Settling Accounts: In at the Death by Harry Turtledove
Reviewed by Nader Elhefnawy
05 October 2007
After ten years and as many volumes, readers of what some fans have taken to calling the Timeline 191 series will no doubt be anxious to lay hands on what the blurb trumpets as "the thunderous conclusion" to "the most ambitious saga of [Turtledove's] long and storied career" and indeed, "one of the greatest sagas ever to portray an America that almost was"—Harry Turtledove's Settling Accounts: In at the Death.
An innovative combination of alternate history's two most common themes (the American Civil War and World War II), the series assumes that the South succeeded in breaking away from the Union. Much as in Ward Moore's classic Bring the Jubilee (1953), the Confederacy afterwards stretches from sea to shining sea, to the chagrin of the embittered, altered North. However, while in Moore's version the Union was prostrate before a dominant South, in Turtledove's the U.S. was still ready and willing to put up a fight, which put the Union and Confederacy on opposite sides of the European balance of power some fifty years later. The South is allied with Britain and France, which, as in many of the historians' counterfactuals about such a scenario, were instrumental to their victory; the North has come together with Wilhelmine Germany to face their common foes.
The result is a replay of the events of 1914-45 with this rather different balance of power, which results in a German-American victory in the Great War, and fascism and revanchism in the states that lost—Britain, France, and above all the Confederacy, where the Hitler-like Jake Featherston perpetrates a Holocaust against Southern Blacks and launches a war of revenge against the North.
In at the Death begins a year after American forces turned the tide at the Battle of Pittsburgh, with General Irving Morrell's troops marching on Atlanta to cut the Confederacy in half in the manner of Sherman's 1864 March to the Sea, while General Douglas MacArthur leads a push on the Confederate capital, Richmond. The South's last hope for victory lies with the wonder weapons that almost let it knock out the bigger, richer North earlier—and most of all, its atomic weapons program.
What follows from there is certainly more engaging than the comparative disappointment of The Grapple, which now appears to have been written because Turtledove had a bit too much for even three packed books, and not quite enough for four really satisfying ones. However, for all its imperfections, In at the Death delivers everything a reader familiar with the series can reasonably hope for, living up to the promise of finality implicit in its name and promised by its dust jacket. On the whole the events developing through the previous ten books play out to their logical conclusion, reflecting one of Turtledove's strengths as a writer of alternate history: his gift for plausible extrapolation, which is rather less common to the genre than it seems at first glance. (Even the most acclaimed of these, like Moore's aforementioned story or Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle , for all their greatness as fiction, tend to be unconvincing as historical speculation.)
This is not to say that readers will necessarily agree with all of Turtledove's extrapolations, any more than they would agree with those of any other professional historian. The late upset in the story seems to have as its main purpose extending what doubt remained over the outcome, and may prove overly familiar to those who have already read the Worldwar series to its end. A fair amount of what happens also seems more like a commentary on recent events than extrapolation from twists in the time line. The Confederate insurgents ("bushwhackers") fighting the occupying Unionists reflect today's Iraq conflict more than they do the American experience in the 1940s.
Perhaps a thornier issue is Turtledove's handling of the South's collective guilt in its Holocaust, which echoes the thesis of Daniel Goldhagen's 1996 book Hitler's Willing Executioners, which caused quite a stir with its assertion that rather than being primarily the work of SS officers and Nazi party members, "an almost universally held . . . 'eliminationist'" anti-Semitism contributed to much wider participation by ordinary Germans in the Final Solution than previously thought, and even wider approval by those who did not participate. While a few white Southerners (like Jerry Dover) helped blacks try to survive, none of the major characters was really an opponent of Featherston, and no Confederate answer to Oskar Schindler emerges by the end. Instead the prevailing sense is that no white Confederate can escape being tainted by what happened in places like Camp Determination.
However, it can be said that whether or not one agrees with Goldhagen's controversial assessment of Germany as a nation during the 1930s and 1940s, shifting that guilt to what is (at least for Turtledove's American readers) a more familiar setting offers a new lens for examining that argument. At the same time, it is clear that while many Northerners are genuinely disgusted by Southern atrocities, they are not totally incapable of such feelings themselves. (In the wake of Mormon suicide bombings, even his most principled Northerners had genocidal thoughts in earlier books—and even wonder similar things about white Confederates.) Additionally, just as Turtledove does not downplay the vileness of Jake Featherston's regime, he also does not downplay the ugliness of what the U.S. does in putting it down. Much as in Sherman's March to the Sea, American soldiers, seeking vengeance for eighty years of bloodshed and in particular the battering the U.S. took when the Confederates invaded, lay waste to the Confederacy as they cross it. That means burning, looting, and killing anyone in their way, unarmed civilians included, one atrocity piling up on top of another, with even the best of them giving in to a conqueror's worst impulses. American generals play the tyrant in fallen Confederate cities, and sympathetic characters are shown participating in war crimes—for which they will never be brought to justice.
