What if? That question pretty much forms the basis for all fiction but is especially relevant in alternative history. I am currently reading a book that caught my eye on the shelves at the Montrose Regional Library, “The Guns of the South” by Harry Turtledove. I had heard of Turtledove before and knew he enjoyed a good reputation and a substantial following, but did not know much more about him.
I am only about a hundred pages into the book, but am enjoying it. I like any book that makes me think, and this book has good characters, with historical figures I am familiar with from reading Jeff Shaara’s books about the Civil War. Robert E. Lee is the main character, but Abe Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, and many other prominent figures of the time are depicted in the story.
The premise is it is late winter 1864 and things look bleak for the South. The North just has too much manpower, overwhelming the Southerners. Then a new weapon appears on the scene for the South. A man from Rivington, North Carolina, a member of a group called America Will Break, has this remarkable new rifle for sale that he calls an AK-47. Though Lee is skeptical, the men from Rivington are able to produce enough AK-47’s to arm the entirety of the Confederate forces and prove to be an overwhelming advantage for the South.
The America Will Break (AWB) men speak with a hard accent, almost Dutch or German sounding, making Lee wonder about their nationality. Lee also wonders about their curious clothing, a mottled patchwork of cloth finer than he has ever seen. They eat desiccated food one adds to boiling water, drink packets of Folgers instant coffee at a time when no one in the South has anything but chicory and burned grain. The fact they are practically giving away the guns makes Lee suspicious they are too good to be true. Why are they supporting the South, he wonders.
The leader of the AWB men comes clean with Lee. His men are from the future, hate blacks and want the South to win to change history. Lee doesn’t want to lean too heavily on them, wants the South to stand on its own, but can’t deny the efficacy of the new guns. I suspect Lee isn’t as amenable to the AWB’s aims as they think. He has already emancipated many of his own slaves, but that is one plot line I’m looking forward to fleshing out as I finish this book. It is fascinating watching characters develop and grow on the page.
I’ve read two similar books in the past year, “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch and “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America” by Albert Brooks. “Dark Matter” is true time travel—a man is kidnapped and replaced in his life by someone else. That’s all I am going to say about it as it really has many plot twists and turns. This truly is one of the few books I didn’t have figured out until perhaps three quarters of the way through. Very unusual for me and very fun as well.
The other book, “2030,” fascinated me. It is extremely inventive and yet strikes one as immensely possible. In the year 2030 all of the resources of the government go to taking care of the “old” through things like Medicare. The U.S. government is broke and young people face enormous bills to pay for the care of the elderly. Middle-aged people are dying for lack of health care, and they and their kids are going bankrupt paying for it. The way this is dealt with is a surprise, but the book does have a “real” feel to it. I recommend it.
Check them out at your library.