The two most common points of divergence in the alternate history genre are the American Civil War and World War II. A scenario combining the two is arguably obvious, despite the eighty-year distance between them. Harry Turtledove's long-running saga about the effects of a Southern victory in the Civil War, however, is uniquely suited to attempting that combination. Slowly and deliberately, Turtledove has built up a connection between the two conflicts in his Sidewise Award-winning How Few Remain and its sequels, the Great War and American Empire trilogies.
In the opening pages of How Few Remain, a Confederate victory at the Battle of Antietam brings Britain and France into the war on its side. Together, the new allies force Lincoln to recognize the secession of the Southern states. But this is not the end of the issue: the United States goes to war with the Confederacy again in 1881, and then a third time in 1914. During this latter conflict, the Confederate States of America sides with the Allies, and the U.S. with Germany, in the Great War series. The scales so tipped, the American-German alliance wins the war, crushing and humiliating the Confederates, British, and French. In the American Empire novels, fascism rises in the defeated Allied nations as the victors of the last round of fighting complacently look on.
The Settling Accounts tetralogy describes the war, analagous to our World War II, that inevitably breaks out when the last war's losers strike back. In its first book, Return Engagement, the Nazi-like government of Confederate Freedom Party leader Jake Featherston invades the Union. The Southern blitzkrieg cuts the U.S. in half—an assault on Pittsburgh turns into an American Stalingrad—in the next book, Drive to the East. The third book, The Grapple, picks up the story immediately after this turning point. Following the Confederate rout at Pittsburgh, the U.S. launches a stunning counteroffensive. Meanwhile, North and South both race to develop the atomic bomb, and Featherston continues his genocidal persecution of blacks inside the Confederacy.
Turtledove's series is extremely ambitious, developing a detailed and global alternate history that has covered eighty years and six thousand pages to date. Unfortunately, the strain of such a massive effort shows. As is typical with Turtledove's multivolume works, the structure of the novels that make up Settling Accounts is extremely formulaic. Like its predecessors, The Grapple has twenty chapters, each with six five-page scenes, and shifts from one plot thread to another with almost clockwork regularity. Since there are usually fifteen such threads, each following a major character and associated minor ones, the result is that most of his characters pop up for a few pages every eighty pages or so. This is too little for the more compelling ones and too much for the less interesting characters, whose scenes often repeat familiar exposition and stock phrases as if to make sure that they reach their five-page quota. (As many readers have complained on Amazon.com, how many times do we need to be told about the inferiority of Northern tobacco?) While it can be a crutch, it should be admitted that this approach has some strengths. In particular, the rapid changes of scene keep the story moving along at a good pace, preventing even the slow patches from bogging the narrative down too much.
The convergence of some of the plot threads Turtledove followed in previous books also makes for a tighter narrative this time around. However, the cohesion highlights how short The Grapple is on major plot developments. While unfortunate, this is not particularly surprising. Any series that goes on at this rate for this long (this is its tenth book in as many years) almost always produces some uneventful entries. It is all the more predictable in this case because Settling Accounts was supposed to be a trilogy—with In at the Death to be the concluding novel, with a planned 2006 release—and the decision to extend the series from three volumes to four was made after Turtledove covered the climactic battle of Pittsburgh and the turning point of the war in the previous Drive to the East.
The result is that this cycle's denouement feels stretched out. This is not for lack of potential material, however, and I was disappointed by Turtledove's failure to exploit some obvious possibilities. Depictions of how historical figures may have behaved in hypothetical situations, the most compelling aspect of How Few Remain (all of whose events are seen through the eyes of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Samuel Clemens), are fewer here than in any previous installment. The glimpses of George Patton as a Confederate general frustrated by failure and retreat are intriguing but far too brief and are hardly compensated for by Robert Taft's rather bland appearances and a very short cameo by a young Fidel Castro.
Turtledove's account of events overseas is equally scanty. His diverging timeline has created an intriguing international scene, and while he rarely left North America in previous books (even Winston Churchill and Action Française leading Britain and France in a revanchist war against the Kaiser rate only a few offhand references from the characters), it is almost possible to forget that there are other theaters this time around.
