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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

American Empire: The Victorious Opposition by Harry Turtledove. New York : Ballantine Books, 2003. ISBN: 034544423X

You don't want to read this book unless and until you've read most if not all of its predecessor novels. Turtledove is an acknowledged master of the alternate universe novel, in which he asks "what if?" In this case, what if the Confederate States of America had won the Civil War? This particular novel, the third in the American Empire series, and the 7th or 8th book overall, depending on how you count, covers a period of history between the first and second world wars. As such, it is really just an interlude of sorts, with no major action, other than the rise to power in the Confederacy of a fascist regime, replete with concentration camps.

Turtledove began this "what if?" scenario with a novel that is really not part of the series. The novel in which the south actually wins the Civil War is titled The Guns of the South, and its premise is truly out of the science fiction realm. A group of Afrikaners comes back from the future to supply the Confederacy with modern weapons, which they use to win the war.

Subsequent novels assume that the south won the war, but never really take us through the actual events to explain just how it happened. But there is not supposed to have been any scifi intervention in the main series. The first novel, titled How Few Remain, stands alone. It is perhaps the best novel in the series, as it portrays an Abraham Lincoln who is never assassinated, but fails to win a second term, traveling up and down the country as a socialist agitator. Other historical figures are also portrayed, including Samuel Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, George Custer, and others.

Then come the three novels that make up the series The Great War. Subtitled respectively American Front, Walk in Hell and Breakthrough, they depict the First World War and its trench warfare fought out between the north and the south on the terrain of North America. Then come the three interregnum novels that make up the series American Empire, Blood and Iron, The Center Cannot Hold and now, The Victorious Opposition.

Turtledove's approach in all of this is to create a cast of, well, not quite thousands, but a large number of individual characters, each of whom is followed for brief periods. We have Canadians (Canada was conquered by the US), Americans living in Canada, ordinary Americans, blacks both in the south and in the US and even the leaders of both nations, each of whose lives we follow through the successive novels, until they become old friends (or enemies), and we look forward to each new encounter. Sometimes, as in this novel, one does wish that events would hurry up, and we'd get on to the next big event, but all in all, the series certainly keeps you entertained, and each new volume is welcomed as we dip back into the lives of people we've come to know, as they move through this intriguing alternate history.

The current novel ends just as the fascist president of the Confederacy unleashes his forces in what undoubtedly will be World War II.

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