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A Week to Remember: Happy Birthday, Harry Turtledove!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
L.A. native novelist, Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove was born on June 14, 1949. Turtledove is a novelist who works in several genres—science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction—but is best known as a writer of alternate history. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Gardena. He briefly attended Caltech and earned a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA.

Turtledove’s first major success as a novelist put that Byzantine history knowledge to use. The Misplaced Legion (e-book | print), published in 1987, was the first book of the Videssos Cycle, set in a fantasy universe very much like the Byzantine Empire, but with magic. The series continued with eleven more novels, setting a template for Turtledove’s career; many of his books are written in long, multi-volume series.

For writers of alternate history, the “what if” turning point often centers on World War II, and Turtledove is no exception. The six-volume “The War That Came Early” series, beginning with Hitler’s War (e-book | e-audio | print | audio), imagines that the war began in 1938 with a German attack on Czechoslovakia, and follows how the war plays out when neither side is well prepared for it. Days of Infamy (e-book | e-audio | print) begins a two-volume series in which Japan follows up the bombing of Pearl Harbor by invading and occupying Hawaii, changing the course of the war in the Pacific.

Most elaborately, and tossing science fiction into the mix, the 8-volume “Worldwar/Colonization” series, which begins with In the Balance (e-book | e-audio | print) begins when World War II is interrupted by an alien invasion.

four books by Turtledove

Another common alternate history turning point is “What if the South won the Civil War,” and Turtledove’s major contribution to that theme is the 11-volume “Southern Victory” series, which starts with How Few Remain (e-book | print | audio); the series follows the turbulent relationship between the United States and the Confederacy through the World War II era. The stand-alone novel The Guns of the South (e-book | e-audio | print) is sometimes incorrectly listed as part of this series; that is a “South wins the Civil War” story, but the victory in that one comes about when time-traveling racists provide 20th-century weapons to the Confederate army.

In the “Hot War” series, the Korean War escalates into World War Three after Truman allows MacArthur to use nuclear weapons; Bombs Away (e-book | print) is the first of three volumes.

In his stand-alone novels, Turtledove has explored a wide range of historical turning points. In A Different Flesh (e-book | e-audio), Homo sapiens never crossed the Alaskan land bridge into the Americas, and the 17th century European colonists find the Americas populated instead by Homo erectus. After an imagined conquest of England by the Spanish Armada, Ruled Britannia (e-book | e-audio | print) finds William Shakespeare caught between the two sides . And Joe Steele (e-book | print) imagines that Josef Stalin had risen through American politics instead of Russian, becoming president in the 1930s.

Turtledove has occasionally written more straightforward historical fiction, usually under the pseudonym “H. N. Turteltaub” (the German word for “turtledove”); much of it has been republished under his own name. Justinian (print) is a biographical novel, with a little bit of historical speculation, about the Byzantine emperor. The 4-volume “Hellenic Traders” series starts with Over the Wine-Dark Sea (e-book | print), and follows two traveling merchants in the Mediterranean in the 4th century BCE.

Throughout his writing, Turtledove is careful to remember that historical events do not only change the lives of historical figures. He often writes with multiple point-of-view characters, jumping from one to another to tell different parts of the story, and his central characters are just as likely to be infantrymen, factory workers, and stay-at-home mothers as they are to be presidents and generals.

Also This Week

June 15, 1479

Lisa del Giocondo was born. Del Giocondo was the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Mona Lisa; “mona” is a shortened form of the Italian “ma donna,” or “my lady.” The history of the painting is not precisely known, but it was probably commissioned in 1503 by Lisa’s husband, Francesco, after the birth of their second son. It appears that Leonardo spent more than a decade working on the painting, and it was probably never delivered to the del Giocondo family. Dianne Hales’s biography of Lisa del Giocondo is Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (e-book | print).

June 16, 1899

Helen Traubel was born. Traubel was a soprano whose career ranged from opera to Broadway. She was a regular at the Metropolitan Opera from 1937 to 1953, specializing in Wagnerian roles. In 1953, the Met chose not to renew her contract; the company’s manager, Rudolf Bing, thought that her appearances on radio and television variety programs were beneath the dignity of the Met. She went on to be a popular nightclub singer, and appeared on Broadway in the 1955 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Pipe Dream. Traubel also co-starred with Groucho Marx in a 1960 television production of The Mikado.

June 14, 1939

Peter Mayle was born. Mayle worked in advertising for a decade before quitting to become a writer. His first books were a series on sex education for children and teens, beginning with Where Did I Come From (e-book | print). His great success, though, came in the late 1980s, when he began writing books about his life as a British expatriate in southern France. A Year in Provence (e-book | e-audio | print | audio) set Mayle on the literary path he would follow for thirty years, writing memoirs and novels about good food, good wine, and relaxation.

June 11, 1969

Peter Dinklage was born. Dinklage is an actor best known for his Emmy-winning performance as Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones. He struggled to find work early in his career, in part because of his reluctance to take the roles as “elves or leprechauns” that are offered to actors with dwarfism. Dinklage first came to the attention of most moviegoers in the 2003 film The Station Agent (streaming | DVD), in which he plays a train-obsessed recluse who reluctantly becomes involved in the lives of his new neighbors.