Friday, October 5, 2012
100 Books #92 - Harry Turtledove's HOW FEW REMAIN
It was a near miss for the Confederacy when General Robert E. Lee's aide recovered a document he'd lost, that detailed Lee's entire plan for the invasion of the Union in 1862. Just imagine the disaster that would have befallen those brave Southern boys had that document fallen into Yankee hands! Mercy!
Oh wait, that's not how it happened? Pardon me. I'm from Wyoming. Our school system teaches Wyoming history, to which accounts of the War Between the States are merely an ancillary in that they explain why a lot of members of the U.S. Calvary charged with protecting Manifest Destiny-enacting white settlers against Red Indians in the West had fewer than their original compliment of digits or limbs, or raging cases of PTSD. I'm hazy on details.
No, not really. But the Civil War still isn't something I've studied too terribly closely, which may be a shame, but then again may not be, as far as my ability to appreciate what Harry Turtledove has achieved in this founding document of his sprawling alternate history of North America, the departure point for which is the aforementioned recovery of Lee's invasion plan. Without that vital intelligence, Turtledove says, the Union might not have won at Antietam, which means President Lincoln would not have had that victory announcement to serve as his springboard for announcing Emancipation, which means Great Britain and France don't have a clear moral choice in deciding whether or not to continue supporting the Confederacy, which means the Confederacy winds up winning the War and North America winds up with four internationally recognized nation states instead of three (well, okay, three nation states and one Dominion).
That premise established, the action proper of this novel starts up about 20 years later. The Confederacy is buying the provinces of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexico in order to acquire a Pacific port and the land access to extend its railroads to it. The USA has elected its first Republican President since Abraham Lincoln's one and only term ended in the disgrace of losing the War; this new President needs to look tough and declares war (Lincoln has taken to the railways to travel the diminished United States of America as a quasi-Marxist labor agitator*). Frederick Douglass is an old man, still hopeful that someday, someone is going to give a crap about the countless slaves still in bondage in the Confederacy. Old Yellowhair, George Armstrong Custer, is charged with containing a Mormon rebellion in Utah. Samuel Clemens (whom real history knows better as Mark Twain) reports and editorializes on events in the pages of the San Francisco Call and has uxorious sex with his wife (yeah, I could have done without that mental image too, guys). Jeb Stuart is in charge of moving Confederate troops into the newly-purchased territories as a first step towards colonizing them for the C.S.A. Teddy Roosevelt, Montana rancher, watches events unfolding and hopes the new President will hold fast, but decides his own help is needed to do it and forms up his own Unauthorized Regiment. Etc.
It's always fun to play "What If" over a few beers or whatever, but who else has taken that game to such lengths? Turtledove went on to write ten more novels in this universe he created. Ten. Am I going to read the rest of them?
Well, I'm not sure. This was my first Harry Turtledove, and I did find it diverting and moderately absorbing, chiefly because it was fun to imagine these historical figures in circumstances so radically different from what they're famous for, but, well, those reviewers who have described How Few Remain as historical fan fiction are kind of right. I'm told subsequent books in the series are much, much better than this first book, which news I always greet with irritation; I've just endured 596 pages of this solely so that I understand what's going on in better future books? I'd say that if those future books were solely about Turtledove's own characters, I'd be disinclined to continue, but I can't help but be curious about, e.g. Lincoln, Twain, Roosevelt and Custer** in this alternate timeline. Especially after enjoying the mental spectacle of Custer with Gatling guns. And Lincoln delivering stonking Marxist rants. And Douglass...
Ah me, Douglass. Despite his advanced age, he dons his journalist hat*** and accompanies a Union flanking attack that brings him onto Confederate soil for the first time (he doesn't count his years as a slave because it was still part of the United States then), and when he sees that the little structures he sees burning all over the place are slave shanties, it's impossible not to share his rage. "May they all burn, and all the big houses with them."
Which is to say that, where most of the other historical figures and characters come off as tremendously unpleasant, if not outright assholes, Lincoln and Douglass (ha ha) shine as the novel's only real heroes, both of them old men, generally despised if not outright hated, bowed but not broken, sad but not embittered by the Union's defeat in the first war, only sort of hopeful that a second might change anything but doing their damndest to bring about the changes they hope for regardless of what happens on the battlefields. They make up for any number of disappointments (Turtledove succumbs to a failing that is one of my great pets peeve as a reader, the impulse to use "amber liquid" as a synonym for beer or scotch. Why do you do that, writers? Why do you always pick that beverage as a point to vary your vocabulary, and why must you always invoke the image of body fluids when you do? WHY, WRITERS, WHY?) and ick moments (for some reason, sex scenes involving Mark Twain and his wife, and George Custer and not-his-wife, have scarred me for life). They might even lead me to look into more of this series.
*A lot of people are nonplussed by Turtledove's version of Lincoln, but I think it makes a lot of sense, provided one never forgets that this Lincoln is one who not only did not get assassinated but lived to a ripe old age in a world in which the institution of slavery persisted in North America, and no one in the defeated North gave much of a damn about them (and many blamed the war on them, as alt-Frederick Douglass' story illustrates). So, as Lincoln observes to himself as he prepares to address a fairly unreceptive crowd in Great Falls, Montana: "Without more than a handful of Negroes to exploit, it [the country] battened off the sweat of the poor and the ignorant and the newly arrived and the unlucky." Which is to say that those people wound up having it even worse in Turtledove's alt USA than they did in ours, with no newly-freed slaves to soak up the really dirty jobs. Potentially, this could even have retarded the development of the middle class whose interests and abilities so characterized the 20th century in our world. So yeah, I buy Lincoln as a golden years Marxist under these circumstances. For great justice.
**Though I've got to say that Ol' Yellowhair -- and a lot of other Union military leaders -- comes off as a considerable jerk, even before he gets to Utah, where he's hell-bent on stringing up all the leaders of the Mormon Church ostensibly for inciting the Territory to rebel while the Union wages its second war with the Confederacy, but, one suspects, really over polygamy. Everyone is really obsessed with polygamy in this novel, and perhaps that's true for the times, but man, did the multiple wives jokes get old after a few hundred pages. Also: I didn't think anything could ever really make me hate Teddy Roosevelt, but this book did. I had to keep gritting my teeth and reminding myself this is just a character kind of loosely based on Roosevelt. As were all of the historical figures, of course, even the ones who kept their pants on.
***But somehow never encounters, say, Matthew Brady, whose absence from this novel is glaring. I would have accepted at least a passing reference to how he had died or something, you know?