Wednesday, May 13, 2015

American Stalin — ‘Joe Steele’ book review

I’ve been a fan of Harry Turtledove’s writing ever since I picked up a copy of Great War: American Front back in 2009. Turtledove has the ability to weave the stories of numerous ordinary people together to make one large patchwork fabric of an impressive, epic tale.  Such is the case with his 2015 novel, Joe Steele.

Joe Steele is based on a short story of the same name written in 2003, and expanded in 2014 to be a long, standalone novel.  In this novel, the man who would become Stalin is an American, a Democrat congressman from California rather than a Georgian-born Communist Party bureaucrat in Russia.  Born and raised among farm laborers in Fresno, Joe Steele is a dedicated socialist and is militantly pro-labor.

The story follows the Sullivan Brothers, reporters both, over a twenty year period.  One will unwillingly become a propagandist for the regime while the other is deported to a labor camp and must later fight on the front lines to atone for his political crimes.  Our story begins at the height of the Great Depression.

When the nominating process at the 1932 Democratic National Convention comes to complete gridlock between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joe Steele, no one knows who will challenge Herbert Hoover for the Presidency.  The sudden death of FDR in a house fire leaves Joe Steele the uncontested nominee and the eventual landslide victor over Hoover.

President Steele immediately begins a series of economic reforms under the first Four Year Plan—an allusion to Stalin’s Five Year Plan but tailored to the President’s term in office—with makes FDR’s New Deal look like a children’s game.  The federal government begins confiscating property under eminent domain for large-scale collective farming.  The Supreme Court justices who rule the new policies unconstitutional suddenly find themselves in front of a military tribunal for a show trial, and promptly sentenced to death by firing squad.  Joe Steele then moves on to purge the military establishment and key political opposition (as well as purging loyal followers who pose a future potential threat to the regime).

J. Edgar Hoover
J. Edgar Hoover also plays a prominent role in the novel.  Joe Steele’s second term is when the Government Bureau of Investigation—an alternate-history play on the FBI but resembling Stalin’s NKVD and later KGB—sets up a system of labor camps in North Dakota, Colorado, and New Mexico where political prisoners work themselves to death for “political reform.”  These are an obvious take on the true-history Gulag concentration camps in the Soviet Union.

This novel shows America slogging through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War much the way it did in true-history, but with the frightening tones of an endless Executive dictatorship, one-party rule, and a police state.  It’s frightening to watch Norman Rockwell’s America descend into a totalitarian state.  While certain true-history events are changed—for instance, a ‘Japanese War’ kicking off the Cold War instead of the Korean War, or Albert Einstein refusing to design an atom bomb for Joe Steele—much of the novel is grounded in truth.

For starters, Turtledove proves his expertise in the field of U.S. history by using real case law from the Civil War that allows the federal government to try civilians by military tribunal rather than by jury trial.  And while Americans may sleep well today believing themselves safe from labor camps, current federal documents tell a different story.

President Obama signed a series of Executive Orders that essentially allow the federal government to create an America similar to the version in Joe Steele.  Free speech is nothing but a privilege as long as Executive Order 10995 remains in effect, allowing the government to seize and control all communication media.  Natural resources and utility companies aren’t safe from seizure while Order 10997 gives the government carte blanche over all electrical power, gas petroleum, fuels, and minerals.

A maximum security FEMA camp in Wyoming
Collective farms are made possible by Order 10999, giving the government authority to take over all farms and food sources.  Order 11004 gives the Housing and Finance Authority the power to relocate communities, build new housing, and transit large populations.

Even worse, labor camps are also made possible by President Obama’s Executive Orders.  Order 11002 allows the Postmaster General to watch the entire population by operating a national registration of all persons.  Order 11000 allows the government to mobilize civilians into work brigades under government supervision in times of war or peace.

After reading what the federal government currently has the power to do, does Joe Steele still look like pure fiction?  This novel is highly recommended to any students of American and Soviet history, as well as anyone who values liberty.

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Joe Steele cover art courtesy of Turtledove Wiki. J. Edgar Hoover picture courtesy of The Guardian.  FEMA camp image courtesy of Popular Mechanics.  These images used according to Fair Use.

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