Sunday, 21 August 2011
The Great War: Walk in Hell (Southern Victory Series, Part Four)
Middle instalments of trilogies are always a tricky business. The first part has all the interesting set-up, the finale boasts all the pay-off: middle instalments mostly develop themes. But there is quite honestly no reason Walk in Hell should be such an awful slog: no reason except, perhaps, that a stalemate must feel like a slog. In which case Harry Turtledove is a genius, deliberately boring his readers, as Bret Easton Ellis does in American Psycho, to make them feel the tedium-cum-horror of the world they inhabit. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
Walk in Hell begins with the black labourers of the Confederacy rising in Red rebellion. Even though Turtledove fails to develop a version of Marxism more suited to the situation of Southern blacks (compare, for example, Lenin's adjustments to orthodox Marxism for Russian conditions), it's still quite a premise. Unfortunately, the author doesn't exploit the idea: the socialist republics fizzle so quickly that there is no chance to explore life in the envisaged new society.
Elsewhere, the fronts are barely moving. The USA are very slowly advancing everywhere, while the war effort takes an ever-greater toll on civilian life throughout 1916. Characters are being developed and in some cases introduced - Paul Mantarakis stops a bullet in Lower California and is replaced as a point-of-view character by Gordon McSweeney, an insane Presbyterian whom I very much look forward to discussing in my review of Breakthroughs.
This deadlocked state of affairs is of course historical, but Turtledove is too obviously inspired by the Western and Italian (in the case of the Canadian Rockies) Fronts of the real-life First World War. Although Turtledove pays lip service to the less than ideal supply situation in the Trans-Mississippi, fronts should move much more rapidly in the Canadian Prairies as well as Arkansas, Sequoyah and Texas, as they did on the Eastern Front in our timeline. But of course, if the author did that, Canada would be cut in half and knocked out of the war too quickly for dramatic purposes: the Rule of Drama may be invoked here.
I'd also like to take the opportunity to complain obnoxiously, as one does, about one of my greatest bugbears when it comes to Turtledove. For, you see, the author's eagerness to write sex scenes is matched only by his total inability to make them in any way sexy. (Using the term 'chamberpot' in your sex scenes - repeatedly! - is not a good idea.) Given that sex is technically unimportant to the plot, one would be grateful for mercy.
But it's not all bad. There are lovely little touches all over the place. For example, there is an extra named Moltke Donovan: his name is (unusually for Turtledove) never commented upon, but is precisely what we might expect in the world the author has created. And we should not be too hard on Walk in Hell for spinning its wheels for six hundred pages: it's build-up for one hell of a final instalment.
In this series:
Setting the scene
How Few Remain
The Great War: American Front
The Great War: Breakthroughs