Harry Turtledove is known as the “Master of Alternate History.” He asks the question “What if?” and then gives us his version. In Joe Steele, the “what if” explores a terrifying future for the U.S. following the suspicious death of Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt. Joe Steele, the son of a Russian immigrant laborer, is elected president. Steele pushes through reforms, but at a price for freedom. His enemies find themselves in work camps; his friends find themselves rewarded. The American people, desperately impoverished after the Great Depression and pessimistic about the future, are delighted with Steele’s strong leadership and cast a blind eye toward Constitutional mischief.
Two brothers, Mike and Charlie Sullivan, are covering Steele as newsmen with the New York Post and the AP respectively. Both are impressed by his rise to power, but only one sees Steele for what he is—a dangerous man who will stop at nothing to achieve what he wants. The other brother, completely enamored of Steele, soon becomes a key element in the White House press spin.
The brothers’ conflict is played out against historical events that are familiar, but turned upside down. Familiar faces crop up as well, including a nefarious and power-mad J. Edgar Hoover who functions from the Oval Office.
Joe Steele is a cautionary tale, but with little emotional depth or character development. That’s not the point, really. The alternate reality device is foremost, and Turtledove’s ability to re-imagine world events and treat them as reality provides clever food for thought.