Friday, 23 July 2010

The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove

Four weeks ago I reviewed A Rebel in Time by Harry Harrison, concerning an attempt by a racist American to travel back in time to give the plans for the Sten sub-machine gun to the Confederate side of the American Civil War in the hope of changing the outcome. The Guns of the South has the same basic idea but the way it is handled is entirely different.

The first half of Harrison's book is a mystery story set in the present day, with almost all of the rest in the 1850s before the war starts; only the final wrapping-up chapter is set late in the war. In contrast, Turtledove starts his story in 1864 when the war is going badly for the Confederates and the timeline continues from that point. There are other important differences, the most obvious being that Turtledove's time-travellers are an organised group of Afrikaner racial supremacists, and that they do not bother with 1860s production of modern guns and ammunition (with the attendant difficulties I pointed out in my review of Harrison's book) but simply transport large quantities of both back in time.

The action commences with the arrival in the weary Confederate camp of a mysterious soldier carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, which he proceeds to demonstrate to the considerable astonishment of the soldiers. He promises delivery of a hundred thousand such weapons and ammunition to match, and begins to supply them. The effect on the next few battles is predictably dramatic, and the Confederates storm Washington and capture Abraham Lincoln, winning the war. This happens well before the half-way point of the novel; the rest of the story is concerned with the aftermath, particularly the political debates over the nature of the Confederacy and the influence of the Afrikaners.

Throughout the story, the viewpoint alternates between two principal characters; a sergeant in the Confederate Army, Nate Caudell, and the Confederate General Robert E Lee. This works well, as it enables the author to portray the grand strategy and political infighting plus the effects of this on the lives of ordinary people. However, the Afrikaners are little more than caricatures and we are told nothing about the circumstances which led to their intervention, other than that they stole a time machine in 2014.

The depth of the research into the Civil War period is impressive, with a lot of detail not just about the war but about the way people lived. The institution of slavery and its effects are thoroughly portrayed. I understand that many Civil War enthusiasts love this book, and I can see why. However, I sometimes had the impression that the author was more concerned with displaying his knowledge than with getting on with the story. There are frequent long conversations which do nothing to advance the plot, but just round out the characters and fill in more and more details about life in that period. With the exception of the battle scenes this is a slow read, although it does speed up towards the end.

Turtledove is much more of a military history and technology buff than Harrison and it shows. He goes into great detail about the handling and maintenance of the AK rifle and also discusses in depth the problem of manufacturing ammunition for it in the 1860s, specifically the formation of the cartridge cases and the chemistry of the propellant. I do have one small quibble in that he refers to the "proper name" of the time-travelling gun being the AK-47. It should actually be AK or AKM, depending on the model, but for some reason the West commonly refers to both by the designation which the Russians only used for the prototypes.

I have previously read only one Turtledove work, the Worldwar tetrology, about WW2 being interrupted by invading aliens. I thought this was OK but not good enough for me to keep the books for a re-read, probably because the story became bogged down in detail and was too repetitive; it dragged on for far too long. I can see some of the same characteristics in The Guns of the South, although to a lesser extent.

The contrast with Harrison's A Rebel in Time could hardly be more striking considering how similar are the basic premises. Harrison's story is a fast-moving adventure mystery, focused primarily on one present-day individual, with only a brief account of the beginning of the war and virtually nothing about the rest. It's a much faster read, in both senses (it's only about half the length), and much more likely to appeal to the average, non-specialist reader.

To sum up, The Guns of the South is an interestingly different book, very thoroughly researched and worth reading, but probably not worth re-reading unless you're a student of the period.

3 comments:

WCG said...

I've enjoyed some of Turtledove's work (The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, for example, is lots of fun), though he's not one of my favorite authors. And I like alternate history.

But this series just sounds too depressing to me. I want alternate history that ends up better that our real history, or at least not so much worse. Well, I tend to want optimistic fiction anyway, these days.

Anthony G Williams said...

Actually it isn't as depressing as the story-line might suggest, Bill. As a result of their war experience, the Confederates become a lot less racist than the Afrikaners expected and a law is passed to phase out slavery over a period of time.

Omphalos said...

I liked this story a great deal when I was a kid, but I recently tried to reread it and found the characters (especially the time travelers) flat, and the story to be way to linear for my tastes. I wish Turtledove was a better writer, because he is aces when it comes to twisted historical ideas.