1945, Newt Gingrich & William R. Forstchen

Baen, 1995, 382 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-87676-7

In the Science Fiction community, heck, in the publishing community, 1945 has an unbeatable reputation as a commercial failure of epic proportions, an albatross that seriously damaged Baen Books’ financial statements for years. Published in 1995 and backed by an enormous publicity push, 1945 thundered in bookstores… and stayed there. No one was interested in buying it. Reviews weren’t just bad: they were viciously mean. Legend has it that over 80% of the entire print run was eventually returned to the publishers, costing Baen beaucoup dollars and scrapping the plans to conclude the trilogy launched by 1945. It wasn’t much later that Gingrich (who was, at the time, the Speaker of the House in the Republican-led US Congress) exited public life in a cloud of public ridicule partially generated by the book’s failure.

So. Wow. What a reputation: The Book That Nearly Sank Baen Books, Threw Gingrich Out Of Congress And Whose Legacy Is Still Whispered About. (Even editor Jim Baen himself called it “perhaps the greatest failure of my career”) In this episode of publishing history, the book itself has nearly been forgotten. So: bad or not?

Well, certainly not good. Not terrible either, but certainly not good. The main problem is that 1945 was probably conceived in the kind of cool conversation that doesn’t deserves to be novelized:

Newt: I’ve got an idea for an alternate history!

William: What is it?

Newt: Hitler in a coma in 1941! He never declares war on the US! We beat the Japs, the Nazis never attack Russia, they conquer all of Europe except for England! Then in 1945, they start bombing the Oak Ridge facility which is building the Project Manhattan nukes!

William: Cool.

Yeah. Cool. But that type of pure speculation is a bit thin unless you’re a really good writer who can take this concept and beef it up with good characters and a compelling storyline. 1945 (which, by the way, takes place mostly in 1946) all too often reads as a deluge of historical facts loosely discussed between cardboard placeholders. We’re not reading about characters, but about names and occupations whose moral alignment closely match their nationalities. As for subtle or even entertaining prose, well, reach for another book.

The infamous first three pages star a “pouting sex kitten” Nazi spy (Page 2, third paragraph) and believe me, it never gets more interesting than that. In the time-hallowed tradition of awful military techno-thrillers, half the book is spent putting together a Really Fiendish Attack, which then takes place more or less as expected in the rest of the book.

1945 is not without interest, but it’s the kind of interest you get while reading non-fiction accounts of the Reich’s grandiose plans and high-tech equipment. There are also a few nifty cameos, which are probably more interesting for historians than lay readers. As I said: Cool stuff, but hardly worth slogging through a novel. The last few pages are a geeky wank-fest of cool ideas taken from WW2 drawing boards, all vigorously pimped as previews for the next novel.

Which, fortunately, will never be written, let alone published. It says much for the quality of the book that this prospect doesn’t even offend my sensibilities as a completist: I cared so little for the characters that remembering them will be a challenge, let alone anticipate more of their adventures.

[February 2005: William Forstchen was kind enough to write and point out, with far more tact than I deserved, that his subsequent Civil-War-Era novels co-written with Newt Gingrich have been well-received by critics and readers alike. This raises bigger questions about 1945, up to and including who truly had the “last cut” on the book. Genre historians wishing to investigate this issue in more detail may want to start with a look at a 1995 profile of Forstchen, a contemporary confession by Jim Baen (who “admits to reporter David Streitfeld that these much-snickered-over words were actually his creation”), details about the book’s returns and a fascinating blog post telling the rest of the story. Owners of 1945 may also want to take another look at the back cover and realize why Jim Baen is pictured alongside the two co-authors.]

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