THE LAST FULL MEASURE
by Jack Campbell
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Jack Campbell's The Last Full Measure begins with the trial of Abraham Lincoln for sedition in 1863. A witness to the trial, Joshua Chamberlain, speak up in defense of Lincoln and finds himself sent to work in a labor camp. Campbell's opening scene clearly indicates that his version of the United States is a much darker place than our own after the Constitution was derailed under the presidency of John Adams.
With Lincoln's arrest always in the background, the story follows Chamberlain, a professor from Maine, as the train he is taking to serve out his sentence is attacked by insurgents who want to see the United States restored to a democracy more akin to what the Founding Fathers original envisioned. The raid's purpose was to rescue Lewis Armistead, a convicted army officer and Chamberlain's seat mate. When Armistead vouched for Chamberlain based on their conversation, Chamberlain found himself attached to the group of rebels.
Campbell takes Armistead, Chamberlain, and several other historical figures from the Civil War such as Robert E. Lee, Winfield Hancock, and James Longstreet and mixes them up. There is no clear division of historical Confederates or Federal soldiers fighting for or against the repressive government of Campbell's timeline. This allows Campbell to more fully explore the interpersonal relationships between the soldiers which built up in our own world prior to the outbreak of hostilities. These relationships, along with personal codes of honor, determine which side of the issue Campbell's versions of these men fall on.
Although the insurgents are ready to rise against the government, they realize that they need something to rally for and Lincoln's imprisonment gives them a cause, and the desire to free Lincoln and use his rhetorical skill, easily recognized by Chamberlain, a professor of rhetoric, drives the action of the story, as they must free Lincoln from the clutches of the American government and then get him to Illinois, where he can speak and have a support group.
The plot moves quickly and the characters are likeable, even the ones who have elected to support the legal, if tyrannical, government. Campbell does rely a little too much on coincidences between his version of the timeline and our own timeline, although some of those can be explained away by the accident of geography.
Campbell spends quite a bit of time detailing a dystopian nineteenth century America which appears to be worse, in practically every way, than the America we actually had. Although his novella gives a sense of hope for that world's future, it also provides a great deal of material which could be used to explore this world as it slides into a form of dictatorship and after the grand battle in which Chamberlain takes part in an attempt to reform the world.
At fewer than 100 pages, Campbell is limited in scope, and it fills that scope quite well, even as it implies many more intriguing stories set in its skewed version of the United States, which is the sort of world building which alternate history can do so well.
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