THE UNITED STATES OF ATLANTIS
by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Following the episodic novel Opening Atlantis, Harry Turtledove focuses The United States of Atlantis on a single protagonist for the entire length of the novel. The hero of this reimagined version of the American Revolutionary War is Victor Radcliff, the hero of the Anglo-French war in the “Nouveau Redon” section of the previous book.
Although cast in the George Washington role, Radcliff is not George Washington with a different name. While The Europeans who fight the war in Atlantis, from Baron von Steuben to William Howe, tend to hew closely to their real world models, the Atlanteans are generally based on Americans, but not too closely. Therefore, the Benjamin Franklin analog, Curtis Cawthorne, isn’t exactly like Franklin, and many of the American Founding Fathers are missing entirely.
While many alternate histories focus on the idea of a pivotal individual, the Great Man, by replacing George Washington with Victor Radcliff, and at the same time including the historical figures from France, Germany, and Britain, Turtledove points out that the larger trends of history dictate as much, and even more, to the course of history than any individual, who can only influence events to a certain extent. Radcliff ruminates on this idea when he considers that if anything were to happen to him, his position would be taken by someone else who probably thinks he could do a better job of running the war than Radcliff.
In many ways, The United States of Atlantis does not fully take advantage of its length. Turtledove presents a detailed depiction of Radcliff’s military campaign against the English. Throughout, Radcliff is the focal character, and although there are a handful of other characters who feature heavily in the book, from Radcliff’s friend the escaped slave Blaise to his former companion Charles Cornwallis, few of the characters are permitted to take the spotlight off of Radcliff. Given the length of the novel, Turtledove could have looked more closely at the non-military aspects of his society, something he normally accomplishes by using multiple viewpoint characters.
Although the focus is on Radcliff and his men, there is definitely a feeling that some things are happening outside the view of the reader, whether it is the activities of Curtis Cawthorne in Paris, the actions of the Atlantean Assembly in Honker's Mill, or the activities of the copperfaces in Terranova. However, those actions are generally distant and only come into focus when they impinge on Radcliff's immediate world.While the novel mirrors the American Revolution, it doesn’t do so slavishly. One major differences is that it seems that English and Atlanteans each only have one army in the field, partly because the English need a separate force to handle Terranova, where Radcliff has sent Thomas Paine in an attempt to foment a revolution. Similarly, the geographic layout of Atlantis is different from Colonial America, allowing the British to use their navy to get behind Radcliff's force.
By recreating and reimagining the American Revolution, Turtledove has set up the final novel in the trilogy, presumably about the labor pains of getting the new nation started, however, given the mosaic nature of Opening Atlantis and the two short stories set in this continent, Turtledove may well surprise his readers by jumping ahead. It is to be hoped that, despite the similar problems facing the nascent Atlantean nation and the United States, Turtledove will allow his world to address those problems in a manner different than they played out in our own world.
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