Thor Meets Captain America

Discussion in 'Alternate History Books and Media' started by Evan, Sep 1, 2013.

  1. Evan Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness!

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    David Brin's editor challenged him, "I'll bet you could think of some premise that'd work" to let the Nazis win the war. And this was the result.

    The Norse Aesir gods have appeared. Or, at least, something that looks like them and is just as powerful. And they are fighting for the Nazis, and they find Nazi ritualistic murderous madness quite suitable. But despite the title Thor Meets Captain America, all that the United Nations can find to face them is ordinary humans. D-Day was a slaughter. Eighteen years later, in a dark 1962, Europe has fallen, Africa has gone ominously silent, and even the refugees refuse to speak of what they have seen. As the combined navies of the United Nations fight one last desperate delaying battle against Fro God of Storms off Labrador, we follow our heroes in "a leaking steel coffin, on a hopeless attempt to blow up Valhalla." With them is their one mysterious ally, Loki, who has abandoned his fellow Aesir - but why? And for that matter, who are they?

    I'm not saying this short story is literarily exquisite. The plot is almost an afterthought to those two questions which our narrator is pondering. There's little action, and what there is, quite frequently, is interrupted by digressions and backstory. Yet those digressions treat us to such engrossing worldbuilding that I wouldn't lose a single one of them. Brin's Israel-Iran, for instance, is one of my favorite countries in all alternate history. I strongly recommend this tour of the world from the point of view of Captain Chris Turing on the mission to blow up Vahalla.

    In fact, I recommend you read it right now before finishing this review. Seriously. It's available for free. The questions are answered at the end with one huge SPOILER!!! which I have to discuss, but I don't want you to lose your chance to experience the story once while wondering the same things as Chris. Brin later extended the story to a graphic novel entitled The Life Eaters; read that too if you can find it, but the short story is the best part. Again, the rest of this will necessarily contain SPOILERS!!! for the short story; read it first!


    SPOILERS -

    YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!




    The chilling answer is: It appears the universe is designed to favor evil. Doing unspeakable evil can bring one unspeakable power. And the United Nations is left without any way to meet it save schemes so wild that only those who "had little or nothing left to lose" - sadly "the type common in the world after thirteen years of horrible war" - volunteer. Of course, there is one alternative: to meet evil with evil, to ourselves mass murder, to raise our own powers. That would work, our narrator knows. I saw one Amazon review of this story protesting, "I feel quite let down here. This had some potential but where the hell is Captain America!?"

    Yet his absence is the whole point. As Chris says,
    Even in this world, I said, "it appears" that way. This story also offers us tantalizing glimpses that there might be some brighter paths. Set against necromancy, we see no other powerful magics - but we see the same human imagination and ingenuity which Brin elsewhere praises in this world. "A sprig of mistletoe," Chris calls the United Nations space station, describing it with ancient words of legend. Of course, the power of ingenuity is not a panacea, and in this story, it has not (yet) come to its full power. Nuclear bombs will no more than slow down the Nazis; the space station does nothing but sail overhead glimmering in the night sky. Yet there is hope: submarines can already sail below the Aesir's reach, and the space station's mere existence sends the Nazis into paroxysms and disrupts all their astrology as it sails above all their powers.

    For the Aesir's power is bounded, it seems, by what was believed possible in the myths. Thor's hammer may look like the worst bombardment ever - but it cannot reach up to the orbits where the space station glides or down to the great depths where the submarines sail. Loki's dwarf is miserable on a submarine not because of the cramped conditions but because the ancient Norse did not sail below the water. Their minds are also bounded by the myths, making them less than human. When Chris asks Loki whence he comes, Loki answers not with his own words but with a direct quote from the Eddas. Worse still, Loki "did not seem to speak out of pity" about the extermination camps, but only "matter-of-factly, as if he thought a mistake were being made, but not any particular evil." If even Loki - the one Aesir who turned against the Nazis - thinks thus, what good can come from them?

