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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Back to Back: Alternate History

Settling Accounts: In At The Death by Harry Turtledove

This is the fourth and final book in the Settling Accounts tetralogy, which is the third and final series in Harry Turtledove’s American Empire series. The entire series is an alternate history tale that chronicles events from World War I through the end of World War II in a world where the Confederate States of America won the Civil War and became a political power on the North American continent.

In At The Death opens with the United States firmly possessing the upper hand over the reeling Confederate armies. However, the Hitler-esque President of the Confederacy, Jake Featherston, has largely succeeded in “reducing the population” of his country’s African-Americans, imprisoned in numerous concentration/death camps (a clear Holocaust parallel). For the most part, the book deals with the race for the atomic bomb (or Superbomb, as the book dubs it) and the aftermath of the war.

I read Turtledove mainly for the plot. His characters, which exist mainly to serve as eyes for the reader on events as they take place, are largely one or two dimensional (with a few exceptions; for the most part, the characters that have been around since book one) and his writing style is simple and repetitive (annoyingly so, in some cases). In many ways, his books read like history books, with token space given to character development. This is fine with me, though, because I read Turtledove mainly for the plot (in fact, if someone wanted to write an alternate history textbook, jettisoning the viewpoint characters and fiction structure entirely, I’d read it).

I want to know what happens next in this alternate world he’s created. No matter how unlikely his deviations may be, it’s interesting to see where they lead, what ripple effects they create, and also, what events stay the same. Despite the differences, in this world, post-war inflation and worldwide economic depression leads to a rise in fascism and while the details are vastly different, there is still a holocaust during the Second World War. It’s that push and pull between what is changed and what is the same that makes reading alternate history fun.

I also enjoy the way Turtledove weaves actual historical characters into the story alongside his fictional ones. George Patton is a general during WWII in the series, but he is the aggressive and headstrong leader of the Confederate armies. Daniel MacArthur is a leading United States general. Also interesting to note are the fictional characters who are clearly analogues to real people, and the sides they are on in this divided world: the Hitler-esque Featherston, the Irwin Rommel-like US tank general Irving Morrell.

In the end, Turtledove is all about plot, and In at the Death was a suitable wrap up to this long, sprawling story. I remain intrigued by this world, and still want to know more. How does the Cold War differ in this world? What does the future hold for the Confederate States? Who will be the post-war presidents? I haven’t heard if Turtledove is planning on playing in this world anymore, but if he does, I’ll be there to find out what happens next, flaws and all.

The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth

If In At The Death is an alternate history text book, then this is an alternate history memoir (the main character even shares his name with the author). Phillip Roth is a Jewish school-age boy growing up during the late thirties and early forties. Through his eyes the reader sees the events of the world around him: the fear of his parents as the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh captures the presidency from FDR, the rage and frustration his cousin experiences at America’s growing friendship with Nazi Germany and its fierce isolationism, the growing family schism as his brother embraces the patriotic zeal of his opportunistic aunt.

This is, of course, a much better book than Turtledove’s. Roth is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of such books as The Human Stain and American Pastoral. This was my first experience with his writing. He has a tendency to start a narrative thread, and then deviate from it before doubling back to his original thread. I’m not sure if that’s indicative of his style as a whole but I enjoyed it.

The focus here is more on character than plot, and the alternate history is more a backdrop for a coming of age story than anything else (but then, ‘coming of age’ is entirely too simplistic a label for what young Phillip goes through). Roth does an excellent job of making the mundane exciting and keeping Phillip’s voice young and enthusiastically naive without becoming annoying and insipid; Phillip doesn’t always understand exactly what’s going on, but we do, and we feel sympathy rather than impatience with his ignorance.

The book’s biggest failing is the ending, which unfolds rapidly, outlining the titular plot and its ramifications by abandoning Phillip’s limited viewpoint and speaking in an omniscience that seems more akin to the author’s notes than the preceding pages. It’s almost as though Roth hit a deadline and handed over the outline for the ending rather than the ending itself. Some critics have called it a Deus Ex Machina, but that term is too over-and misused nowadays; instead it simply seems that there were elements of the story that needed to be told and Roth couldn’t figure out how to tell them using the limited viewpoint he had employed in the novel thus far.

Still, I greatly enjoyed the book. It tells a much more personal and limited story than standard alternate history but the characters and the situations they find themselves in are captivating enough. I am intrigued to further explore Roth’s writing.

1 comment:

  1. Dude, your ending to this post was totally a Deus Ex Machina.


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