Wednesday, January 30, 2013

American Front

American Front
by Harry Turtledove
Published in 1998
Published by Ballantine

The year is 1914 and the Great War has erupted. Over the next year and a half, the fighting rips North America to shreds.

But first, an explanation is in order.

American Front takes place in a universe that was inaugurated with Turtledove's 1997 novel How Few Remain. The premise is as follows. In 1862, the USA was decisively humiliated by the Confederacy on the battlefield and was forced to sign a peace treaty. The Confederate States of America is now recognized by all as a legitimate country. (Despite the tropes Turtledove has played with in other novels, this happens naturally, with neither time travelers nor aliens playing a role.)

How Few Remain opens in the year 1881, when relations between the USA and the CSA deteriorate to the point that a second war breaks out. What follows is an account of the conflict, narrated by eight viewpoint characters, all actual historical personages (Stonewall Jackson, Samuel Clemens, Frederick Douglass, etc).

I read How Few Remain several years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Imagine you're reading a novel that tells the story of a real-life war, like the American Civil War or World War II, and you have no idea how the war is going to unfold. You've somehow remained sufficiently unspoiled that you don't know if the Nazis are going to take over the UK or not, and when Hitler invades the USSR it's a stunning plot twist that you could never have seen coming. I'm a big history nut. I think that would be awesome. It's too bad I've already been spoiled for how WW2 turns out. That's why I find this kind of 'mundane' alternate history (no magic, no time travelers, no sci-fi) to be extremely compelling.

But after reading How Few Remain, I hesitated for several years before going on. You see, Turtledove had far grander plans for this timeline than just one novel. How Few Remain is followed by ten novels, organized into three sub-series: the 'Great War' trilogy, which describe World War I, then the 'American Empire' trilogy, which is about the inter-war period. Finally, he finished his epic with the four-volume 'Settling Accounts' series, about this timeline's analogue to World War II.

The prospect of reading ten fat novels in this universe sounds daunting enough. Even worse was reading online reviews (carefully, as I'm trying to stay spoiler-free) that seemed to say that each book was marginally less well-written than the one that had preceded it.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up American Front, the first book of the 'Great War' trilogy.

The year is 1914 and the Great War has broken out in Europe. The United States, led by President Theodore Roosevelt, does not dither until 1917; it immediately honors its treaty obligations with allies Germany and Austria-Hungary, and launches full-blown invasions of Canada and the Confederacy. The Confederacy, led by President Woodrow Wilson, throws (almost) everything it has into throwing the Northerners back.

Over the following year and a half, soldiers die by the thousands and we are treated to numerous descriptions of death and destruction (particularly in Virginia/Maryland, Quebec, and Ontario). Unlike How Few Remain, all the viewpoint characters in American Front are fictional, and come from every side of the conflict, both the front lines and the home front.

This is a book with no unambiguous good guys, and it probes morally uncomfortable areas. Two viewpoint characters are southern blacks. Slavery has been nominally abolished in the Confederacy, but it's been replaced by a legally codified system of suppression and degradation that makes Jim Crow seem lenient by comparison. We hate the Confederacy. We want it to fall. Then the viewpoint switches to a Canadian character living under American occupation, and now the USA is the tyrannical government that we so easily hate.

Then the viewpoint switches to a white Confederate citizen. Every white Confederate in the book has racial views that are extremely retrograde and offensive by the standards of the reader (or one should hope), but most of the white Confederate viewpoint characters are entirely sympathetic when they're not thinking about race relations. Kind of like how your weird Uncle Frank is a charming and funny conversationalist as long as no one brings up politics. And if you want to give your brain's empathy circuitry a real test, you can appreciate how these people's views on race are the product of the society they grew up in.

As a result of American Front's fealty to realistic racial attitudes, the book probably has more instances of the 'N-word' than any work of fiction I've ever read. That may bother you, even though Turtledove is an author filled with good earnest liberal intentions. All I will say is that I've read a moderate amount of American fiction actually published during the years that American Front takes place, and the characters in those authentic texts use the word shockingly often, as far as our tastes are concerned.

American Front ends with a cliffhanger. A momentous event has just broken out, one which many of our viewpoint characters, with their cultural blinders, are absolutely astonished by; they didn't see it coming because they were unable to comprehend what was happening until it had already happened. The readers are less surprised because they saw the pieces being laid. As late-breaking plot twists go, it is effective and believable. I'm curious to see how it plays out as the Great War trilogy develops.

I have two gripes with the book. There are an awful lot of viewpoint characters and I occasionally had trouble keeping similar characters straight (like the two different Confederate infantrymen). Also, the scenes of death and destruction did grow somewhat repetitive after a while, even despite the novel setting. (My birthplace of southern Ontario gets blown up real good.)

That said, American Front appealed to the history geek in me, much as How Few Remain did. I will go on to the next book in the series, although with the trepidation that comes from plunging further in. I'll read something else first, though.

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