Science Fiction & Fantasy Review, No. 20, December 1983, p. 24.
Coppel, Alfred. The Burning Mountain: A novel of the Invasion of Japan. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1983. 438 p. $15.95. ISBN 0-15-114978-X. SF Book Club, Garden City, NY, September 1983. $5.50, No ISBN.
Perhaps the oldest reviewing cliche is the phrase, “a disappointment.” All too often this translates as nothing more than a reviewer’s inability to justify disliking something — flawed reviewing, not flawed art. Expressing “disappointment” is particularly embarrassing when a work has also been called a “first-rate novel” (Frank H. Tucker, SF&FBR 15), Still — Coppel’s latest work is…disappointing.
While alternate histories dealing with Germany and World War II abound, Japan has received far less attention — but with better results. Edwin Corley, in The Jesus Factor (Stein and Day, 1970), holds that Hiroshima’s atomic destruction was faked, and follows with an engrossing interpretation of modern history. David Westheimer’s Lighter Than a Feather (Little, Brown, 1971; reprinted as Downfall, Bantam, 1972), assumes the atomic bomb was not even ready for testing until 1946. Westheimer then offers a vivid account of Operation Olympic, the November 1945 invasion of Kyushu, that manages to be more than just another war novel.
Superficially, Coppel’s latest work is similar to Westheimer’s novel: Burning Mountain starts with an accident which prevents testing of the atomic bomb until 1946. Lacking the bomb, U.S. forces grind their way toward Operation Cornet, the March 1946 invasion of Honshu, Japan, Short, episodic accounts of the invasion cover several major and minor Japanese and American participants, and succeed in convincing the reader any such invasion would have been, if nothing else, unpleasant. Unfortunately, Coppel does little else.
Both Corley and Westheimer offer entertaining speculations on what might have been; by comparison, Coppel’s novel appears more of an apology for what actually occurred. Coppel spends far too much time trying to convince the reader Douglas MacArthur was a military genius, and explains away MacArthur’s arrogance as somehow ennobling. He also suggests MacArthur opposed atomic weapons; in actuality, MacArthur requested ten bombs be reserved for supporting the invasion.
Other factual errors make suspension of disbelief difficult. Kido Koichi, the Emperor’s chief political advisor, and Togo Shigenori, Japan’s foreign minister, are said to be in their “late seventies” in 1946 (Kido was 56, Togo 63). Coppel places Tojo Hideki at the head of a December 1945 Japanese military coup — an unlikely event, and an even more unlikely choice for its leader. Tojo is also portrayed as a cowardly individual — suggesting Coppel still suffers under the lingering effects of U.S. wartime propaganda.
Coppel has often written works which successfully drift across the line between science fiction and “best seller fiction.” Burning Mountain is not one of these successes. It lacks the depth of feeling of Dark December, or the vividness of Thirty-Four East. Since Hiroshima ends up being destroyed, anyway, it also implies historical determinism: life is a script which cannot be changed, How — sorry — disappointing. — Lawrence I, Charters