Still, it may fairly be said that In at the Death rarely stretches its ideas beyond the limits of possibility (however unseemly some of its possibilities are). It also moves rapidly, which helps to keep its scenes from ever feeling like filler, the way others sometimes did before. Even Doctor Leonard O'Doull's scenes (which for me were the blandest in the book, consisting of just a bit of emergency surgery on an anonymous patient and small talk with his assistant in previous volumes) take on new interest because of the problems his presence inside Confederate territory poses. This concluding volume also offers a better sense of the global picture than previous volumes. Events outside the U.S. actually affect events on the American front, and the final chapter is thoughtful, poignant, and at one point, surprisingly funny.
This is partly because, as with the Worldwar series, the shooting stops early enough to leave ample space to discuss the postwar settlement, and well and truly wrap up many of its threads, though Turtledove wisely refrains from making it all end too neatly. The problems that started the war are too large to be resolved with a single treaty, just as with the wars of our own time line. The world today still lives with the aftereffects of our own World War I (most dramatically in the Middle East and the Balkans), and even the Civil War (as the continuing controversy over displays of the Stars and Bars demonstrates).
This obviates the need for a sequel, but does not close the door to a continuation of the story. What will all this mean for the ramshackle empires of the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, the Romanovs, or for the colonial world, for instance? What will the future hold for the survivors of Featherston's Holocaust? Depending on how much imagination Turtledove can bring to bear on these issues, some of these points may be worth exploring. (Indeed, a look at how the war went outside North America might be intriguing, like a story about Winston Churchill and Oswald Mosley heading a fascist Britain and playing the aggressor in a different World War II. Turtledove has already demonstrated a knack for that type of story: "Uncle Alf" from his 2002 Alternate Generals II anthology, about the career of Adolf Hitler in a time line in which Germany won the First World War, is one of his most entertaining.)
Whatever the case, at this point the time line of this world cannot but diverge increasingly from our own, the replay of the 1914-45 period that began with The Great War: American Front clearly played out. This 1945, arguably as was the case with the 1945 of our own time line, marked the end of the old game, a moment of uncertainty in which different paths were possible, though In at the Death offers surprisingly little feeling of the war as an event with the potential to remake the world. While that feeling often proved illusory and short-lived before, it was there nonetheless.
To some extent, its absence is merely good extrapolation. Unlike Hitler's vision of a thousand-year Reich, Mussolini's dream of a new Roman Empire, or Japan's self-proclaimed mission to "liberate" Asia from Western colonialism, Featherston's ambitions are parochial. He never intends to get the Confederacy "a place in the sun," and his racism, unlike that of the Nazis or Japanese militarists, is of a very unmystical kind. Rather than dark visions of a global race war, his agenda, horrific as it may be, is limited to his territory.
The same goes for the North. Rather than a "great crusade" to liberate other lands from an ideological as well as national enemy bent on world domination, the war with the Confederacy is about defending the homeland and settling a score going back to the 1860s, and remains so even after the revelation of Featherston's Holocaust. Moreover, where in the Second World War American troops fought all over the world, in Europe and North Africa, in Asia and the western Pacific, and on every one of the world's oceans, Americans in this story fight almost exclusively on the North American continent.
Nonetheless, some of the effects one might expect are undeniably muted, particularly in regard to the dawning of the nuclear age. There is no breathing space after the war before thinking begins about yet another war (for ordinary people as well as cynical diplomats), no prospect of really and truly demobilizing its vast conscript forces. There is also no moment when it seems that war has ceased to be an option for humanity.
While long forgotten today, there really was a moment back in the 1940s when such a project was not seen as something for a fuzzy, distant, wished-for future, but an achievable necessity in the here and now. Indeed, even as pragmatic, conservative and libertarian a thinker as Robert Heinlein was ready to consider a global police force at the time, as a recent Space Review article attests.
I can only wonder what to make of the absence of such a moment here. Might it be that this very real moment has come to seem, sixty years later, less plausible than anything Turtledove has written? Edward Wood Jr., in his outstanding 2006 book Worshipping the Myths of World War II, argues that the frittering away of that moment is a major reason why "the greatest generation" was anything but. Here the opportunity that Wood describes as having been frittered away is never recognized as even having existed, and it is debatable whether this is just a realistic reading of reality's limitations, or a final victory of sorts for the myths that Turtledove's bold, ambitious work spent so much time unmaking.