Monday, October 25, 2004

The Great War: American Front

Cover of The Great War: American Front

I recently finished listening to Harry Turtledove's the 21 CDs that comprise The Great War: American Front, the sequel to How Few Remain, which I mentioned here last month. As before, I may include spoilers, so if you're planning to read the book (let's face it; you're not), consider yourself forewarned.

First recall that we're talking about an alternate history where the South won the Civil War with the help of England and France. This book takes us to 1914, where World War I is starting. It's England, France, Russia and the Confederates (the "Quadruple Entente") versus the US, Germany, and presumably Austria and the Ottoman Empire. (If the latter two get a mention, it's very brief.) In North America, the war is primarily a struggle of the US versus the Confederates and Canada.

The book is, like How Few Remain, told from a variety of perspectives. Unlike HFR, however, TGWAF (are those acronyms annoying enough?) tells the story from the perspective of common people. There are some historical figures present -- I counted Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, George Custer, Eugene Debs and Marcel Duchamp, but I'm sure there were more. These characters, however, are secondary to the everyday folk -- the New England fisherman, the Confederate Army major with the unfortunate surname "Lincoln", the black butler in a South Carolina mansion...

There's less excitement in "I wonder what a New England fisherman would do in this timeline" than "I wonder what Abe Lincoln would do if he lost the war (and survived)." The book at times sounded like one of those histories where they try to convince you that the life of ordinary people is more worth studying than the life of kings and statesmen. Sounds fun, huh? Nevertheless, the book succeeded in making me think about World War I in different terms -- by hearing Virginia ripped apart by trench warfare, I could more readily imagine the psychological shock to Europeans. And I could more readily appreciate the benefit to America of not having a war on our home soil during the twentieth century.

One of the book's drawbacks is its large cast of characters that makes it hard to remember who's who. Sometimes I had to wait until a soldier cursed the other side to remember which side he was on. Another is that everything is very slow developing and telegraphed. In an early scene, Confederate President Woodrow Wilson is giving a speech in Richmond, and soldiers fire bullets into the air to scare away the crowd. Is it really necessary to have a character wonder to himself what will happen when the bullets come back down? It doesn't move the plot along, and it doesn't really provide any "flavor" to the story.

Nevertheless, the alternate history is fairly compelling. By the end of the book, the USA has advanced across most fronts, though the war is stalling. The USA has also pushed the CSA out of Pennsylvania and is trying to retake the parts of Maryland and DC that have fallen. The South is starting to be disrupted by a Marxist revolution led by blacks. That's one of Turtledove's cleverer ideas, and I'm waiting to see how this will play out.

"I'm waiting to see how this will play out" will probably keep me reading through the next three books in the series. Yes, reading, because the next book is only available on cassettes for some reason. At least by reading the book, I can skip over some of the slow parts.

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