Volume 33, Number 02, Winter, 2015

Joe Steele

By Harry Turtledove

Roc, 2015
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard
July 2015

The 1930s in the United States are remembered as the Red Decade: A time when American intellectuals and journalists widely admired the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin’s rule of it, and viewed communism as the wave of the future. Harry Turtledove’s latest alternate history novel liberalizes the metaphor, imagining a United States under more overtly authoritarian rule than Roosevelt’s. The title character may well actually be the same person: He’s described as the son of immigrants from the Russian Empire, with an original name that sounds like a sneeze, and the Soviet Union of this world is ruled by Leon Trotsky, whose great rival seems not to be on the scene. But in any case his name is a signpost to the novel’s central conceit.

Turtledove shows a good deal of ingenuity in transposing details of Soviet history to an American setting. Steele begins not as a party secretary, but as a congressman from Fresno, Roosevelt’s rival for the 1932 Democratic nomination, and the only candidate left after Roosevelt’s sudden death. His White House staff includes analogs of several Old Bolsheviks. Not long after his election, he begins dealing with opposition with show trials, starting with four Supreme Court justices who voted to declare laws he sponsored unconstitutional—a more drastic response than Roosevelt’s denunciation of the “nine old men.” This is followed by the institution of an American gulag system that’s a grimmer version of the WPA, and of a secret police headed by J. Edgar Hoover.

Libertarian readers will enjoy some of the references Turtledove makes, including quotations from Ambrose Bierce and from Finley Peter Dunne (creator of “Mr. Dooley,” an Irish bartender with a cynical slant on politics). A line about things that “can’t happen here” might be a reference to Sinclair Lewis’s novel about American fascism, winner of the LFS Hall of Fame award in 2007.

Turtledove’s narrative technique is unusually focused in this novel. Rather than his usual large cast, he tells the entire story through the eyes of two brothers, both reporters, who respond to Steele’s early actions in different ways—and suffer different fates as a consequence. Their parallel stories are more than sufficient to give a panoramic view of the course of American and world history as Steele serves multiple terms as President, finally dying of a stroke and leaving chaos behind him in a country no longer accustomed to freedom. The final turn of the story seemingly closes off any prospect of a sequel and also provides a superb example of Chekhov’s maxim about not putting a gun on the mantel if no one is going to fire it.

In many ways, Turtledove has softened the full horror of Soviet authoritarianism; Joe Steele’s United States has secret police and prison camps and censorship, but not mass extermination of entire populations. The Republican Party still chooses presidential candidates to run against Steele, and if their defeats are landslides, they don’t end up imprisoned or dead. Even at the very end, despite decades of virtual dictatorship, the post-Steele power struggle is settled by impeachment. Stalin and his successors would not have been so mild! But he does a persuasive job of showing how authoritarian rule corrupts an entire society. This is a well written cautionary tale about one of the great dictators of the twentieth century in a different setting.

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