Sunday 10 July 2011

The Great War: American Front (Southern Victory Series, Part Three)

North America in 1914
This is the third post in my series on Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191, following my introduction and my review of How Few Remain. Naturally, from now on all reviews will contain spoilers for the preceding books.

There's a strong argument that the First World War could easily have ended very differently. If the German High Command had not diverted forces eastwards that were later missed during the Battle of the Marne - if Italy or later the United States had remained neutral - if the German spring offensive of 1918 had succeeded... The consequences of Central Powers victory would have been momentous.

So it's no surprise that Turtledove's opening scenario would knock something as precarious in real life as the First World War off balance completely. As you'll remember, in Turtledove's timeline the Confederacy defeats the United States in 1862 and again in 1881 in a rematch over the Confederate purchase of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexico. Fast forward to 1914, and relations between the two American powers are frosty as ever. The USA, who have maintained close relations with the German Empire since the 1880s, are part of the Central Powers, while the CSA join Britain, France and Russia in the Quadruple Entente. When war breaks out, both powers enter the fray, with the USA having to fight Canada and Britain in the north and the Confederates in the south.

As argued here, this scenario is quite problematic. Conducting an arms race against both Germany and the USA would have overstretched Britain impossibly, and it therefore seems likely Britain would have sought an accommodation with one of these powers. Historically, England decided to remain neutral towards the United States, while planning for a confrontation with Germany; there is no reason why this should be different in Turtledove's timeline.

Indeed, the cost of conducting a land war along a border of almost 4000 miles would have convinced any British policy-makers to maintain neutrality towards the United States at almost any cost. Not to mention that the CSA could provide no benefit to Britain in a European war unless the USA were neutral, freeing up CS resources - an unlikely scenario at best.

I disagree, however, with the notion that Britain would have allied herself with the USA against the CSA. It seems more likely to me that British diplomacy would have been aimed at stopping the war from spreading to North America entirely through neutrality towards the USA, which would have forced the CSA into neutrality, since they could never have fought the North by themselves. Like Britain, Germany would have no incentive to ally itself to the Confederate States.

In Turtledove's timeline, the most likely scenario therefore seems peace in North America, or else an opportunistic US-British alliance in which the US could have attacked the South with impunity. But of course, Turtledove is at this particular point not interested in historical plausibility: what he wants is a massive land war in North America, and his scenario gives it to him.

Like How Few Remain, The Great War: American Front is told through a number of characters. But this time there are rather more of them and they're entirely fictional. That's not without its problems, unfortunately, for Turtledove is on rails here: he feels the need to create allohistorical analogues for people and events that do not occur in his timeline. You get one guess, for example, to figure out who 'Irving Morrell' (say it out loud), US tactician making his name with innovative tactics of surprise and speed on the Alpine Rocky Mountains front, might be based on. Unfortunately this sort of thing abounds.

Generally the oppressed characters (women, blacks, and civilians living under military occupation) are far more interesting than the relatively tedious middle-class white men. That rule of thumb is not without its exceptions: Anne Colleton, as a Scarlett O'Hara expy, is possibly my least favourite character. The opposite goes for Flora Hamburger (gee, I wonder which real person's name Turtledove might be inspired by here), socialist agitator in New York, who I can really root for.

Unfortunately, American Front is also somewhat less well written than How Few Remain, to put it mildly. I present you with the very first paragraph of the book:
The leaves on the trees were beginning to go from green to red, as if swiped by a painter's brush. A lot of the grass near the banks of the Susquehanna, down by New Cumberland, had been painted red, too, red with blood.
Someone please make him stop. Clumsy exposition is another massive problem:
'General McClellan, whatever his virtues, is not a hasty man', Lee observed, smiling at Chilton's derisive use of the grandiloquent nickname the Northern papers had given the commander of the Army of the Potomac. 'Those people' - his own habitual name for the foe - 'were also perhaps ill-advised to accept battle in front of a river with only one bridge offering a line of retreat should their plans miscarry.'
This sort of unspeakably awful thing goes on for six hundred pages, I'm sorry to say. Turtledove was perhaps ill-advised to include in-text exposition rather than append some basic information and allow the reader to figure out a lot of facts, rather than constantly attempting to show how much research he's done. A sense of strangeness, rather than thudding exposition at every turn, would surely serve an alternate history novel well.

So, then: Harry Turtledove is a pretty bad writer. But I'm not ashamed to say I'm devouring this series all the same. It's far more plausible than is usually the case with alternate history, it's aware of social and political issues (especially blacks' struggles) to an uncommon extent, and it offers really fascinating breaks from our timeline and occasional wonderful touches (of which more next time). I do hope it picks up a bit, though.

In this series:
Setting the scene
How Few Remain
The Great War: Walk in Hell
The Great War: Breakthroughs 

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