Thursday 7 July 2011

How Few Remain (Southern Victory Series, Part 2)

This post follows my introduction to the general setting of Harry Turtledove's alternate history timeline in which the Confederacy wins the American Civil War in 1862.

In the Anglosphere at least, Southern victory in the American Civil War is one of the most popular historical 'What ifs?', beaten out only by a certain other scenario which Godwin's law won't let me mention. So Turtledove had to choose an original approach if he wanted to make his mark. That he did it twice is to his credit.

In The Guns of the South (1992), time-travelling white supremacists armed a beleaguered Robert E. Lee with AK-47s for the 1964 campaign, leading to a Confederate victory. So when How Few Remain was published in 1997, Turtledove was at pains to point out that it was not a sequel to the earlier book, but rather the beginning of an entirely different timeline: one in which the Confederacy won 'through natural causes', as outlined in my earlier post.

How Few Remain picks up the story in 1881. The Union and the Confederacy remain rivals. The CSA have maintained strong ties with their allies Britain and France while also taking Cuba and Puerto Rico from the fading Spanish Empire. The USA, by contrast, have crushed the resistance of the remaining Indians but have not taken Alaska from the Russian Empire. But trouble starts a-brewin' when the CSA offer to buy the provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua from a perpetually broke Mexican Empire. (In Turtledove's timeline, French intervention in Mexico was successful, leaving a feeble Emperor Maximilian on the throne.)

You see, buying up Sonora and Chihuahua would give the Confederates access to the Gulf of California and raises the prospect of a Confederate transcontinental railroad. The USA, keen to (a) keep the Confederacy out of the Pacific and (b) give the 'Rebs' a good thrashing to make up for the War of Secession, soon declare war. Britain and France both join their Confederate allies. President James Longstreet, a prudent politician, even agrees to manumit the Confederacy's slaves in return for European support.

Like all the books in the Southern Victory series, How Few Remain is narrated in the third person through a number of point-of-view characters; but unlike later books, there are fewer of them, and they're all well-known historical characters. There's Abraham Lincoln, socialist orator and former president of the US; Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, general-in-chief of the Confederate States Army; Samuel Clemens, newspaper editor in San Francisco; Frederick Douglass, abolitionist, journalist, and orator; George Armstrong Custer, US cavalry colonel; Theodore Roosevelt, an independently wealthy landowner in Montana; Jeb Stuart, commander of the Confederate forces in the Trans-Mississippi; and Alfred von Schlieffen, the German Empire's military attaché to the United States.

These are really fascinating characters, and Turtledove does a really good job of showing how a different outcome in 1862 put them on alternate paths. As a socialist, I'm obviously rather pleased with Abraham Lincoln's adoption of Marx (but not poor, perpetually forgotten Engels, apparently). Because they're based on historical figures, Turtledove has little trouble creating rounded, compelling characters. And he finds their voice, too: I'm especially pleasantly surprised by his invocation of Sam Clemens's journalistic style.

Most characters here are the sort of people you can root for, too: that goes especially for Lincoln, Douglass and Clemens and not at all for Custer, who is stupid, vainglorious, arrogant and selfish, but quite fascinating all the same. The Ensemble Darkhorse is Alfred von Schlieffen, who's a genuinely likeable character despite coming up with the military plan that bears his name. Turtledove must be criticised, however, for his frequent and annoying use of Poirot Speak: foreign characters fall back on their native language for simple words, not coincidentally those the monoglot reader is most likely to know. This tends to render them a little ridiculous.

All in all, How Few Remain presents a thoroughly plausible alternate timeline with largely rounded and compelling characters, and with a warm humanity suffused throughout: Turtledove never cushions the systemic inhumanity of slavery. A good start, then: let’s see if he can keep it up in The Great War: American Front.

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

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