EP072: Joe Steele

(Update 9/24: Many of you will probably get a duplicate download. This time it’s deliberate. I had requested permission to play Janis Ian’s song, “God and the FBI,” but she was touring Europe and didn’t get my e-mail in time. She just responded and graciously gave me permission, so I’m revising the file and including it at the end. If you don’t want to hear the whole story again, just skip forward 41 minutes. Thank you, Janis!)

By Harry Turtledove.
(Inspired by the song “God & the FBI” by Janis Ian, published by Windham Hill. Song included with Janis Ian’s permission.)
Read by Stephen Eley.

Two men left. Franklin D. Roosevelt. D for Delano, mind. Governor of New York. Cousin to Teddy Roosevelt. Already ran for Vice President once. Didn’t win. Cigarette holder. Jaunty angle. Wheelchair. Paralysis. Anguish. Courage. As near an aristocrat as America grows. Franklin D. Roosevelt. D for Delano.

And Joe Steele.

Joe Steele. Congressman from California. Not San Francisco. Not Nob Hill. Good Lord, no. Fresno. Farm country. That great valley, squeezed by mountains east and west. Not a big fellow, Joe Steele. Stands real straight, so you don’t notice too much. Mustache, a good-sized one. Thick head of hair just starting to go gray. Eyelids like shutters. When they go down and then come up again, you can’t see what was behind them.

Rated R. Contains profanity and strong political themes. Not happy politics, like we have today. 1930s politics.

Referenced sites:
Wikipedia: Alternate history
“If Lee Had Not Won the Civil War,” by Winston Churchill
Today in Alternate History (by Robbie Taylor)
Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore
Turtledove Wiki

Comments (39)

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  1. Leon Kensington says:

    I loved it! This I believe is the first alternate history story on EPod and it was great. I love that style of writing and man it was AWESOME!

  2. David S. says:

    An excellent story, I liked it a lot. As I recall GWB has an iPod; though I guess he wouldn’t know how to put anything on it. Probably just as well…

  3. J. R. DeRego says:

    I like this more on the first listen than the second. I don’t know if I buy the idea that men are mad and will duplicate their madness irrespective of location. I think Steele’s childhood in Fresno, migrant worker nonetheless, may have tempered his madness some. I realize that the point of the story was to show Stalinist America, and I was cool with that, but it didn’t really offer any surprises if you know about Stalin’s reign in the USSR.

    There was an excellent film that virtually no one saw, named “Max” which presents a fictional relationship between a Jewish art dealer and Adolph Hitler in post WW1 Berlin. The film posits that if Hitler had been successful as an artist, he would have steered away from politics. He still would have been an antisemetic twerp, but he would have just painted on canvas with paint rather than with the blood of untold millions of Europeans/Americans etc… Hitler’s psychotic break comes as he’s struggling to paint a figure and after destroying his studio, scrawls “Politics is the new art”.

    The parallels between Joe Steele are our current President are not easy to miss, but framed in the theater of World War 2, diminishes some of the power. Seeing as Roosevelt had to deal with that issue too. The US economy thrived following the outbreak of war because of the supply/demand nature of capitalism. Whereas the Soviet model, at least as far as military production, thrived on massive manpower. The end of the war and the residual outcomes from the expense of conducting it are clear illustration of the success, economically, of one system vs. the other.

    Had Joe Steele effectively turned the US into an ersatz USSR we’d never have come out of the depression, we may never have managed to supply ourselves or allies during the war either.

    Anyway, good story. Better on the first listen though.

  4. I enjoyed this quite a bit. It was refreshing to see a non-partisan take on political evil, given today’s current media climate. Too often people craft the corrupt as Republicans, when in reality both prominent parties are capable of producing Tyrants. I’m also pleased to see Mr. Turtledove take to task the Marxist elements in the far left.

    People need to be reminded that corruption and evil have the potential to crop up in any aspect of human society; but doubly so in the political arena. “Joe Steele” succeeds in doing so.

  5. Simon says:

    I’m going to be slightly heavier handed than I usually am here Steve, sorry because i’m a big fan and I care… This was not good, nor clever.