Nonetheless, the basic idea underlying the series remains compelling. The merger of two situations exploited to the point of being genre clichés is genuinely provocative because together they set up a larger, more fundamental question: what if America, instead of standing aloof from the Old World, its class and sectarian conflicts, its balance of power politics, and its wars, saw those conflicts play out as ferociously on its own soil as they did in Europe? Not surprisingly, the parts in which Turtledove focuses on this vision are the most strongly imagined in the series, much more so than his usually perfunctory treatment of the war, which so often comes across as Tom Clancyesque military procedural with the novelty of vintage weaponry. The rise of an American Socialist movement, the Mormon rebellions in Utah, and the portrait of the Weimar Republic-like crisis in the South after the war are all more memorable than his central fronts in the earlier volumes.
It frequently seems as if Turtledove is trying too hard to echo the way things played out in our own timeline—the South's turn to rocketry, for example, is a too-obvious parallel to Germany's development of the V-2. However, the horrific consequences of Featherston's rule are the most ably handled aspect of The Grapple. For all the parallels between Adolf Hitler and Jake Featherston, Turtledove does not simply transplant the Third Reich to Dixie. Featherston's image, rhetoric, and propaganda techniques are for the most part credibly adapted to the American South.
At the same time, Turtledove does not reduce the Freedom Party to a one-dimensional phenomenon. Like other fascist parties, it commands widespread support not only because of its preaching of hatred and revenge but because of its promise of modernity (in the Nazi case exemplified by the German autobahns). For a great many Confederates, the Freedom Party is as much the driver behind rural electrification and the mechanization of Southern agriculture as anything else. Nor is it the case that the "population reduction" the Confederate government inflicts on its citizens at the Auschwitz-like Camp Determination springs fully formed from a single mad person's head. Instead there is an awful downward slide as a violent prejudice is given the full backing of an increasingly authoritarian state. And Turtledove does not downplay the brutalizing effects of the fighting on the belligerents, Northerners as well as Southerners. Far from being morally spotless, U.S. soldiers don't think twice about taking Confederate civilians hostage, raping captured Mormon women in Utah, or dropping chemical weapons on Tennessee. Hiroshima may happen on the North American continent before all is said and done.
This very different version of World War II, which Turtledove's novels built toward during a period of enormous American nostalgia about history's bloodiest conflict, is a powerful reminder not just of what a nightmare it all really was but also of the role contingency plays in history. The horrors that happened "over there" could have happened over here instead, perhaps more easily than most of us realize. Readers unable to accept such a blatant rejection of American exceptionalism will be turned off by that alone, but those willing to consider the idea that things may have turned out another way will find a good deal to think about.
In the end, what appeals most about Turtledove's writing is the strength of his concepts, which more than survive his inconsistent handling of them—and which, no doubt, will make fans disappointed by this entry come back for the next one. The C.S.A.'s defeat may be assured by now, but just what the U.S. victory will mean remains an open question, giving Turtledove's narrative the rare virtue of being as problematic as the actual history it plays off. Will the United States try to occupy and "rehabilitate" the Confederacy in the manner of Germany and Japan? Or will it opt for reunification with the South—which after eighty years and four wars may be an exercise far more difficult than the historical Reconstruction?
Despite the finality implicit in the title of the upcoming In at the Death, another trilogy or tetralogy could be next. Given the complexity of this narrative, it would not do to rush the conclusion, and the idea of a series about the postwar situation is certainly intriguing, all the more so because there is no obvious parallel to our timeline for the next phase (a replay of the cold war being out of the question). If Turtledove can make it work, the result may be the most compelling—and original—part of his series.
Dr. Nader Elhefnawy currently teaches literature at the University of Miami. His articles and reviews have appeared in several publications, including Foundation, the New York Review of Science Fiction, and Tangent Online. He also writes for the alternate history webzine Changing the Times. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.