What if the space race started not in the 1960s, but two decades earlier, during the dawn of World War II? What if America competed, not against the Soviet Union, but against Nazi Germany for that crucial advantage? That’s the underlying difference and premise of Steele’s latest work, a meticulously-researched “novel of alternate history” which diverges based on actual happenings and concepts of the time.
In 1941, the German High Command decides to switch the focus of its research from Werner von Braun’s V-2 rocket program, to Eugen Sanger’s idea for a space-faring plane, the Silbervogel (Silver Bird), which would theoretically be capable of dropping bombs on America from impossibly high up. When the Allies discover the news, they divert their own resources from the Manhattan Project in order to build something capable of intercepting and destroying the Silbervogel. Enter Robert Goddard, whose experience with liquid-fueled rockets provides the backbone of the new project.
As the story unfolds over the next few years, von Braun and Goddard face off like chessmasters, their respective teams working to overcome technological, financial, logistical and other considerations. Both backed by the war machines of the Axis and Allies, both placed under tremendous pressure, both faced with impossible deadlines, both secretly hoping their inventions will benefit humanity rather than doom it. That’s right…in the middle of a world war, the space race is the creative child of two men yearning for peace and space exploration.
If this all sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because this story has a long and complicated provenance in its own right. Steele first conceived of it over twenty-five years ago, at the dawn of his career, while writing Orbital Decay, but the intended novel was distilled down into the short story “Operation Blue Horizon,” which came out in 1988. It was revised into “Goddard’s People” and appeared again in a 1991 anthology. It was used as background material for The Tranquility Alternative, expanded and revised when it looked like HBO might pick it up as a miniseries, and then ultimately expanded and revised once more into the book we have today, benefitting from research done and information discovered in the intervening decades. Indeed, a story that’s seen considerable changes since originally written.
First and foremost, this is a story of alternate history. The cast is large and sprawling, with many characters coming and going as the story demands, many receiving little development, others vanishing after a single scene. The main focus is on those core motivators and their immediate companions on either side of the equation—Goddard and his 390 Group, von Braun and his people. Even then, it’s less about the people than it is about the technology, developments, setbacks, and gradually-increasing tensions as the war rolls on and the demands from higher-up grow more insistent. Steele does manage to pepper the story with character moments—Goddard’s team sneaks out for late night drinks, Henry Morse flirts with a librarian while doing research, von Braun considers the charms of his secretary, even the Allied spies who first discover the existence of the Silver Bird project are given a little time in the sun—but there’s no one person who can truly be called the hero or protagonist of this book. Perhaps you could say it’s about the Silver Bird and Lucky Linda, the twin spacecraft born as a result of the story’s events.
Steele excels in two areas. The first is the historical research. Everything is placed just so, into the cracks of established history, utilizing real people as much as possible and postulating the differences based on that critical area of divergence. The Silbervogel concept was real, Goddard’s liquid fuel experiments were real, and the Nazis were indeed desperate for any possible advantage. Their obsession with secret, super-weapons is well-documented, and it’s easy to accept that in a different timeline, they could have focused on the destructive potential of a plan able to drop bombs from space, instead of the long-range rockets they ultimately went with. Von Braun’s contributions to spaceflight are incontestable; after all, in the real world the United States snapped him up and put him to work, where he helped get us to the Moon. His involvement with, and loyalty to, Nazi Germany extended only as far as practicality and survival were concerned. Steele may, however, have decided to portray him as even less committed to the cause to increase his sympathetic nature. The reality lies somewhere between what happened originally, what von Braun claimed after the war, and how he’s described in V-S Day.
Likewise, Steele focuses on Goddard as something of a maverick, uncomfortable with rules and regulations, at odds with authority, suffering from health issues, but determined to succeed for the sake of possible space travel. Steele’s Goddard is one who experiences a sense of vindication unrealized by the real man, who sees his obsession with rockets and space travel acknowledged and encouraged, if not for the reason he might have hoped. These, and other character choices, help to flesh out the complexities of a now long-bygone era. As the war unfolds, mostly in line with the real world, it’s easy to see where Steele’s novel plugs into the gaps.
Secondly, Steele is great at taking the technical stuff, the scientific details, and making them accessible for the less technologically-minded reader. He doesn’t dumb them down by any means, but he has that same approachability and love for the mechanics that Heinlein did.
This isn’t an action-packed adventure by any means. Though the tension gradually increases as the book progresses, it’s mostly of a social and psychological nature. There are a few scenes full of violence and mayhem, but mostly in the context of the war going on in the background, as well as one very important climatic bit near the end. This is a cerebral sort of story. Moreover, it’s one in which the outcome is pretty much telegraphed up front; there’s a framing sequence in which a writer, while putting together the true story of Goddard and the 390 Group, interviews the surviving members at a reunion in 2013. We already know much of who wins, who survives to the present day, and how it all turns out. Nevertheless, he saves some of the emotional impact for the final moment, which shows us just how the world has changed and advanced with that 1940s invention of spaceflight.
Steele’s book is thoughtful and fascinating, as entertaining and well-executed an alternate history as you’re going to find. It’s subtle and ultimately successful, demonstrating once again that you can take a tiny moment, alter a simple decision, and end up with something new and interesting. This, like anything, shows why Steele’s a multiple Hugo winner, and why he remains relevant.
V-S Day is available now from Ace Hardcover.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.