The Great War: Walk in Hell

I continue with reviews of Harry Turtledove’s Great War series.

And, as I’ve mentioned before, you can find plenty of information on Turtledove’s works at Steven H. Silver’s Harry Turtledove website.

Raw Feed (1999): The Great War: Walk in Hell, Harry Turtledove, 1999.walk-in-hell

In this alternate history series and Turtledove’s Worldwar series, Turtledove’s narrative technique of giving a worm’s-eye view of events has certain advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, constantly viewing events in these alternate history series from the viewpoint of several characters not only is a copy of the large cast, multiple viewpoint, fast paced style of some bestsellers, but it also means each scene advances plot and, usually, characterization (especially since both series are heavily preoccupied with the changing racial attitudes of their characters). The negative aspect is that we never get epic, omniscient, godlike perspectives of the kind seen in so many disaster novels or in an alternate history like, say, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (my favorite alternate history). Battles for cities and countries are cramped into the limited perspective of this technique; important, epic events are covered in a sentence frequently. For instance, we only find about out about the war between Argentina and Chile in a few sentences. In a previous novel of the series, we got a cramped perspective on the taking of Washington, DC (courtesy of Nellie Semproch). It would be nice, at times, to get the big, epic picture (the closest we come is US General Staff discussions).

This is a middle book in the series and little is resolved. Even the Red Rebellion in the South that began at the end of the previous book isn’t concluded here. Cassius, at novel’s end, is still conducting a last ditch guerilla campaign in the swamps for his Congaree Socialist Republic. The only character from the first novel that dies is Paul Mantarakis. I suspect Turtledove killed him off (after his viewpoint showed us the interesting suppression of the Mormon rebellion – Mormon uprisings being a believable and interesting part of this series) just to prove his characters are always in danger. Oddly enough, he switches to Gordon McSweeney (a fellow platoon member of Mantarakis) as a viewpoint character. McSeeney is a humorless, self-righteous, and rather frightening religious fanatic of the Presbyterian persuasion. (Presbyterians are usually not thought of as radical, and this may be Turtledove’s first use of a stock sf character – the religious fanatic. He usually treats religion matter-of-factly if not sympathetically.)

The other points of interest in the novel are the introduction of tanks (here, Turtledove wryly has them referred to as “barrels”). George Armstrong Custer (along with Theodore Roosevelt, the main historical here though Eugene Debs and Douglas McArthur – who Custer predictably hates – make appearances). Custer predictably and understandably sees them as a new incarnation of cavalry. His attitude has less to do with any prescience on his part and more to do with a desperate nostalgia perhaps not justified by the feeble mechanical abilities and speed of the new weapons. Scipio’s role and flight after the Reds are all but vanquished in the Confederacy was interesting. Turtledove’s depiction of Southern employers, desperate for labor, granting an unofficial, de facto amnesty to Red rebels was probably inspired by South African employers ignoring labor laws under apartheid in order to hire blacks at illegal wages. Eventually, the Confederates take the expedient steps (as they did in the last days of our Civil War) of arming blacks. Flora Hamburger wins a Senate seat. The unpleasant Annie Colleton (my least favorite character) escapes a murder attempt by Cassius and vows vengeance.

The conquered gradually accommodate themselves to the vanquishers as evidenced by Cincinnatus finding a white man who treats him as an equal, and Quebecor Lucien Galtier finds some things to like about the Yankees who occupy his land. Nellie Semphroch’s daughter threatens to marry a Confederate. Arthur McGregor and his family don’t accommodate themselves to the Americans. He becomes a saboteur after they execute his son. Jake Featherston starts to develop a nastier hatred toward blacks and his superiors after he is denied justifiable promotions. Irving Morrell moves higher in the ranks of the US army after successes in Canada. The book ends with the balance seeming to tip towards the US.


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