Stars & Stripes Forever; or, Adventures in Reader Reaction

This is going to empty the archives of my Harry Harrison related material.

This title got a proper review over at The Books That Time Forgot — and he actually went on to review other titles in the series.

Stars & Stripes Forever

Raw Feed (1999): Stars & Stripes Forever, Harry Harrison, 1998.

Before Harry Turtledove came along, Harry Harrison was sf’s most vocal supporter and practitioner of the alternate history subgenre.  This one bears some resemblance to Turtledove’s classic The Guns of the South (which wasn’t a straight alternate history since Turtledove introduces time travelers with automatic weapons as the hinge point in his history) in that both envision a Civil War which the Union is not victorious but slavery still is ended peacefully.  I liked this novel though not as much as The Guns of the South.
Harrison doesn’t have the skill of breathing life into historical figures like Turtledove. His plot is undercut by a couple of coincidences.  Of course, by tradition, the alternate history writer gets one historical deviation.  Here the “sharp agate point” history turns on (to borrow a term from Winston Churchill’s foray into alternate history) is a quite probable one:  the Trent affair where two Confederate envoys were taken off a British ship by the Federal Navy in neutral waters and Britain threatened war.  Unlike our history, that war happens here.
In our world, the sickly Prince Albert (his wife, Queen Victoria, comes off as a bit psychotic here, ready to go to war at the drop of a hat) averts war with a carefully worded communique.  Here, he’s too sick to rewrite Lord Palmerston and Lord Russell’s diplomatic dispatches.  The major problem with the book is the second deviation from history in the accidental death of Brigadier General James W. Ripley.  His exit takes the brakes off the Army’s conservative ordinance department and begins the steps towards arming the Union army with breech loading rifles so snipers play a larger role in Union tactics.  The ironclad building program is accelerated and the navy is armed with breech loading Parrot guns.  The third seeming plot contrivance (contrivance in the sense that it seems to be there to get the desired end:  a British Empire dispossessed or weakened in the Western Hemisphere by America) is the British expeditionary forces firing on their supposed southern allies and, much worse and much important, raping Southern women after the battle.
Still, even if I didn’t come away with the feeling of reading an actual historical novel like I did The Guns of the South, I liked this novel a lot, found it exciting and compulsively readable.  I liked John Stuart Mill helping to craft a peaceful end (with a buyout for slaveowners) to slavery.  I thought this plausible and psychologically realistic given Southern abolitionists in the pre-war days and a break in combat after unexpectedly harsh fighting at Shiloh.  I liked the real historical bits with Gustavus Vasa Fox, Lincoln’s spymaster (more reliable than Alan Pinkerton).  I liked the Union and Confederates destabilizing of British Caribbean possessions.  (A lot of documents and dialogue in this novel are direct quotes from historical sources.)  Lincoln’s harsh suppression of Northern abolitionists seems unfortunately plausible too.)
More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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