Impressions of “Alpha and Omega,” by Harry Turtledove

Recently I finished Alpha and Omega, Harry Turtledove’s book of the end of the world. I have a soft spot in my heart for Turtledove’s earlier book, Guns of the South. Turtledove’s book is not a lesson in theology, but could be thought of as a secular Lord of the World: a blow-by-blow account of the Eschaton from the perspective of several secular characters, as well as a few religious point of view characters.

But first: a few words about Guns of the South. Guns is an alternate history where time-travelers present General Robert E. Lee with a large truck full of AK-47s, associated parts, and ammunition. The rest of the book is told primarily from the perspective of Union and Confederate war-fighters. I loved Guns of the South because of the relentlessness with which it takes the logic of its initial premise. Second- and third- order effects, such as the Union’s industrial base better ability to replicate parts, are taken seriously. The conclusion is a brilliant combination of historical contingency and historical determinism.

Alpha and Omega is not as good. The book’s blending of apocalypses is original.  Yet Turtledove is clearly better at materialistic history rather than comparative theology. Turtledove does not have more than a surface-level understanding of the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, as in the scene where a televangelist gives prayers for the dead:

Lester Stark prayed for the victim’s soul and drove on.
p. 46

There are other cases where the Jewish and Islamic distinctions are likewise muddled. Yet there are still some good lines and set-pieces which cleverly play on expectations, such as the origin of the “Messiah”

Chaim knew exactly what he wanted: “Take me instead!”

“What?” The rabbi’s eyebrows came down and together in a scowl that should have petrified Chaim.
p.g 393

The context being a very odd take on Paul:

For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:7-8

and the loneliness of the Messiah:

Before this started, Eric hadn’t worried about the Messiah. He’d never imagined Him as the loneliest guy in town. Judging by Chaim Avigad, that came with the package.
pg. 446

being an unstated commentary on Matthew:

Now from the sixth hour until the ninth hour there was darkness over all the land. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Matthew 27:45-46

I wanted more of the historical strengths of Turtledove’s earlier works. When Turtledove writes about history he’s on solid ground, and the result is great:

“Then this is yet the Kingdom of Judah?” he asked.
“This is Israel,” Chaim answered.
“The northern kingdom, the false line, have conquered the true, holy realm?” The ancient Jew sounded horrified.
pg. 432

Plus some of Turtledove’s references to recent history were fascinating:

The 1948 War of Independence saw bizarre things, like Israeli Air Force pilots flying Messerschmidt 109s (Czech-built postwar versions) against Egyptian B-17s and their Spitfire escorts.
pg. 444

Sadly, there’s nothing like Lee’s dialogue in Guns of the South where he discusses the future South Africa’s political situation with time traveling Afrikaners. I enjoyed Alpha and Omega, but it was neither as good as the comedic Tom Stranger series, nor as thought-provoking as Ball Lightning, other fiction books I’ve read recently. If there are sequels to this book, I may not read them.

I read Alpha and Omega in the Kindle edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *