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American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, 608 pages

American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold
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 author. 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: Ruled Britannia
SF Site Review: Colonization: Aftershocks
SF Site Review: Walk in Hell
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 David Soyka

While historians traditionally focus on major trends and events -- the wars, the political debates, emergent religious doctrines, technological advancements -- and the exceptional figures who shape them, one branch of scholarship takes a different approach in examining how these various historical eddies affect the everyday lives of "regular" people. The workers, the soldiers, the families whose lives are dramatically changed or disrupted -- sometimes immediately, sometimes incrementally -- because of the larger social, political and scientific upheavals.

That's the sort of history -- actually alternate history -- Harry Turtledove practices in The Center Cannot Hold, the second book of his American Empire trilogy. In this timeline, the Confederate States have won the American Civil War and a Second Mexican War. But then the United States joined with Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany to defeat their mutual enemies -- the Confederacy and Canada in the Americas, with their supporters England and France in Europe -- in a Great War fought on separate continents. The U.S. has regained the states of Kentucky and Sequyah (Oklahoma), as well as half of Texas, with occupying forces in English-speaking Canada putting down the remaining remnants of terrorist uprising (French Canada has ostensibly become a separate republic, albeit a puppet of the U.S.). Federal troops are also stationed in Utah to defend against Mormon insurrectionists and their outlawed religion.

In a victorious United States at a time of peace and prosperity, the Socialist Party, led by President Upton Sinclair, seeks to pay for social reform programs with cutbacks in the military budget, to the increasing dismay of the professional military. Meanwhile, the Confederacy, unaccustomed to defeat, is licking its wounds. The Freedom Party, headed by former artillery sergeant Jake Featherston, founded on the principles of striking back at the U.S. and punishing those who betrayed the Confederacy -- meaning not only blacks but basically anyone who is not a party adherent -- is gaining increasing influence, both through Featherson's charismatic weekly wireless addresses and the growing numbers of goon squads that successfully intimidate all who oppose them.

When the bottom falls out of the economy following the collapse of the stock market and workers on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line find themselves out of work, major political upheaval results. In the U.S., the Socialists are voted out in favor of the Democrats. More ominously, the Freedom Party scores a resounding victory, taking overwhelming control of state and national governments, with Featherston at the head as President.

If you're starting to think that Featherston might be this alternate history's version of Hitler, you'd be on the right track. And if you weren't sure, the swastika-shaped version of the Confederate Stars and Bars on the book jacket is a not-so-subtle clue.

The larger historical picture serves primarily as the backdrop for what seems like what the movie industry used to call "a cast of thousands." Farmers, foot soldiers, war veterans, political activists, spies, terrorists, freed slaves, fugitives, lawyers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, lovers and foes. People whose otherwise mundane lives are affected by larger events largely beyond their control, though at times they are offered the chance to influence their circumstances rather than just get caught up in them. While actual historical figures do appear from time to time -- Teddy Roosevelt, John Pershing, George Armstrong Custer, Calvin Coolidge, and Ernest Hemingway among others make guest appearances -- their appearances are largely off-stage or incidental (though it's amusing to consider their different fates -- e.g., Custer as an old man, Hemingway emasculated by his war wounds, Pershing an assassin's victim).

The problem with having so many characters is that it is hard at times to keep track of them all. Even the publisher's proofreader has a difficult time, in one section confusing the names of a former slave in the North with that of one in the South. Turtledove seems to recognize this, often providing short little summations of what had happened to the character so you don't have to flip back half-a-dozen chapters to remember what was going on. Of course, if you do remember, this results in some annoying repetition.

On the other hand, the author's commitment to make sure you know what is going on made it easy for me to get into this book without ever having read its precursor, Blood and Iron, or, for that matter, the preceding Great War trilogy, in which presumably at least some of the characters previously appeared. Conceivably, readers familiar with these antecedent volumes might find some of the back story unnecessary.

This is nitpicking, however, as Turtledove succeeds in demonstrating the maxim that "the more things change, the more they stay the same." The settings and particulars might be different, but you still get a good sense of an imperialist America reaping the advances of the industrial revolution and the introduction of mass communications, and with that, the exhilerating confidence in new enterprises only to be followed by the deflating stock market bust that actually occurred in real history. Indeed, it is somewhat chilling to read about U.S. treatment of "enemy aliens" in light of current events in the War on Terrorism. It'd be nice to think, as Turtledove seems to suggest, that America's better inclinations in supporting the rule of law and fair play will win out over our more jingoistic tendencies. At the same time, a military unprepared for an emerging threat also resonates in boding ill will for our immediate future.

The only real major problem with The Center Cannot Hold isn't really its fault so much as it is in the inherent nature of trilogies. As the middle volume, events unfold gradually (maybe too gradually) without really connecting all these characters together in other than intermittent ways, concluding without much in the way of plot resolution. Indeed, there really isn't much plot at all, with the focus more on character building and scene setting. By the end of the book, the Freedom Party has come to power (and revealing this isn't so much a spoiler as an early expectation), and ominous consequences loom. We'll have to wait until Victorious Opposition, due out in August 2003, for the end of the story, though the title does seemingly promise a positive outcome.

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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