|Genre(s)||Science fiction, Alternate history|
|Preceded by||The Disunited States of America|
|Followed by||The Valley-Westside War|
Unusually for this series, there is no POV from the home timeline to outline the differences between our history and this alternate; therefore the Point of Divergence for this timeline is left a bit vague. The earliest stated POD is the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The alternate United States backed down, permitting the Soviet Union to maintain nuclear missiles in Cuba. This was the first signal that the US was not so resolute as it claimed. Subsequently, the United States withdrew its forces from the Vietnam War in 1968. Gradually all of Asia fell to Communism. In Europe popular fronts where built up between Democratic Socialists and hardline communists leading Europe and eventually the United States to fall to Communism by the end of the 20th century. No details are given as to how this later, far reaching event took place.
However, while the Cuban Missile Crisis is the relevant POD, whether it is the original POD is up for debate, as certain plot elements suggest an even earlier break from our timeline. For example, the Soviets (and by extension everyone in their sphere of influence) venerate Joseph Stalin, who was denounced by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 in OTL. That could mean Stalin's legacy was rehabilitated some time after Khrushchev's reign, but it could also suggest that Khrushchev's denunciation never took place, which might also help account for the Soviets' long term victory. Also, it is very difficult to believe that the John F. Kennedy Administration would have "backed down" in 1962 as described; it has been proposed that someone other than Kennedy was elected President in 1960 and weakened the US by this "dove" policy, but the novel gives no conclusive evidence.
While the US was eliminated as a contender for world power and completely subjugated, China remains an active rival, maintaining its own sphere of influence and effectively in a remaining Cold War with the USSR. The only specific detail given is activity of pro-Chinese guerrillas in Soviet-dominated Albania.
As with the previous volumes of the series, the story is told through the point of view of two young people, Gianfranco Mazzilli and Annarita Crosetti. The Crosetti and Mazzilli families share a kitchen and bathroom between their two apartments, a consequence of Communist living. Aside from this, the two have little in common. Annarita is the overachieving daughter of a doctor. Gianfranco is the underachieving son of a midlevel Party bureaucrat.
However, Gianfranco develops a passion for a game called Rails across Europe, available only at a gaming shop called The Gladiator. The game, with its capitalist overtones, helps Gianfranco with his studies. Annarita, as a member of the Young Socialists' League, investigates The Gladiator, and concludes it is ideologically sound. However, it is soon shut down by the Security Police. One clerk, Eduardo Caruso, escapes, and comes to the two for help. He reveals he is actually from another timeline, a world where the US won the Cold War and communism is inconsequential. The two resolve to help him get home, while at the same time pondering what his revelations about his own world might mean for theirs.
Uniquely for the series, both of the POVs are denizens of the alternate; Harry Turtledove does not provide the reader with a POV from the home timeline. Thus, the POD and the history of the alternate are drawn in broader strokes than found in other "Crosstime Traffic" books. While we learn that the U.S. backed down during the Cuban Missile Crisis and then withdrew from Vietnam early, the fact that the history comes from an education system designed to perpetuate communism and vilify capitalism suggests that there might be "more" than Turtledove has shared.
The Gladiator also differs in that it shows Crosstime Traffic acting in a somewhat altruistic fashion. Eduardo Caruso admits that most of the time, Crosstime travel is done for trading purposes, with the added mission of ensuring more advanced alternates do not discover the secret of crosstime. However, this alternate with its limited technological development and its callous abuse of its own resources is of little use to the home timeline. Thus, Crosstime decides to subtly introduce notions of capitalism into this world with the hope that it might become a freer and better world.
The two "local" POVs allows Turtledove to more closely examine how denizens of one alternate deal with the idea of an arguably better world, particularly when these denizens live in a system that preaches the inevitability of their own history. Annarita Crosetti and Gianfranco Mazzilli have been taught all their lives that, per the writings of Karl Marx, communism was/is destined to win in the long run. The idea that it hasn't in most alternates is initially astonishing. Turtledove then compares and contrasts Gianfranco and Annarita's respective reactions. Gianfranco enthusiastically embraces everything the home timeline seems to offer. Annarita still sees virtues in her own world, although she does long for the greater political freedoms the home timeline enjoys.
Eduardo makes passing references to other alternates, including one where the Axis won World War II, which is perhaps a veiled reference to In the Presence of Mine Enemies, "The Last Article" and/or "The Phantom Tolbukhin"; and possibly (and retroactively) even "Shtetl Days".