Story of the Week: Harry Turtledove's "News from the Front"

Every so often you read a short story which rearranges your conception of life. You go in thinking up is up and down is down, then you finish the story and find yourself walking on the ceiling. Such is the effect of reading Harry Turtledove's "News from the Front" in the June 2007 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.

For those who don't know him, Harry Turtledove is the master of alternative histories, having published a slew of novels exploring what would have happened if, for example, the South had won the Civil War. His stories are heavily researched and always historically accurate—right up until he diverges from how history actually happened and shows readers what might have happened if a few things had been changed.

Now he has written "News from the Front," a short story about World War II and the United States response to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Where Turtledove diverges from history is to have the media back then behave as the media behaves today, which is to believe that the public's right to know if more important than helping the country win the war. In the story the media reveals military secrets and picks apart every error the Roosevelt administration and the U.S. Military make in the first year of the war (and as any history buff will testify, there were mistakes a plenty). To say the least, the war doesn't turn out well.

Of course, this is Turtledove's way of analyzing the media's handling of the current Iraq War.

Science fiction writer James Van Pelt says the story has already made him reconsider how the war in Iraq is playing out:

What was cool was how this form of fiction made me think about today's situation. Personally, I think we're wrong to be in Iraq, not because of any deeply informed study of the war on my part, but because I'd always believed that America was the "white hat" character in the western that is the world. In my vision of America, we never draw first. Invading Iraq because of what we thought they might do just feels wrong to me. It doesn't feel American (plus, it sets a horrible precedent that gives us no moral high ground when some other government does a preemptive invasion of another country).

Harry's story, though, made me rethink the progress of this war. The parallel he sets up is that we couldn't have won WWII if the press behaved like it behaves today. By extension then, would the war in Iraq been very different (and perhaps more "successful") if the press' behavior had been more like the press during out WWII?

I don't know, and I'm not a particularly political person anyway (unless you ask me about No Child Left Behind!), but Harry's story once again struck me with the power of fiction, and the power of science fiction in particular, to raise disturbing issues.

I agree. There is a disclaimer at the start of the story, saying it's "foolish to infer a writer's politics from his or her work." Readers can take or leave this disclaimer as they wish.* All that matters is Turtledove doing what all fiction writers should do, which is to cause readers to consider things anew, in this case a major difference between this war and the wars of our grandparent's time. Anyone interested in history or current affairs should read this story. Unfortunately, the June 2007 issue of Asimov's isn't online, so I suggest people run down to their nearest bookstore and buy a copy.

I'm sure Turtledove will be attacked for writing this story, which is a real shame. As they say, those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Only with this story, Turtledove attempts to show that the alternative is also true: That those who don't consider how history might have turned out are also doomed to repeat it.

*Addendum: While I'm not a big fan of disclaimers before stories, and despite my comment about readers taking or leaving the disclaimer as they wish, in Turtledove's case it is definitely accurate to say one shouldn't infer his politics from his work. A few years ago Turtledove published a short story called "Bedfellows," about the Boston wedding of President Bush and Osama bin Laden. To say that story stirred up a hornet's nest is to put things mildly. Bloggers and commentators said that he must be a left-wing loony. Now, with "News from the Front," he'll probably be called a right-wing nut. The truth, though, is that he's simply a great writer who doesn't mind poking holes in everyone's preconceptions.