When I was a kid, I didn’t think the space program was going fast enough, so I invented my own. Crewed missions, observatories, planetary exploration–most everything I thought was missing.
Because of all that, I feel quite sympathetic to an author like Allen Steele who in much of his fiction has rewritten history more to the liking of a hardcore space buff. Hence V-S Day, a novelization of a short story the man penned a few decades ago.
The premise is intriguing: the Americans race the Nazis to outer space to prevent destruction in New York City. Could the tech that went into producing the atomic bomb have put soldiers into space twenty years ahead of their time? A lot of people think we were very much ahead of our time in 1969-72 sending astronauts to the moon. That we no longer possess that ability probably speaks to it. My pessimistic sense is that NASA overreached, and was quite lucky. Maybe a one-in-ten-fortunate that things turned out as well as they did.
Reaching for space in 1943 changes a lot of things in the present day, but that’s not really the thrust of the narrative. A young journalist in 2013 interviews the three still-living engineers and scientists who were responsible for putting a pilot into space to defend America in 1943. The reader gets a few hints about how things have changed because of that effort. But most of the story narrates between the German (25%) and the American (75%) efforts to get ahead of the other.
There’s a bit of spycraft. Wernher von Braun wrings his hands while working for the bad guys. There’s some ahead-of-its-time integration of a Black and an Asian into the American rocket team. A bit of romance.
I kept wondering where this novel was going. The front cover depicts a Nazi craft over non-blacked out Manhattan, like it was a zeppelin. That’s not how this battle was going to be fought. Jet aircraft were in development during these years and radar was new. Nobody had broken the speed of sound. 1940’s electronics was closer to stone knives and bearskins than it was to today’s computers.
The big question that the characters in the story hint at: how was Robert Goddard‘s team planning to shoot down a Nazi spacecraft? That is the best piece of work in this book: a bloody elegant solution to space warfare that finds competing ships flying past each other at supersonic speeds.
I didn’t read the original short story. As a composer, I feel little interest going back to old works and redoing them. Mr Steele’s novel seems well-researched. And it’s definitely thoughtful. It’s good. I’m not sure it crosses the border into very good. It doesn’t have the detail that Connie Willis put into her novels of time travelers to WW2 London. It feels like a short story padded with some material that helps a publisher sell it at a much higher price. Allen Steele has won three awards for his short fiction. My sense is that he does much better in that setting than in writing novels. Maybe science fiction is a format better left for short stories and novellas than full-length novels.