by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In The United States of Atlantis, Harry Turtledove recreated the American revolution in his island-continent, recasting the role of George Washington in the person of Victor Radcliff, one of the descendents of Atlantis’ founder, Edward Radcliffe. In the follow-up novel, Liberating Atlantis, Turtledove explores the freeing of black and Indian slaves from Atlantis’ southern states. However, rather than follow the American Civil War, Turtledove creates a slave insurrection.
During the course of the war against the British, Victor Radcliff sired a bastard son on a slave, a relatively minor event, although it had repercussions in Radcliff’s domestic life. Now, decades later, that son’s son, the house slave Frederick Radcliff, finds himself sent into the fields after a mishap during a party. Resentment and circumstances result in an uprising that Frederick finds himself leading.
On the other side of the revolt are the slave owners and the government of Atlantis. Here again, Turtledove has broken firmly with the American model, for Atlantis’ Senate is headed by two Consuls, Newton and Jeremiah Stafford, both of whom have veto power over the other, and neither of whom like each other. Stafford hails from the slave-holding South and Newton from the free North, which not only affects their politics, but their entire outlook on life. When Newton finally agrees to use federal force against the rebels, the two men find themselves in the field against Radcliff’s burgeoning revolt.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the work is Stafford, into whose mouth Turtledove places many of the arguments used by slave-holding Americans in the years leading up to the Civil War. It isn’t that Stafford is made into a sympathetic character, although he is shown in a sympathetic light, but that he is depicted as an earnest character. As he frequently points out to Newton, he holds his beliefs as firmly as Newton holds his abolitionist beliefs and simply can’t understand the opposing viewpoint, just as Newton can’t understand Stafford’s.
Despite the difference between Atlantis and the United States of America, many of difficulties facing Turtledove’s world were similar to those facing the US at the onset of the Civil War, although that is also in part because of the focus Turtledove has selected for the novel. Turtledove does an excellent job of presenting those difficulties, given a fair shake to all sides while being able to assume certain sympathies from his modern readers.
While much of the novel is set during the campaign, switching between Radcliff’s, Newton’s, and Stafford’s points of view, Turtledove also spends a considerable amount of time examining the aftermath of the revolt and its potential impact on Atlantis society, both north and south of the River Stour. This examination is all set in the immediate aftermath of the war, leaving Turtledove an opportunity to follow-up with Atlantis’ history and show it diverging even more from the history of our own world.Liberating Atlantis is the final announced novel in this series, along with the two short stories which preceded Opening Atlantis, but Turtledove has created a vibrant alternate world which offers many opportunities for further exploration, both in Atlantis’ future and past, and on the mysterious continent of Terranova, which forms the bulk of what is known as North America in our own world.
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