1945 attempts to answer the question: What if Japan did not surrender following the bombing of Nagasaki? We know that America had plans on the table for an invasion of mainland Japan, with casualties estimated in the hundreds of thousands for U.S. forces alone. The loss of life on the Japanese side would probably have been higher. This is one of the reasons Truman decided to drop the bombs in the first place. In 1945, Conroy posits a military coup in Japan which captures the Emperor and stops him from issuing an unconditional surrender. As a result, a depleted and all but defeated Japan prepares for an American invasion.
One of my non-SF interests has always WW II, especially the war in the Pacific, so you can imagine my interest was high for this book. And from an idea standpoint, it lives up to its billing. Conroy does a good job of conveying conditions both in Japan and in the U.S. military. We get glimpses of a Truman administration trying to force an end to the war and spare a weary American populace more death and deprivation. We see the Japanese military controlled by fanatics, willing to sacrifice the future of Japan in an effort to cause as much damage to U.S. forces before total defeat. In this setting, the Emperor waits, kidnapped by the military, for any opportunity to surrender to spare Japan the complete destruction of its culture. Conroy also does a decent job of creating some rather interesting characters, aside from the ones you’d expect to see: Truman, McArthur, Nimitz, among others.
But this is where the book begins to fall short. Even the well known characters don’t come across as being believable. There wasn’t much differentiation between them, and I got the impression they were there solely to further their respective point of view. Secondly, the other characters are all rather flat. Some attempts at character building are made, but they don’t really elevate the characters above 2D status. Even the conversations between the characters comes across as stereotypical, rather than how real people would talk. There were several times that I thought, “Truman wouldn’t talk like that”. Of course, not knowing Truman, I have no basis for this observation other than a feeling that what I was reading felt modern day, and not 1940’s.
Now, there is a lot of action in this book. The problem is, most of it is given only a few pages of time, and then its over and done with. Secondly, in this day of Saving Private Ryan and Band Of Brothers, the action as described seems sterile and somewhat unreal. I’m not asking for Private Ryan levels of realism, but what I got felt like a Cliff’s Notes version of military action. The two most important set pieces were given a bit more time, but even then, it felt like more should have been said, that Conroy should have taken a bit more time to flesh out the details. In fact, even though 1945 clocks in at over 400 pages, this is a book that I think could have used some fleshing out and would benefit from being a bit longer.
As an alternate history novel, 1945 is good, but not great, carried mostly by the main idea behind the story. If you like WW II alternate history, you might give this one a shot. Otherwise, there’s better in the genre out there. Turtledove’s WW II series is better, and it even has aliens.