    The story has almost no substance (totally lacking in charecterisation – no people in it) apart from the plot, and the plot is so straightforward Animal Farm that there is nothing to say. It’s Stalin’s story + allegory, a re-write of AF. As an Englishman, writing Stalinism in America is no scarier than thinking about what *actually* happened in Russia – and that’s a true story. The nuance of Republican vs Democrats is just window dressing. Philip Roth just did a book on almost this exact topic – Harry Turtledove cannot match the greatest living American writer.

    The only other element to discuss is the writing style – and that’s a pretty third rate Damon Runyon. Present tense hard-voice with short sentances? Yep, that’s Runyon allright, but without the class.

    What’s happened to Escape Pod Steve? You haven’t done any real Science Fiction since Mur’s gorgeous “I Look Forward To Remembering You” and that was 11 stories ago. Somewhere in this desert of content you said “We’ll be doing some more literary sf soon”, where is it Steve? Are submissions that bad at the moment?

  6. Simon says:

    Ok, sorry about that… I’m going to take that back if I can.

    One forgets, however much I listen to this place, that it is a hobbiest business. Take it easy Steve – keep up the good work.

  7. Interestingly, my first memorable exposure to listener-supported audio recordings of fiction was about 14 years ago when NPR’s “From the Bookshelf” read Harry Turtledove’s book, _The Guns of the South_. Having been a fan of spec fic since Hector was a pup, I immediately became an enthusiastic NPR supporter and remain so to this day.

    As an avid history buff with an interest in The Great Depression, it was a lot of fun to hear how this alternative history worked out. It was cool to hear how President Steele “addressed” all those powerful figures from actual history. I felt a big twinge when Sam Rayburn had his turn, as he’s one of my political heros. Cactus Jack Garner’s inclusion in the 1940 ticket bothered me, since in reality he was against the idea of a third term for the President (and he really wanted to be President, too).

    Regardless. I am an American who cares deeply for my nation and her people, and I take my role as a citizen very seriously. It’s good for us as Americans, who have no social memory of totalitarianism grown from within, to have such a cautionary tale. And it was good for me, a self-professed populist, to be reminded that a dictator can come out of my crowd, too.

    Keep up the good work, Steve. This one will add to the long list of EP stories that gets five out of five stars in my media player’s ratings. Can’t wait for next week.

  8. Tom says:

    I feel like I’m out of touch with the tastes of most Escape Pod listeners. I seem to like the stories that get lots of complaints and now I’m about to slam a story where most of the comments have been positive.

    Slam is probably the wrong word, but this is likely to be my least favorite Escape Pod episode. Of course to me saying worst Escape Pod episode is like saying ugliest model in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. Even the worst is far better than most of what is available.

    I like alternate history. It’s an exercise in what if and that’s always fun. I also think this story shows a semi-realistic view of how things could get out of control when the wrong person gets too much power.

    My complaint was the style. I didn’t catch the transition from listening to song lyrics to listening to the story. The first time I tried to listen to the story was at night and I was a little tired. Instead of feeling relaxed I was lost. The short sentences made as statements of fact sounded like a lecture from the most boring history professor on campus. There wasn’t a flow or story line to follow. Joe Steele could have dropped dead from a heart attack at anytime during the story and it wouldn’t have changed the effect.

    As always I look forward to the next installment of Escape Pod.

  9. S.T.U.N. Runner says:

    I like alternate history stories, and I definitely dug this one.

    I’m interested in that time period in American History, and hearing a story of the New Deal turned on its head and delivered to the American people by a ruthless, murdering, charismatic, brutal tyrant made me think about easily a political system can be turned against the very people its meant to serve.

    And, at the same time, I wish I could ask the author some questions about his timeline, such as who was filing the lawsuits against the government programs? Were any of those plaintiffs rounded up? Was there ever a planned corporate uprising against Joe Steele the way there supposedly was against FDR?

    I liked the story, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more alternate history stories, picking up at various points in history and then changing a small detail to cause the currents to turn away from what we know into something less recognizable.

    For instance, Huey Long’s popularity was growing at the time he was shot (some say by his own bodyguards by accident), and he was talked about as being a likely Presidential candidate. He was also said by some at the time to have fascist leanings… what if the assassination attempt on him (was it even an assassination attempt?) failed, and he went on to become President? (Actually, this might have been done already as the backstory to a tabletop RPG supplement.)

  10. Jason says:

    What a great story. Enjoyed it immensely.

