American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold

The Harry Turtledove alternate history series continues while I work on new stuff.

Raw Feed (2003): American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold, Harry Turtledove,

This book exhibits the usual strengths and weaknesses of what has been termed Turtledove’s “worm’s eye view” of history. Through sheer volume, he fully develops several of his characters and creates a sense of realism about his alternate world.

What this technique often lacks is high drama. We never get long descriptions of important events. For instance, Sam Carsten is present when the war between Japan and the United States break out. But, just as it gets interesting, we cut away and see Colonel Morrell discussing the naval battle with his wife.

Some of the stories seem to continue on the basis of sheer inertia and because they involve characters from earlier books. For instance, not much is revealed about the world by continuing to follow Lucien Galtier in the Republic of Quebec, not even after his wife dies. The same holds mostly true for continuing to follow Nellie Jacobs, her husband, and children — though Turtledove does an effective scene where some Confederate officers visiting Washington DC calmly declare their attention to avenge themselves on the USA. He also has a rather gratuitous scene where Hal Jacobs and his son-in-law fail to make the connection between tobacco and its bad effects. (I say gratuitous because I’ve heard Turtledove say that several people have actually complained about the prevalent use of tobacco in his stories.)

In fact, there are several bits where Turtledove can’t resist winking at his audience and breaking the mood a bit by alluding to our contemporary world: a character thinking climate is just too complex to say that the massive artillery barrages have changed the climate, calling Jake Featherston’s radio network the “wireless web” (perhaps a way of reminding us that the Internet is not the first communication media to change lives drastically), complaints about Congress trying to ban a solvent as dangerous, and, of course, many references to rampant speculation which is entirely consistent with including a version of the Great Depression and preceding stock market crash.

A curious lapse — I suspect an editor’s influence — is that the romantic relationship between Anne Colleton and Clarence Potter is not depicted. The first we hear of it, it’s already over.

As with his Basil Agroyos stories, you can complain that Turtledove too often insists on repeating history. Would a stock market crash really have happened around 1929 if Socialist policies would have been in effect in the USA? Calvin Coolidge conveniently drops dead after being elected, and Herbert Hoover is inaugurated as President Blackford’s successor. (Part of me suspects Blackford comes from Dakota because Turtledove suspects no one knows the history of their senators. He also gets Dakota’s weather a bit wrong in claiming its humid in the summer.) On the other hand, Turtledove is less guilty of that in this book than others. The war in the thirties between Japan and the USA has no analog in our history. He also has no Dust Bowl. It is also interesting to see the USA contemplate war not only with the Confederate States of America but also Kaiser Germany and Japan. (Japan came be a much greater power in this world because, since there was no Spanish-American War, and the US never developed a Pacific empire.) There is also no Panama Canal. Russia has not gone communist, and France and England and the CSA have thriving fascist parties. And, of course, the all too plausible Mormon unrest in Utah continues.

This is a grim book. Jake Featherston long ago ceased to be a sympathetic character, but his rise to power is completed by novel’s end when he is inaugurated CSA president. Anne Colleton, already arrogant and unlikeable, sells her soul to the Freedom Party. Other characters loose our sympathy. Hipolito Rodriguez becomes a Freedom Party thug as does Jefferson Pinkard. We genuinely begin to fear for Scipio’s life and that of Clarence Potter. The former because he’s black in the CSA, and the latter because he has publically opposed the Freedom Party and has even gone so far as to contemplate assassinating Featherston.

Turtledove has some fun with some cameo appearances by disguised and barely disguised historical figures. The vitriolically anti-Semite sergeant who accompanies visiting German officer Heinz Guderian (one of the inventors of the blitzkrieg in our world) on a tour of occupied Canada seems to be Adolf Hitler. Ernest Hemmingway, here rendered impotent by a war wound on the Canadian front, helps Sylvia Enos write her memoirs. Robert Howard seems to be writing for the aviation pulps. Samuel Clemens’ daughter is a reporter, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt is an assistant secretary of war.

The books ends with fascism looming almost everywhere in the midst of a worldwide depression. (Turtledove effectively communicates the desperation of those trying to survive the Depression.) And the hints — and Turtledove’s authorial proclivities — point to Featherston initiating genocide against the CSA’s blacks.


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