The Guns of the South, Harry Turtledove

Del Rey, 1992 (1997 reprint), 517 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 0-345-41366-0

I have traditionally been wary of associating alternate histories with Science-Fiction, perhaps because so much of it tends to be anecdotal, based on whether a bullet went “zang” instead of “zing”. Alternate histories -or at least in the usual anthologies- is usually far more akin to political history (Alternate Presidents) or obvious exercises in either obvious hand-wringing (“Hitler wins war!”) or wish-fulfillment (“Hey! Gandhi with a bazooka!”).

Nevertheless, there is a good argument for alternate-histories-as- science-fiction. For one thing, it’s a mode of historical literature based on the real definition of Speculative-Fiction (“What if?”) For another, a good author can use alternate history as a mean to explore technological changes on a society, which places us squarely back into SF.

The Guns of the South is the first book I’ve seen that has “Alternate History” as category on its spine. It’s also one of the finest examples of science-fiction that I’ve read recently, and this for two factors:

The first is the obvious usage of an SF device as inherent to the plot. The novel begins in January 1864, during the American Civil War. Things are not rosy for the Confederate forces; the Yankees are able to out-produce them and General Lee is aware of the precarious state of his forces. But a tall man with a strange accent arrives in camp to show a new weapon. He calls it an AK-47.

This, of course, is a time-traveler. He says he’s willing to furnish the South with as many weapons as they may want, for a quasi-ridiculous price. It doesn’t take long for the Confederates to accept the offer and equip their men with these fancy new “repeaters”. The rest is alternate history. Able to literally outgun the North, the Confederate smash into Washington and force a peace on their terms. Barely 150 pages in the novel, we see the beginning of the new C.S.A.

What follows is a difficult peace for both our protagonists: General Lee at the top of the changes, and a schoolteacher name Nate Caudell as the smarter-than-average citizen’s viewpoint.

The second element that brings me to associate The Guns of the South to science-fiction is the novel’s examination of technological change on society. The men from the future simply want the South to win for racist reasons. But by introducing themselves and their technologies in the 1860s, they themselves have an effect on the affairs of the C.S.A. Soon, Lee himself begins to disagree with his benefactors…

The Guns of the South gains most of its point, not through its meticulous research, but from the ease with which it can be read. As a French-Canadian, I consider myself as being as ill-informed about the Civil War as it is possible to be; yet, Turtledove does a splendid job to produce a perfectly entertaining novel. Good characters and a fast-moving narrative aren’t the least of the novel’s virtues.

I do have an objection to make, though, in that we never learn quite enough about the time traveler’s means in their original time period. As so-called SF, The Guns of the South is more complacent in using time-traveling as an easy justification than a seriously thought-out device (otherwise, the time-travelers could have simply killed Lincoln, Grant and nuked Washington to ensure easy victory without the fuss.)

But these quibbles are irrelevant when considered against the goal of Turtledove’s effort. There are many adjectives to use when praising The Guns of the South, but “fascinating” seems like a good one to end with. With this novel, Harry Turtledove has fashioned a little classic of the sub-genre. It’s a book that holds the interest by its erudition, but also by virtue of action, readability and intellectual interest. And a happy ending. Great stuff.

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