  11. Brian says:

    Amazing story. In a weird way it was almost better suited Psuedopod. It scares the *blep* out of me to think of an alternate history where the other politcal party just gives up (out of fear) and doesn’t nominate anybody to run against the incumbent President (at least in America). Its bad enough when it happens with senators and representatives in the real America.

    I guess I like the political fiction a bit, because I enjoyed both the story and the telling of Head of State too. Keep up the great stories!

  12. Simeon says:

    I liked the headline only style. It kind of mirroes the way I remember history. Although, I am not sure that is a good thing.

    I didn’t find it scary or even chilling, in the same way that when I read 1984 as a child, it scared me, but now the society depicted seems like something we have outdone a while ago, and I think that we have shown just how limited Orwells imagination was.

    I recently read The Plot Against America: A Novel, by Philip Roth. An alternative history that covers the same period. I was struck after I read that book that the forces of American Imperialism as express by Alfred Thayer Mahan(the 19th Century’s Project for a New American Century), and American Fascism as explified by
    Prescott Bush (among others), were only delayed in their rise to power by the over excesses and poor timing in a Machiavellian sense, of the Third Reich.

    I think that the value of speculative fiction, and of alternative history is that they give the reader a safe distance from which to examine and contrast what is from what depicted. Sometimes the funhouse mirror’s reflection gives you a better of what is really going on, because we tend to get used to the distortions in the mirrors at home.

  13. slic says:

    I’ve been a huge fan of Mr. Turtledove for awhile now, and was quite thrilled when I saw that you obtained one of his stories.
    Unfortunatley, I didn’t really like it. Much like Simon, said, this wasn’t all that new. And the staccato delivery definitely gave it a Newsreel kind of feel, but the story was too long for that style.
    Regardless of my feelings for this story, I want to express a very heartfelt thanks for all the work you do on EscapePod. And for letting me hear stories I might normally shy away from. I read alot, but often just the stuff I like, that I’m comfortable with. It’s been a good brain-stretcher to listen to other types of stories, and a good personal reminder to be more open-minded in general.

  14. Alan says:

    Dude. You spoke to Janis Ian.
    There is not a more profound, gender transcendent, or longer-reaching song than “Seventeen”.


  15. Jennifer says:

    Tom, I agree with you. The style of this writing was so stiff, short, and painful to listen to for 30+ minutes that I stopped caring about the plot. I guess I just don’t like Harry Turtledove. Shame, really, because alternate history is cool.

  16. Will says:

    I dig this one. Alternative histories are always fun to play around with, and this one makes me want to go play freedom fighters again and watch red dawn, lol.

  17. Michael King says:

    I love Turtledove’s work to begin with, and this one provided no less than I expected from his work.

    I have to agree with the comment that suggested that this story might have been also well-suited to Pseudopod. However, it works here as well — I like my SF with a wonderful variety.

  18. Seattle says:

    I loved this episode! It was a huge improvement over the Capo of Darkness and the horrible Squonk the Dragon. Please, let’s have more real SF!

  19. planetheidi says:

    Not a big fan of alternate history (only thing I’ve read is Dick’s Man in the High Castle) Not a big fan of the bazillions of Turtledove books in the sub-genre.

    But wow, I liked this story. Like the style and Steve, I liked your dramaticization of it. Bravo, sir.

  20. Janne says:

    This was the second Escape Pod episode where, after ten minutes, I just hit stop and forgot about ever hearing the rest. (The first one was Wichita Rutherford, because I could only understand about half of what he said.)

    As a foreigner I can’t really say that alternate US history does it for me: I don’t know enough of the current history to detect any nuances or differences. I felt like I needed to carry a dictionary together with my ipod, just to understand the story.

    I’m not criticizing the story. I’m sure it’s wonderful, but alternate histories by US authors are, for obvious reasons, often very US-centric, and this does create a barrier for others to enjoy the story.

    Unlike Mr. Seattle, I enjoyed both Capo and Squonk, partly because they both occur in fantasy worlds, the likes of which are far easier for me to immerse in than US history. πŸ™‚

    (Oh, this is my first comment here, so I’d better congratulate you on the best podcast to ever touch the surface of the Earth.)

  21. Tim says:

    Not being a big Harry Tutledove fan I came into this without much hope of liking it. Sadly, I was right. Whereas Harry has some wonderful ideas his writing style doesn’t seem to do the ideas justice. I kept listening thinking “hmm, that’s interesting” but not really feeling any great impact from the ideas. Sorry to say, this wasn’t one of my favorite ES stories.