    Indeed, all the Nazis do is either futile or evil because they deny the power of invention. Their glorification of courage leads them to denigrate technology such as submarines. Their rituals and dignity are laughed at; Chris even says that the Nazi uniforms which have in the real world been artistically praised "make you look pretty silly for grown men." That isn't to say Brin thinks all ceremony without value; witness the Grand Conclave later in the graphic novel, or Chris's resolution to provide a legend to inspire future heroes. Rather, ceremony is not a good thing in itself: it stands or falls based on its purpose. Good ceremony - good inspiration - is even necessary. So Chris says, wondering if his telling off Thor to his face can provide a "counter-mana," and certain that it will inspire heroes in the future. Or even in the present - even amid this darkness, Chris wonders, "Soldiers seldom saw the big picture... This mission could have been a feint, a minor ploy in a greater scheme." And it is not too much of a spoiler for the graphic novel to say that he does indeed inspire a future hero.


    To speak more about it, though, I must indeed go into SPOILERS!!! for Brin's continuation of this plot in his graphic novel The Life Eaters.

    SPOILERS AWAIT!!!




    The new hero is not from America, nor from the United Nations, but he is human. The flash of hope at the end of the short story vanishes; the Nazis vanquish America offstage before two pages are past. Yet hope remains, as one of the Nazi guards is inspired by Chris Turing's death to rise above the necromantic Aesir.

    This new plot from the graphic novel isn't really a continuation of the short story; it's a new story tacked on as a sequel to the first. Here, Brin brings out the choices in clearer relief. The secret of necromancy has somehow escaped, and Asia and Africa have failed "the test of our souls" and raised "tropical gods" against the Aesir. Yet some noble humans remain: the "Abrahamites" who are marked by "their one weapon. Obstinancy. Absolute refusal to use necromancy." They value science - "Why deny that tomorrow may bring change?... Creation's tools lie before us to use!" It is that science which, in the end, enables our hero to fell Yggdrasil and save the whole world which is now facing disaster from the war of "tropical gods" against Aesir. That is, science makes it possible... but even then, the human hero must choose to return the gods' power to the world at large rather than taking it on himself, else "victory may prove as dire as defeat." Thus, the foundational ethical choice of Brin's universe is brought even more firmly home.

    And these humans are fighting by themselves, for even Loki has turned evil in the end. Bursting into the United Nations' secret undersea base even as our heroes are figuring out the oncoming disaster, he declares he has also prepared for that disaster: "Some of us are known for looking ahead, even if it is only to the next bitter joke!" Even this strategizing, then, is bounded by his nature as conceived in the Eddas. Yet his plan is to kidnap our heroes and order them to wait out the coming Ragnorak atop Yggdrasil (as a few did in the Eddas) and form a new world under his domination. "In the next world... you may even question me, with respect. That is my way, reward the clever, even if they briefly resist."

    So, we are faced with gods who refuse to rise above their makers in any way: their scope of action, their mental talents, or their moral goals. And because their makers are necessarily people who are content to stoop to mass murder, any necromantic gods will drag humanity back. All the noble values suffers: our narrator says while refusing to treat his wounded fellow-soldiers: "These days... well, you choose carefully. Whom to save and whom to sacrifice."

    Thus far it goes thematically. Literarily? The graphic novel definitely suffers in comparison to the short story. The writing and art were divided up: Brin wrote, and Scott Hampton illustrated. Perhaps this divide is why there seems to be an excessive amount of text, and why too much of it - especially at the beginning, where there are long quotes from the short story's worldbuilding digressions - is placed in boxes rather than worked into the art. Of course, this is the first graphic novel I've read in years, so I'm not sure how much of this complaint is specific to it and how much applies to the genre in general.

    The further story in the graphic novel also seems awkwardly tacked on to the short story. As I said before, it is essentially a sequel where the world has vastly changed since the first story. We fail to see how the knowledge of necromancy was revealed, what happened in America as it was falling, how Africa turned from a mass slaughter-pit to a necromantic power of its own, or what in the world the Muslim members of the Abrahamites mean by lamenting "Why did we not welcome home the children of Isaac?" when they indeed did exactly that in Israel-Iran. It could not have been easy for Brin to continue such a short story which ends with its narrator's death, but I can't help but think he could have done a better job and told a story whose setting, plot, and tone are not so violently at variance.

    But please, if you've for some reason finished this review without reading Thor Meets Captain America, please do just that.