Thursday, February 25, 2010
The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove - an intriguing counterfactual
Greetings all! Need a distraction from reality? Troubled by things that actually took place? No problem. I present to you The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove....the "master" of alternate history.
I have a thing or two to say about the book, but before I do that, I thought I might offer my take on alternate history - or if you rather..."counterfactual" history.
Acording to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First - for the basest of simpletons I suppose - we have the "beer and peanuts" counterfactual. These "what ifs," such as "what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg" generally make their appearance at various "buff" gatherings. Second, we have "counterfactual theory." This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what...ummmm....didn't.
Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite "what ifs" of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know - ever...no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.
Now that that is off my chest - on to Guns. The premise of this book: South African white supremacists travel back in time to supply the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia with AK-47s. Hi-jinx ensue. SPOILER ALERT: The Confederacy wins.
I have to admit that I was drawn in by Guns. Despite that fact that I generally cringe at the thought of counterfactual history, I thought this book was entertaining. Whatever...guilty as charged. I mean really...who would not be captivated by a heated presidential contest between rival factions supporting Nathan Bedford Forrest, the white supremacy candidate, and Robert E. Lee under the banner of...what...abolition??
You heard it right, friends. Old Marse Robert decides that emancipation is the ticket. As the story goes, relations with the South Africans quickly unravel once Lee and others get their hands on a few Civil War history books from the future that would have been. I won't give away what happens next - you'll want to read it for yourself. Let's just say that apart from a few hotheads, the good citizens of the CSA come to their senses regarding the slavery issue.
I have to hand it to Turtledove. Instead of pandering to the - shall we say - extremist contingent of the modern neo-Confederate, he deals candidly with the slavery issue. He writes of the complexities of secession and the Confederate war for independence with the underlying acknowledgment that slavery - in the words of Abraham Lincoln - had "something to do with the war." Indeed, many of the central characters frankly admit that they had fought to maintain the institution.
But...I do see this book as part of an intriguing movement. Since the end of the war, there have been those who have worked tirelessly to distance iconic Confederate heroes from the fight to preserve slavery. Guns, in my estimation, is for the most part a continuation of that effort. Both Robert E. Lee and the main Confederate soldier character (Nate Caudell) change their tunes regarding slavery and begin to think in earnest about equality, the human condition, and inherent rights of all. This characterization undoubtedly pleases modern "heritage not hate" supporters of the Confederacy, who see the war as an effort to secure rights in the face of an oppressive government. These folks generally assume that slavery was already a dying institution in 1860, and would have passed into history on its own. The alternate Lee and Caudell fit perfectly into this scenario - and even accelerate the process.
Whether or not I agree with Turtledove's portrayal of a Confederate victory is of little consequence. You will have to judge for yourself - I will not quibble with counterfactuals because such arguments are ultimately of little value. And after all - this is not a book of history. But it is an entertaining look at a fictional country, and Turtledove uses actual people, places, and events to spin his yarn. I say what the hell - give The Guns of the South a go. I might make you mad, it might make you laugh, and who knows....it might even encourage you to have a look at the history of the Civil War - the real one, that is.