Harry Turtledove, "the Master of Alternate History" (according to Publisher's Weekly) writes prolifically about what might have been. He holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA, so his historiographical eye is keen. In Bombs Away: The Hot War, Turtledove imagines a world in which the US, mired in a conflict with the Chinese and Koreans, hopes to end that war by dropping a few atomic bombs on some Chinese cities.
In avenging their fellow communists, the Russians respond by bombing a few European cities. Since the NATO treaty states that an attack on US allies is viewed as an attack on the US, Americans drop some bombs on Russia, then Russians drop some bombs on US cities. The Hot War gets very hot indeed.
Turtledove tells the story from a wide variety of perspectives, in Asia, the US, and Europe. Characters include the president and his advisors, civilians dealing with the impact of losing their homes or living near the blast sites, and, especially, soldiers and pilots on the front lines.
The novel is best described as a series of vignettes. His descriptions are evocative and personal. The emphasis is not so much on the global picture of war, although the big picture comes together, but on how the war touches people around the world. Those personal glimpses, however, don't congeal into a story as much as a simple timeline.
I got a kick out of one character who said, "There ought to be stories where some little thing happens differently and everything that comes afterwards gets changed from the way it really was. . . . It might be fun, make you think a little while you're reading," like if the Nazis won World War II. In a bit of self-effacing humor, Turtledove has the character add, "Nobody's every gonna want to read about that, not in a million years."
Bombs Away does make me think about what the world might look like if, in those early years of the Cold War, it did turn hot. I don't know how close the US and other countries have come to "pressing the button." I'm sure there were plenty of close calls. Bombs Away reminds us how lucky we are that a nuclear hot war has--so far--been avoided.
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!