On the other hand, he also suggests that slavery is a source of personal gratification for some people, even in an advanced society that has no need for it.

Turtledove has also made a name for himself in the fictional subgenre of alternate history, creating a variety of historically divergent worlds. Many of his series have focused on the big sellers in this field, the Civil War and World War II. These books seem to be giving him a chance to invent histories with less often used divergences. In High Places, for example, takes place in a world somewhat like that of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, where the Black Plague was much deadlier than in real history—but Turtledove’s divergence is less extreme: rather than killing over 99% of Europeans, leaving the continent empty and Christianity all but forgotten, the plague in this world killed only 80%, leaving Europe vulnerable to a Muslim resurgence in Spain, Italy, and the Balkans, while the surviving Christian areas went down a different historical path.

As young adult novels, these books are shorter than Turtledove’s books for adult readers. Personally, I find this a pleasure; they feel more focused, with smaller casts of characters and a faster narrative pace. I don’t find Turtledove’s young adult novels as good as Robert Heinlein’s classic juveniles—but the comparison’s not hopelessly one-sided, either; if Heinlein is the sun in this particular sky, Turtledove is at least a bright moon. Probably his single worst trait as a young adult novelist is a recurrent impulse to condescend to his protagonists, pointing out things that they don’t know or haven’t realized. But he does this in his adult novels, too. If I wanted to try to infect a young adult reader with an enthusiasm for science fiction, I might pick these over Heinlein as a starting point, if only to avoid the chance that a fifty-year cultural gap might make Heinlein less accessible. And a bright middle school student who read Turtledove could learn enough about historical and cultural gaps to make Heinlein’s classic work more accessible to them.

In particular, Heinlein was writing boys’ books; that was how young adult science fiction was classified when he started. He only wrote one science fictional girls’ book, Podkayne of Mars, and it’s not one of his best books for this age group. Several of Heinlein’s juveniles have strongly portrayed female characters (for example, Ellie Coburn, Caroline Mshiyeni, and Peewee Russell), but they tend to be peripheral to the action. Turtledove’s books have boys and girls equally well portrayed, and equally central to the action. Annette Klein, the protagonist of this story, has the competence and the will to take effective action on her own, without being turned into a cinematic supergirl. And her friendship with Jacques, a boy her own age native to the alternate history her family is assigned to, is believably portrayed.

This novel is a good introduction to the Crosstime Traffic series. Readers of Prometheus may take a little extra pleasure in its antislavery theme and its quiet support for religious tolerance; but fortunately, neither is heavy-handed. The classic formula, “instruct by pleasing,” is still good advice for young adult fiction, and Turtledove shows that he understands that pleasing the reader has to drive the story, whatever educational or moral content may be riding in the passenger seat. I’ve liked all three books in this series, but I find this one the best, and it makes me look forward to more.

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