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The Great War: Walk in Hell
Harry Turtledove
New English Library, 693 pages

The Great War: Walk in Hell
Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1949. In 1977, he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA. In 1979, he published his first two novels, Wereblood and Werenight, under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson which he continued to use until 1985. In 1991, he left the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he worked as a technical writer, to become a full-time writer. He won the Hugo Award for Novella in 1994 for "Down in the Bottomlands" and "Must and Shall" was nominated for both the 1996 Hugo Award for Best Novelette and the 1996 Nebula Award for Best Novelette.

Harry Turtledove Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Darkness Descending
SF Site Review: American Front
SF Site Review: Household Gods with Judith Tarr
SF Site Review: Colonization: Second Contact
SF Site Review: Into the Darkness
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: How Few Remain
SF Site Review: Between the Rivers

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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In The Great War series, of which this is the second volume, Harry Turtledove is producing perhaps the most intelligent and provocative alternate history epic yet seen. A sprawling work, projected to become a tetralogy, The Great War is an exhaustive account of a First World War grown even more monstrous than its factual counterpart. There is a cool precise cruelty to this vision, the perspective of an historian with few sentimental illusions and with a profound understanding of inexorable historical process; this is deeply impressive, a rigorous antidote to the whimsy that so easily infects alternate history. And yet the entire narrative is filtered through the perspectives of ordinary people, so that every catastrophic stage of history's logic is felt, experienced with credible emotional immediacy. By thus mixing intellectual speculation and sympathetic characterization, Turtledove strikes a good balance between argument and story. Like its predecessor, The Great War: American Front (1998), Walk in Hell is engaging and involving even as it insinuates war's utter futile horror.

But the first cause of The Great War's success is the remarkable rigour of its historical extrapolation. A prequel to the tetralogy, How Few Remain (1997), suggests how a small shift in the events of the US Civil War might have allowed the Confederacy to win independence in 1862; but from that contingent detour onwards, every event unfolds with a merciless sustained inevitability. The presence of two Great Powers rather than one in North America would have meant unending rivalry between them, and renewed war in the 1880s as the Confederacy's expansion irked the still powerful Union; and from stalemate in that conflict would have arisen the extension of the European Alliance system to the New World. The Entente powers (Britain, France, and Russia) would have joined forces with the South; the North, feeling aggrieved at being thus surrounded and contained, would have felt kinship with Germany, and would have aligned itself with the Central Powers. 1914 would have brought total war in the Americas as surely as it did in Europe; and to the carnage of the battlefronts of Europe would have been added slaughter in Kentucky, in Maryland, and in Quebec, grinding trench warfare everywhere.

This is a very convincing progression, and its corollaries are intelligently deduced by Turtledove. The Confederacy, in order to placate its allies, makes the politic gesture of freeing the slaves, although this means little change to their subject condition and to the South's racial polarization; and the North, supposedly a more enlightened liberal democracy, becomes stunted and demoralized, prone to imitating Germany's excessive bureaucracy. Turtledove is adept at imparting both the shock of history altered -- all the reader's certainties undermined -- and the uncomfortable sense that his dispiriting tapestry of cause and effect is thoroughly familiar after all, simply a displaced depiction of things that really happened, as trench warfare, massive casualties, and civilian privation indeed did, in Europe from 1914 to 1918. This is a potent effect, rarely accomplished this well; an American writer has truly brought the wars home, with a vengeance.

But as stressed before, Turtledove is careful to ensure that none of this is abstract disquisition. He sets out the broad movements of his Great(er) War slowly, indicating in some detail the effects of battles and political decisions on the mere mortals for whom an edict from high is too easily an incomprehensible disaster. Indeed, the major players -- Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Gabriel Semmes (Confederates) and President Theodore Roosevelt (Union), General George Custer (Union, a Field Marshal Haig substitute), members of the respective General Staffs and political establishments -- are only occasionally seen, and never become viewpoint characters. Instead, it is frontline soldiers and suffering civilians who are foregrounded, people whose vital humanity is aroused, or, too often, oppressed and even extinguished, by the War. Battle scenes are almost always immediate, confused, bloody encounters whose larger meaning is not readily apparent to the participants; and on the home front, wives and families struggle to survive shortages and draconian bureaucratic constriction. The Southern blacks rebel; their plight is dramatically illustrated from various standpoints; and this latter technique, that of recording many opposed angles of vision, is another feature that makes The Great War stand out.

The characters in The Great War are, with a few concessions to the sensibilities of our own period, people of their own time, and Turtledove faithfully records their mutually irreconcilable perceptions. While capable of some measure of idealism, most of them are self-serving, as few could avoid being in their situation. They are almost all instinctively jingoistic and racist, capable perhaps of a slow change in ideological consciousness, but all very much inhabitants of jealously hierarchical militaristic states, indoctrinated and hidebound. They cannot be more than they are, although a few, notably a female Socialist politician in New York, make some effort in that direction. So while his text has a strong human centre, Turtledove's relentless extrapolation from his historical premise proceeds to the level of every individual; they are what their history has made them, and they cannot easily join hands, meaning the War will go on and on.

It is difficult, therefore, to say how The Great War will turn out; the North is making gains by the end of Volume Two, but it is on the side that lost the First World War in our history. While the outcome is awaited, it is sufficient to admire how deftly Turtledove maintains this suspense, how the uncertainties of his protagonists are communicated to the reader, how he tells the story of an actual war in terms that revolutionize it and alter its essence not one whit. It may seem to some readers that this series is not truly science fiction, involving as it does no concessions to outre speculation after its simple tweak to the events of 1862; but this impression is incorrect. Turtledove takes us to another world and plants us with all vividness among its ingeniously contrived unrealities; that those unrealities read like the content of an historical novel is simply testimony to the revelatory skill with which a major SF writer can conflate the actual and the imaginary.

Copyright © 2000 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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