Friday, August 2, 2013

"Stars & Stripes Forever" by Harry Harrison

(cover image from

Stars & Stripes Forever (1998) by Harry Harrison is an alternate history of the Civil War. Now, I'm a big fan of alternate history. (And real history, too. But I have absolutely no interest in historical fiction. Funny, huh?)

But this isn't my usual kind of book, because I'm also a fan of character-based fiction. By that, I mean that I usually want an appealing main character, or characters - people I really care about. That's the hook that usually keeps me reading.

Well, there are a lot of characters in this book, but they're mostly historical figures - Abraham Lincoln, William Tecumseh Sherman, Jefferson Davis, etc.  The few fictional characters generally don't last long - usually dying a few paragraphs after they're introduced.

This is more idea-based fiction than character-based, but the idea is fascinating. In previous decades, we'd already fought two wars against the British Empire, and there was plenty of bad blood between our countries. So Harrison shows how one small change could have caused Great Britain to enter the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy.

In a prologue and an afterword, Harrison explains how this was a very real possibility. I don't know, myself, but he certainly makes it sound plausible. And it's this idea, and how it plays out, that keeps the book interesting. I certainly had no trouble finishing it, despite my normal preference for a main character. (There really isn't a main character. We see this alternate history from multiple points of view.)

I'll tell you right now that Stars & Stripes Forever does not go where I expected it to. One thing Harry Harrison does brilliantly is to show how unexpected events in war can turn everything upside down. If you think you can predict how a war will go, you might want to read this book. Disaster can strike from the slightest of errors.

To my mind, that made an interesting book into a really exceptional one. At the end, the world is a different place - not necessarily better, but certainly different. And you have to wonder about what will happen from there. Several days after I finished Stars & Stripes Forever, I'm still thinking about it.

There was one thing which disappointed me, though. In this war over slavery, slaves - and free black people, too - are almost nonexistent. This is told entirely from a white male point of view - multiple points of view, from all sides, but still entirely white and entirely male.

OK, the characters are important historical figures from America and Great Britain, and the politicians and military leaders at the time were all white and nearly all male. (Queen Victoria is a character, but we don't really see things from her perspective.) Still, that was disappointing.

In an alternate history, I expect historical figures, but also other people who would rise to the new challenges and new opportunities of this history. Well, as I noted, that's my normal preference in alternate history, anyway. That's generally why I like it.

But this is still a very entertaining book. And it's a book which clearly shows the terrors of war - not just the tragedy and horror of a battlefield, but also the roll of the dice which is war. Some things just can't be predicted, not precisely. No nation should go to war without understanding that.

Note: The rest of my book reviews are here.

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