From Free Life, Issue 20, August
ISSN: 0260 5112
Ballantine Books, New York, 1993. $5.99
Simply the best - better than all the rest. No lines better sum up this book than those of Tina Turner. I am a devotee of alternate worlds books in general and American Civil War ones in particular; when I read a pre-publication excerpt from this book in the anthology "The Fantastic Civil War", I was yearning to read the full version - and the wait was worth it. No other alternate worlds book I've ever read came close to matching it; Harry Turtledove deserves the highest praise, both for his ability as a writer and his historical research. While I can't pretend to agree with all of Mr. Turtledove's conclusions, I can't fault him in any other way.
The story itself can be summed up succinctly - in the winter of early 1864, General Robert E. Lee receives a visitor with a "not-quite-British" accent and a new repeating rifle called the AK-47, far ahead of anything in existence. He represents an organisation called America Will Break - the initials furnish the clue. The visitor, Andries Rhoodie, and his men are Afrikaners from the 21st century, AWB members with a natural desire to change the course of history by helping the South win the Civil War and preserving a nation dedicated to the cause of white supremacy.
The impact of AK-47 rifles in the American Civil War is only too obvious; within months, the Confederates have taken Washington and won the war. There is then, of course, the real problem; as the British Ambassador asks General Lee, "what sort of a nation shall [the Confederacy] be?"
The aftermath involves negotiations and plebiscites as to where exactly the border belongs (the South winds up with Kentucky to add to its eleven states) and the problem for the Confederacy of the Negroes; specifically, trying to force the many freed by the war back into slavery, not to mention thousands of armed black ex-Union soldiers deciding to fight on. The AWB - known as "Rivington men", after their HQ - throws its weight onto the side of hardline white supremacy, supporting Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest against the moderate Lee in the 1867 Presidential election. Lee narrowly wins - but the AWB's respect for majority rule is somewhat limited....
Mr. Turtledove has two "parallel plots", one might say; at the top, the activities of Lee, Rhoodie, Forrest, Davis, et al. At the bottom, so to speak, we read of the real-life 47th North Carolina regiment, the heroes being First Sergeant Nate Caudell and his girlfriend, disguised girl soldier Mollie Bean. The way that the "top men" are depicted certainly rings true - one can imagine them all behaving in exactly the way they're depicted - Lee the voice of moderation and adapting to changed circumstances; Forrest (the real-life Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan) the hard-line white supremacist. My only criticism would be of Mr. Turtledove's account of events "up North" - both the main parties splitting, with Democrat Horatio Seymour becoming President and invading Canada. Surely a Confederate victory in the Civil War would have resulted in Lincoln retiring as yet another discredited one-term President (no President had even been renominated since 1840) and President MacLellan taking the oath of office (as "the man who could have won the war") in 1865 - and an invasion of Canada by a depleted and defeated USA I find improbable; in fact, I have read speculation that a victorious CSA might have itself become expansionist. However, this is merely a minor quibble which in no way detracts from my praise of the book. Indeed, Mr. Turtledove brings out several important "practical" details.
One - knowing his enemy's plans turns out not to be such an advantage for General Lee, seeing as any action he took to coun- teract the enemy's plans would be matched by that enemy's changing them. Two - how long would the Confederates have kept their technical advantage before others began to manufacture their own AK-47s - or at least approximations? Three - how much use would today's technology really be in the 19th century in the long term? One of the AWB men, after explaining how a computer works to Lee, tells him that "you can't [build one]. You not only lack the technology ....you lack the technology to make [it]...likely a couple more regressions before that...You can use [them] until they break down. When they do they're gone for good." However, thinking of the impact today's technology would have made, even in attenuated form, in the 1860s and the subsequent probable changes to the course of world history (this book features, apart from the aforementioned, the death in battle of future President Hayes and the French apparently hanging on to Mexico), I'd like to close by expressing the hope that this book is the first of a series!