The Proteus Operation, by James P. Hogan

Anthony G Williams

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James P Hogan is a name that I vaguely recognised, and a quick check of his Wiki entry reveals a substantial output of more than two dozen novels (published between 1977 and his death in 2010) plus a lot of short stories, although no titles that I can recall reading. The Proteus Operation is the only book by him that I have.

Since one of my two (so far) forays into fiction writing, The Foresight War, is an alternative World War 2 story, I naturally take an interest in other novels on the same subject. Although published in 1985, long before my own effort, I seem to have missed The Proteus Operation until now; at least, I have no recollection of having read it before. This is rather surprising since it is the only other novel I've found which deals with the consequences of sending modern experts on World War 2 back into the past to try to change its course (although I suspect there have been many more).

The complicated plot of The Proteus Operation takes some explanation, which must inevitably involve a few spoilers, but I will only describe the beginning of the plot, since this is one which readers should enjoy finding out for themselves as it develops.

The background to the story involves the development of the technology of time travel in 2025, in an alternate world in which World War 2 had never happened, nations learning to live in peace instead. However, this situation did not please some influential people with dictatorial tendencies, who hijack the project to send back agents to effect change in order to result in a world more suited to them. Their main change is to boost the success of an historically failed splinter group and its leader – Adolf Hitler of the Nazi Party. They succeed to the extent that history is radically changed; in the world of the novel, which is set in the 1970s, all of Europe, including the UK and half of the USSR, are part of the Nazi Empire, while the eastern part of the USSR plus China and all of SE Asia belong to Japan. The only bastions of democracy left are the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and it seems only a matter of time before they collapse under pressure or are destroyed in a nuclear war.

The story begins in this grim alternative world and begins with the USA secretly building their own time machine in order to send a group of specialists back to 1939 to help the US and the UK to prepare for the forthcoming conflict (that being as far back as they could go). The primary task of the specialists in this "Proteus Operation", with the aid of a lot of materials and equipment sent back with them, is to build another time machine to allow two-way traffic between 1974 and 1939, without which the travellers would remain stuck in the past. Their other tasks are focused on the atomic bomb, which in their world had been given to the Nazis by the original time-travellers early in the war.

Obviously, I can't resist making some comparisons with my own novel. There are some significant differences in approach: the first is that I never attempted an explanation for the time-travelling of my two “throwbacks” (it is simply a “given”, a once-only incident to kick off the story), while the theory and practice of two-way time travel takes a major role throughout Hogan's novel and is given some interesting twists. The other major difference is that my own interests started with the technology “what ifs”, extended to include the associated tactics, then the strategies and finally something of the flavour of life at that time. Hogan’s priorities are practically in the reverse order; the only element of weapon technology he is interested in is the atomic bomb, so tactics – or indeed any aspect of the fighting or even military strategy – don't feature at all.

Instead, Hogan's much longer story is focused on planning, preparing and carrying out the Proteus Operation. It is rich with well-researched period detail, plus contains a lot of discussions and explanations and side-stories which, while interesting, inevitably slow down the action so I didn't find it that easy to get into at first (it took me two attempts). However, the pace gradually accelerates and finally reaches a nail-biting climax.

Hogan's characterisation is very thoroughly done and his historical personalities are well drawn, particularly Winston Churchill. I was mildly amused to note that as his US throwbacks decide that the British personality to be approached should be Churchill (not such an obvious choice as it now appears, as in 1939 he was seen as a failed politician), the scientific expert he invites to an initial meeting is his friend Professor Lindemann. The British throwback in my own story, who was well aware of the largely negative nature of Lindemann’s influence, had naturally chosen to approach his rival academic Henry Tizard instead.

In conclusion, this is a thoughtful and impressive novel that should be read by anyone interested in alternative World War 2 stories. I am surprised that it is not better known.

(An extract from my SFF blog: Science Fiction & Fantasy)
 

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