Review of THE UNITED STATES OF ATLANTIS by Harry Turtledove (see his website)
Roc, December 2008
With England desperate to recoup the costs of its recent wars, it imposes trade taxes and restrictions on its colonies in Atlantis. The locals object and their objections explode into conflict when the redcoats attempt to disarm a local militia.
England is the greatest power in the world and the colonies lack anything resembling an army. The council guiding Atlantis (a minicontinent between Europe and America) calls on Victor Radcliff, highest ranking colonial from the previous war against the French, to general its forces. Radcliff wants nothing more than to stay home on his farm but his duty calls. He and his assistant, escaped slave Blaise, do what they can to create an army from short-term volunteers--then turn them loose on the world's greatest fighting machine.
Author Harry Turtledove (see more BooksForABuck.com reviews of novels by Turtledove) writes two distinct types of alternate history--stories where something went distinctly differently from our own history, changing everything (e.g., Lee's plans for Gettysburg were never lost and the south wins the civil war) and stories where the actual events of our own history are replayed in a fantasy world (Turtledove has written stories of the civil war and World War II in worlds with mages and dragons). THE UNITED STATES OF ATLANTIS is of the second type. Victor Radcliff plays George Washington, balancing the demands of the founding fathers with those of his troops--and his own very human needs.
Unlike the George Washington of our own history, Victor Radcliff is not a slave owner and does not really favor the practice of slavery. He's also not dogmatically opposed to it and certainly doesn't want to risk the fate of the revolution he's leading on efforts to emancipate the slaves. Blaise has other priorities. Radcliff's sensitivities to the issue of slavery are highlighted when he impregnates a slave woman--and learns that he has fathered a son.
Of the two types of alternate history Turtledove writes, I prefer the first. For me, it's fascinating to consider how small changes in reality could have led to massively different consequences. Still, Turtledove manages to make his retellings of our own history interesting and exciting. While every American school child knows that Washington and Lafayette trapped Cornwallis in Yorktown, fewer will know all of the details of battle leading to this victory (and many choose to forget the critical role the French played in ensuring American independence).
In many ways, the issue of slavery is a defining one for America--and Turtledove makes sure we know this is the case in Atlantis as well. The Declaration of Independence nearly broke down over Jefferson's harsh words against slavery (which were eventually deleted from the ratified document). The American Civil War can be seen as the second phase of our nation's attempt to define itself as a land of freedom. Yet, although slavery was a horrible injustice, it was not the central issue in the American Revolution and Turtledove's story reflects the mixed role, and the willful blindness even good men created for themselves when faced with this national disgrace.
THE UNITED STATES OF ATLANTIS is an enjoyable retelling of American history that should help make it approachable to those who are bored by standard accounts, or simply want to see the American Revolution through a different lens--with some of the names changes to allow us to escape some of the emotional baggage associated with Washington, Franklin, and the others.
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