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How Few Remain

November 28, 2006

Harry Turtledove is referred to as ‘The Master of Alternate History’. It would be more apt to say he’s the most prolific author in the subgenre of Sci-Fi known as Alternate History. The fact that’s he’s not a bad writer helps, and his historian background makes his ‘What If’ tales that much more enjoyable.

Alternate History, if you’ve never heard the term before, is the label applied to a specific type of science fiction. Instead of the future, the genre deals with the past; more accurately, it deals with the consequences of a past that never happened. How Few Remain is billed as ‘The Tale of the Second War Between the States’. That is to say, it deals with a war that happened a few decades after the Civil War in a North America that still saw the Stars and Bars flying over the southern half of the country.

Mr. Turtledove was well known in the 90s for his more ‘funky’ alternate history story The Guns of the South. That tale dealt with the introduction of uzis to the Confederate forces by time travelers. With their extra firepower, the Southerners were able to maintain their independence. In How Few Remain, Southern independence is maintained through a much more subtle twist of history. The capture of a set of orders from General Lee by the North’s General McClellan, which occurred in real life, was averted by a sharp-eyed soldier in Turtledove’s tale.

That one event led to a world which saw things very differently just a few decades later. Military victories by Lee and his men led to the formal recognition of the Confederacy by England and France, and forced the United States to do the same. When the story picks up at the start of the book, the election of a Republican to the White House (the party of Lincoln, you’ll recall) touches off another conflict between the north and south.

The story flits between several different points of view throughout the United and Confederate states. We follow General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson as he defends the northern part of Kentucky from an advance by the Northerners. Samuel Clemens finds himself the editor of a newspaper in San Francisco, under assault and blockade by British Troops. George Custer and Theodore Roosevelt spend some time dealing with each other and the Canadians in the northernmost reaches of the Montana Territory. A German attache tries to teach tactics to the wild-eyed military men of the North’s army. We experience the cruelty that African Americans felt in that time and place through the eyes of Frederick Douglass, and see what kind of man Lincoln could have become as he begins to argue for Socialist ways in the capitalist norht. And (most entertainingly) we follow the exploits of Jeb Stuart as he helps to reinforce and control two newly acquired Confederate territories – former Mexican states overrun by native inhabitants and brimming with angry Indians.

The only real frustration I have with Turtledove’s storytelling style here is the large cast of characters you have to keep straight over the course of the book. Each chapter will be broken out into a number of discrete sections, in which we’ll visit two or three of the protagonists in a row. It’s an incredibly epic way of telling a story, and makes for a very broad canvas on which to tell the tale. It’s also sometimes a bit confusing, requiring you to remember events not touched on in several dozens of pages.

It works, though, and works quite well. Lincoln’s tale, in particular, is an interesting intellectual exercise. His commentary about the role of the working man in relation to capitalists was extracted, by Turtledove, from actual statements he made during his administration. It’s fascinating to think what his role in the labour movement might have been if he had lived through his presidency.

Overall, the theme that I found most interesting was the more prevalent role that European powers have throughout the North American continent. There’s a lot of foreshadowing for future books in the series, but it’s more than a little unnerving to think of British troops attacking San Francisco, or French Canadians seizing portions of Maine. All this, plus places like Louisiana as hard-bitten battlegrounds makes for a very unique look at a time and place that most Americans take for granted.

I finished this book, and immediately dove into the next title in the series; this time I think I’m definitely going to finish them … by jingo.

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