Sunday, August 31, 2008

In At the Death

And so Harry Turtledove's great American counterfactual history epic ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. I finished reading In At the Death and this book really drove home why Turtledove is both the best at counterfactual history stories and why he needs to scale it back a little.

For those of you unfamiliar with Turtledove's work, he specializes in counterfactual tales. That means that he rewrites history and then runs out the new timeline to its obvious (or not so obvious) conclusion.

In this case, Turtledove started about a dozen books ago with an intriguing (if overdone) premise: what if the Confederate States of America won the Civil War? How would the North American continent develop if it contained two countries, both of which calling themselves Americans? Turtledove then asked an even more interesting question: what if, in World War I, the North sided with the Germans and the South sided with England and France?

That series led into another, where the South finds themselves on the losing side and beaten pretty badly. As a result, a die-hard racist named Jake Featherstone ascends to power at the head of a political body known as the Freedom Party. Jake blames both the U.S. and the African American population for the C.S.A.'s defeat and he aims to make them both pay. The parallels to Hitler and the Nazis are very obvious.

In At the Death is the conclusion of Turtledove's alternate history of World War II. The Confederates are on the run after failing to cut the U.S. in half. The U.S. has discovered the C.S.A's concentration camps. Both sides are struggling to perfect a new type of weapon called "the uranium bomb." Whoever gets there first might just have a leg up and could win the war. But who will it be?

Sounds like a lot of fun, right? Sadly, Turtledove collapses in the telling.

For starters, we have the sheer bulk of characters. While Turtledove didn't exactly develop a cast of hundreds for his story, he came pretty close. There are so many people to keep track of that oftentimes, I didn't have a clue who I was reading about. Not at first, anyway. And since there are so many of them, you had to get used to Turtledove's pattern. He'd spend three or four pages on a character, describing what they're going through, before jumping to someone else. You'd have to wait three or four very long chapters before he'd come back to that character.

What also makes this frustrating is that the characters sound very much alike. Sure, there are some differences. Jefferson Pinkard has a distinct way of talking, one that sets him apart from a guy named Clarence Potter. The African American characters have their own dialect. But the characters aren't that distinct from each other. Sure, they have different backgrounds, but so what? There are simply too many of them.

Not only that, but Turtledove's writing got repetitious on more than on occasion. For example, two characters are put on trial for war crimes toward the end of the book. Turtledove starts out both accounts with the accused calling it a "kangaroo court." Same phrase for both characters. That may seem minor, but that's only one example out of many.

And finally, as things wound down, Turtledove had to abandon some plotlines. In the previous books, the U.S.A. has had to deal with Mormon terrorists in Utah and a rebellious Canada. Yet there's little to no mention of these major plots in this, the final book. It's almost as if we're expected to believe that these two troublemaking areas finally settled down.

Does this mean that I wouldn't come back if Turtledove wrote another book? No, I'm not saying that at all. He's still excellent at what he does, and he left enough questions unanswered that I'd be interesting to see what his version of post-World War II America would look like. I'll just have to take better notes, I guess.

1 comment:

nissa_amas_katoj said...

Very good review. I'm a big fan of Turtledove's, but yes, he does get a bit repetitious at times. In addition, he tends to have a euthanasia scene in most books--- someone gets shot and screams 'kill me boys, kill me!' and someone does, and no one ever wonders if they are doing the right thing.

I do like Turtledove's portrayal of Yiddish-speaking Jewish people though. Well worth going through some of the more tedious repetition to get to it.