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How Few Remain
Harry Turtledove
Del Rey Books, 480 pages

How Few Remain
Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove was born in Los Angeles, California in 1949. He attended UCLA where he received a Ph.D. in Byzantine history in 1977. In 1979, he published his first two novels, Wereblood and Werenight under the pseudonym Eric G. Iverson and continued to use it until 1985. In 1991, he left the Los Angeles County Office of Education, where he worked as a technical writer, and became 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
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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alexander von Thorn

George Custer and Teddy Roosevelt fighting the British in Montana. Abraham Lincoln preaching socialism in Chicago. Samuel Clemens arrested for sedition. Trench warfare on the Ohio River. All this and more appears in Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain.

Turtledove is one of the acknowledged masters of the alternate history sub-genre, and this is his second novel about the conflict between North and South (although it is not a sequel to The Guns of the South). The author writes with Clancyesque detail about places that never quite existed. The prelude establishes the premise by which the Confederacy could have won the "War of Secession" by changing the outcome of the second battle of Bull Run. The second war between the States is prompted by a Confederate purchase of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora, and a Union ultimatum threatening war.

The strength of this story, however, is not so much in the events as in the way the characters deal with the situations they face. All the characters are strongly drawn, but some stand out: Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson directs the defense of the Confederacy from Richmond and at the front line; Custer is portrayed as a man of valor and charm, a great soldier if not a great strategist; Jeb Stuart and Geronimo form an interesting alliance against the Yankees in New Mexico; Alfred von Schlieffen is a German military attaché offering insightful and sympathetic analysis of the North's battle plans while taking notes to plan the next European war. But the most striking depiction is of Abraham Lincoln, eerily plausible as a soft-spoken Marxist. Lincoln has been disgraced from polite circles because of his failure in the past war, but he gets a warm hearing from the workers and common people.

The author writes from an omniscient perspective, which suits the 19th-century setting. This also allows him to show the perceptions and motivations of a broad range of characters. Nevertheless, the book is less successful when it pulls away from the small scale to the broader sweep of history. History is the intersection of storytelling and statistics, and the author favors characterization over sound strategic analysis. One side of this war is criticized for driving straight into battle with no consideration or finesse -- the metaphor of a locomotive is used more than once. Yet the book's overall plot does exactly that, drawing a straight line to an inevitable conclusion, with no twists or turns to add dramatic tension. The outcome becomes obvious by around page 200, and the resolution is somewhat anticlimactic.

Alternate history runs the risk of sliding into propaganda, suggesting that an outcome which could have happened is one which should have. This book has a whiff of that. It is a warning sign when the author puts in a closing note to justify the story. But Turtledove has researched the case thoroughly and argues it well. Even though this reviewer disagrees with the author's conclusions, the book succeeds simply by making the reader think about the issues raised. One could argue these points for hours, as people have done since the Civil War was a matter of political rather than historical debate.

Just as science fiction is about what might be, alternate history is about what might have been. The reader is left considering not only the plot shown, but other possibilities, and stories that might follow after. There's a lot of information here that Turtledove folds easily into the story as dialogue and action with almost no dull exposition. This story bursts forth from the first page and pushes ahead with the force of a speeding train. How Few Remain is a compelling and entertaining story and a thoughtful study of some of the core issues of American history.

Copyright © 1998 by Alexander von Thorn

Alexander von Thorn works two jobs, at The Worldhouse (Toronto's oldest game store) and in the network control centre of UUNET Canada. In his spare time, he is active in several fan and community organizations, including the Toronto in 2003 Worldcon bid. He is also a game designer, novelist-in-training (with the Ink*Specs, the Downsview speculative fiction writing circle), feeder of one dog and two cats, and avid watcher of bad television. He rarely sleeps.

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