  22. Spork says:

    I think you failed a test.

    I think Turtledove deliberately sold you a shitty story to see if you’d reject it on its merits, or buy it on his name. You bought it.

    This was a jarring style, a boring listen, and I couldn’t make it through. Yep. I’m pretty sure you failed.

  23. Walid says:

    This could have been much less painful to listen to if it was shorter.. Also I lived among similar governments, not then but rather more recently… It is very true that politicians in third world countries do what Joe Steele did internally.. Of course they do not have the power to do it externally.. so their people suffeer in silence…

  24. Joe says:

    Not about this story but Escape Pod in specific.

    Thanks for the effort in putting this together. I have vision problems and getting sci-fi in a portable audio format is a great boon to me.

    The quality of the fiction and production is excelent.

    Thanks again.

  25. Kaylea says:

    Fascinating story. More truth than fiction; best kind of fiction. Had to play twice so hubby could hear. Nicely read. Chin up.

  26. Archie says:

    Sorry but this was dull. I listen to the whole of it as I have a one hour commute and I had nothing else new to listen to. Dull story, no surprises and being British the history side held little interest.

  27. Mpmagi says:

    This should be required listening for US History classes. Of course, if I had my way, all EP stories would be required listening.

  28. Brian Reilly says:

    I loved this one. I do like alternate history. Oh, and I am British and the fact it was another country’s history didn’t make it any less interesting. Less realistic perhaps than Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America but I wasn’t looking for an insight into what Stalin would have been like if he had emigrated to the U.S.

    I also liked the fact that the story didn’t buy into historical determinism by having the staus quo (or something close to it) restored at the end, like in The Guns of the South- or indeed Roth’s superior book.

  29. Michael Hercus says:

    I realise this comment is being left almost two months late, but I don’t review these sections as often as I should. I just wanted to say that I loved the prose work in this story. Harry was trying to do something specific with his prose style and it clicked with me. I have written a story or two in this style as well–I call it staccato, for lack of a better term–and I instantly saw what he was trying to accomplish, and he succeeded perfectly.

    The prose of this story made me go out and buy the print version so I could read it on the page. While the story isn’t particularly a premium telling, the overall presentation was perfect.

    I think that the reason Escape Pod works so well is that they give us a variety of stories, both in subject and style. While it’s obvious from the comments ahead of me that some people didn’t like this story, I found it one of the best. I just hope that Steve maintains the variety of stories so that more people can be exposed to the unique styles being offered by authors. If one week’s story doesn’t work for someone, there is always the fast forward button, but for the rest of us, we’ve gained something in the listening.

  30. araña says:

    I dig alternate history from here to China, and damned if I’m not the only person who thinks D for Delano looks remarkably like the Penguin. I loved the narration (big fan of the thirties), and the subject mater was right up my alley. I am not familiar with Roth’s work, but this new story definitely opened up some new windows to a genre I will definitely have the pure pleasure in discovering.
    Thank you, Steve.

  31. scatterbrain says:

    Turtledove is quite postmodern.

  32. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    I’m pretty sure the text for this podcast didn’t come from an actual story so much as a PowerPoint brief. Seriously, this is the aural equivalent of PowerPoint:

    * Democratic convention
    * Hot summer
    * A few candidates
    — Herbert Hoover
    — Joe Steel
    —- Used to be Joe Stalin
    —- Huge Commie

    This is the first Escape Pod I had to turn off. I could take only three minutes of it. And I was able to sit through both tedious Cory Doctorow pieces!

    I know you said this wasn’t typical of Turtledove’s style, but this has definitely turned me off him. I’ve never read a Turtledove story, but if anyone were to offer me one of his books, I’d most likely attempt to beat them to death with it. And then burn it.

    Really, really, really hated it.

  33. Howie Feltersnatch says:

    Dang it! It should have looked like:


    • Democratic convention

    • Hot summer

    • A few candidates

    – Herbert Hoover

    – Joe Steel

    β€”- Used to be Joe Stalin

    β€”- Huge Commie

  34. dpojvizh says:

    Nicola adriana lima gallery held tight onto his mind he listened to wear.

  35. kozfidju says:

    Each thrust, drippingwith sweat and stroking sarah silverman naked it free completely.