Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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James P. Hogan's The Proteus Operation
Alternate History At Its Finest

by Daniel C. Smith

James P. Hogan became a science fiction writer as the result of a bet-- after complaining to someone in his office that he didn't like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey because, quote, he “… didn't get it…”-- he was promptly challenged to try and write his own novel, and furthermore to try to get it published.

He did (it sounds so easy!).

That novel, Inherit the Stars (Del Rey, 1977) was the first in a long line of work that has made the name James P. Hogan a powerful (and award winning) presence in the sci-fi field.

Hogan began his career as a salesman for a computer company in the sixties when computers were the size of a small house and still relatively new (except in the world of science fiction). Self-educated due to childhood illnesses that kept him out of school, Hogan passed a series of examinations that qualified him for instruction at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (the British equivalent of NASA at the time) while just a teenager by hitting the library every day for two months before the exams, working through the physics curriculum completely on his own!. Hogan's education at this prestigious academy gave him the scientific and technical background that would come to serve him so well later in life as he began his career in fiction writing. His sales job also gave him constant exposure to scientists and technicians in every discipline.

Such a background almost demands that one become a sci-fi writer, and fans of good stories should take note of Hogan's work if they are unfamiliar with it.

The best thing about writing historical fiction (alternate or otherwise) is that some of the richest characters imaginable are quite real and part of our history. Hogan's subject of choice and plot vehicle provided him a bevy of incredibly fascinating people to work with, historical figures such as Winston Churchill, FDR, Albert Einstein, JFK, and (my favorite character in the book!) a graduate student at Columbia and an aspiring science fiction writer, one Isaac Asimov. This cast of real people is supported by a host of fictional characters who, thanks to well executed characterization, seem almost as real as their historical counter-parts as they travel back in time to, what else, save the world from the most hideous fate imaginable, conquest and domination by Nazi Germany.

In the world of the Proteus team, it is 1975, and Hitler controls all of Europe (along with a great deal of the rest of the world) and the United States is perilously close to falling to Nazi control. It has been discovered that the Nazi's received help from the future (2025) back in the thirties when he and his party were first coming to power.

It is this help from the future that allowed Hitler to take the Nazi war machine to the brink of world domination-- and in 1975 President Kennedy orders a time-gate built in order to send the Allies assistance, and hopefully prevent the dreaded future where fascism rules and freedom is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The intrepid Proteus team, led by the mysterious government operative Winslade and military commando Henry Ferracini, battle New York gangsters, the lethargic governments and populations of the US and England as well as the Nazi's and their time-gate, known as Hammerhead, in an effort to undo the meddling (i.e., propping up of Hitler) from the team from 2025.

The book is extremely well researched, and Hogan's interpretation of social and political events as they were happening (or as they could have happened) demonstrates a keen and intellectually honest approach to the study of history. While this book is definitely what is labeled as 'hard' science fiction, Hogan delivers the technical aspects of the story with the skill of a sympathetic and skilled college professor. The issues of macro and micro-physics and Einstein's theory of general relativity are made to seem within the scope of understanding for your average reader or fan. Just as well executed is Hogan's handling of the political and historical machinations that drove various world powers at one of the most crucial points of the twentieth century.

The result is a tightly paced genre-bender, part spy-thriller, part international mystery, and part historical novel that together add up to a science fiction classic.

Of course, The Proteus Operation is my favorite Hogan novel, but the 'Giants' novels, Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants Star are incredibly entertaining works by a writer who, already with quite a resume, promises to be productive for many years to come!

As for the ending to 2001… hmmm… perhaps what Kubrick and Clarke were trying to say is that, in spite of all of his technological advancements, Man is still but a child in the universe; perhaps we should take 'baby steps' as we move out among the stars… a little humility goes a long way…

At least that is what I took from it.

© 2011 Daniel C. Smith

Daniel C. Smith has published over a hundred stories, poems, articles and reviews in venues such as Bare Bone, Tales of the Talisman, The Leading Edge, Star*Line, and Space and Time.

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