I continue looking at Harry Turtledove’s long Great War series.
Raw Feed (2002): American Empire: Blood and Iron, Harry Turtledove, 2001.
This novel exhibits the sometimes, by their repetition, annoying stylistic tics of Turtledove, especially when it comes to characterization. Tongues are frequently stuck out to express mock disdain, and there is too much intrafamily mock banter of a teasing sort — at least in the happy families.
The McGregor family, miserable over the execution of their son, Alexander, by American authorities is decidedly not given to banter. Arthur McGregor’s bitter quest for vengeance on war hero General George Armstrong Custer, is blackly comic given its repeated failures. Custer escapes his bombs by, once, breaking the plate of his denture and unexpectedly leaving a restaurant before McGregor’s timed charged goes off. Another time Custer, in his infuriating way of being right sometimes when no one else is (his aide, Abner Dowling finds this trait very annoying), suspects McGregor when intelligence experts do not and prepares for a confrontation with McGregor when travelling to the latter’s hometown on a farewell tour before his forced retirement. His preparation pays off and kills McGregor when his own bomb is literally thrown back at him.
The other character who dies off here is the unlikeable, but competent, Roger Kimball. After becoming a leading light in Jake Featherston’s Nazi-like Freedom Party, it is revealed that he is guilty of war crimes in deliberately, as a sub commander, sinking a US ship after an armistice was declared. Sylvia Enos, widow of one of the men on that ship, shoots him — after the unlikeable Anne Colleton, lover of Kimball, works him over after he tries to rape her.
There’s a great deal of bitterness in this book as Socialists take power in America, and the Freedom Party gains — and looses – a lot of influence in the Confederate States of America politics, and a lot of characters are bitter at their lot in life. Formerly likeable, a lot of characters become obsessed with revenge for understandable reasons. Jefferson Pinkard gets caught up in the Freedom Party and finds his marriage over, ended by a wife who can’t sexually endure his absence at Party meetings. Anne Colleton is still unlikeable and still obsessed with revenge though she eventually stops supporting the Freedom Party after one of its members assassinates the Whig president. (In this timeline, this is the first assassination of a president in either the US or CSA.) Chester Martin moves into the Socialist camp, though not a doctrinaire one. And Jake Featherston’s anger and bitterness may yet revive his political fortunes, especially since he’s been introduced to the possibilities of radio. (There’s a good scene where Featherston’s nemesis, Jeb Stuart, Jr, comes to gloat at the party’s downfall after the assassination of the CSA president. Stuart admits he shouldn’t have held up Featherston’s promotion after the black revolt.)
Not all the characters are bitter. Many do the typical human things of marrying and having children. One such is Nellie Jacobs who, in her forties, finds herself pregnant again. Though she comes to genuinely love her husband, she still has a low opinion of men which is very slowly changing. And her many arguments with daughter Edna have a lot to do with trying, even when her daughter is in her twenties, to keep too tight of a rein on her. The black Driver family finds a better life after moving from Kentucky to Des Moines. Lucien Galtier thrives, striking a good deal with the Americans for the land they took for a hospital. Scipio finds happiness in a wife, but the lot of him and his fellow blacks in the CSA is in danger if the Freedom Party ever regains power. Flora Hamberger marries Dakota Socialist Hosea Blackford (I don’t think it at all unlikely that a socialist could come from the Dakotas) after becoming his mistress. Irving Morrell marries but, like Sam Carsten who, at novel’s end, passes his test to be a commissioned naval officer, is troubled by the defense cutbacks of the Socialist administration. Morrell is keenly interested in improving “barrel” technology and, like most military men of the US and CSA, knows another war between the two countries is coming. Jonathan Moss develops a sexual relationship, perhaps it will become more, with Laura Secord, descendent of a famous Canadian patriot. He is an attorney practicing occupation law in Occupied Canada, and she does not hide her hatred of the occupying Americas.
As usual in his modern alternate histories, Turtledove spends a fair amount of time covering the troubles of minorities and women. Turtledove uses a bestseller technique — lots of characters with frequent cuts between brief scenes (about four pages long). What has been called his “worms-eye” view of history has a lot to commend it in terms of characterization and seeing history at a very personal level. We spend so much time with the characters they frequently seem real, and their motivations are almost always understandable.
However, this technique has its problems, and I think they make these long alternate history series of novels less memorable than his short story alternate histories. Most people, like me, read alternate histories for the grand sweep and alteration of events. Concentrating on domestic details so much may make his characters and their situations believable, but it makes the alternate history less compelling. Frequently, in these long novel series of Turtledove, the most fascinating stuff is happening offstage. Upton Sinclair is the President, but we see him from afar (though Blackford is vice president). (He’s one of the few real historical figures to show up here — the others are Theodore Roosevelt and Custer, both have been in previous books. Eugene Debs makes a very brief appearance.) Japan came out of the war unscathed, but that’s all we here about her besides that she is a potential enemy again. Northern Ireland refuses to join the US created Republic of Ireland and a war breaks out, but it is only shown in one scene with Carsten. France is in near revolution, but we only see that when Lucien Galter does in newspapers. Mexico is wracked by strife. Confederate mercenaries fight in vaguely mentioned wars in South America.
Another problem is that Turtledove reverts to a tendency shown in his Basil Agroyos and Sim World series: recapitulating famous historical events in his alternate timeline. I’m not sure if that’s a deliberate narrative technique to show how famous events (particularly, in the case of Basil Agroyos, the introduction of inventions) would play out under different circumstances or if, as an historian, Turtledove really does think that certain events and technologies are destined to show up no matter what the timeline. To be fair, the timeline of American Empire and its predecessor series, the Great War, only deviates from ours about sixties years in the novel’s past (specifically, the outcome of the Battle of Antietam in the Civil War). The Freedom Party and Jake Featherston are pretty obviously based on the Nazis and Hitler. (There are only dark hints about what Featherston wants to do to the CSA’s blacks, but it’s not too hard to guess that he wants to commit genocide.) The relationship between the US and CSA, including the reparations demanded of the latter, is obviously like that of the Allies and Germany after WWI. To be fair, there are differences. The Socialist party has gained power in 1920s America after many years in the political wilderness. (It was founded by the disgraced Abraham Lincoln in How Few Remain, the most fascinating part of the first, and best, part of this series.) The Freedom Party-Nazi analogies are not exact. Featherston is not defeated by a Beer Hall Putsch, but by the assassination, by a rogue party member, of the CSA president. Featherston, unlike Hitler, is not jailed. (He does have a Mein Kampf-like book though. However, at novel’s end, he can’t find a publisher for Over Open Sights.)
Despite these shortcomings, I liked returning to this world despite the flaws of Turtledove’s approach.