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Alternate Generals by Harry Turtledove (editor)

Cover art by Charles Keegan

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

First things first -- ignore the back cover blurb. There's nothing that silly in this anthology edited by one of the leading names in alternate history. Now some of the stories in this volume may be "low probability," but all of them involve changes naturally generated within the timeline rather than external intervention displacing historical figures to other time periods along the lines of Eric Flint's 1632 and its various sequels.

In fact, the very first story, "The Test of Gold" by Lillian Stewart Carl, is the closest to a story of external intervention, with its supernatural elements. But even then the magic of the Celtic gold is rather ambiguous, and may be as much a psychological trick upon the Roman protagonist, making him think he can only tell the truth. But it's still interesting to see a story of how Boudica's battles with the Roman Empire might have turned out differently.

Elizabeth Moon's "Tradition" moves Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock to the Middle East, where he gets to participate in the hunt of the Goeben. Unfortunately, the naval battles of World War I, with the possible exception of Jutland, tend to get short shrift in history courses, so the average reader may not be equipped to really appreciate the consequences of the change.

With "And to the Republic for Which It Stands" Brad Linaweaver plays upon the long tradition by which the Roman Republic can be used as a symbol for the United States. After all, the title would suggest that it will be a story about US history, perhaps the Civil War. But no, this is a story about Caesar, and about a change in the assassination plot. Yet in the end, one man's ambition still brings about his death, although it does leave me wondering how things will play out afterward, and whether Octavian will still end up becoming Princeps and thus the first Emperor of the Roman Empire.

In "The Charge of Lee's Brigade," S. M. Stirling takes a look at what might have happened if Robert E. Lee had been commanding at the Charge of the Light Brigade of which the famous poem was written. However, while the idea is interesting, I don't really feel like he made the background -- in particular, the world in which the Thirteen Colonies never rebelled, upon which the situation depends -- work plausibly. It's the one disappointment to me, but as a historian, I tend to be a rather demanding reader in this department.

"The Craft of War" by Lois Tilton is perhaps one of the most interesting stories in the entire book. In it, she postulates that Sun Tsu, Chinese philosopher and author of The Art of War, was exiled from the Middle Kingdom and as a result came to Persia right at the time Xerxes was attempting to conquer the Greeks. It's particularly interesting because it's in the form of a dialog between Socrates and Alcibiades, and thus our understanding of the change develops slowly as the result of the information they drop in the discussion.

In "Queen of the Amazons," Jody Lynn Nye has Eleanor of Aquitane married to King Louis of France (apparently Louis IX, later canonized, for whom the city of St. Louis on the Mississippi River is named) and following her husband to the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. Her success nets her a curse, but the last line of the story makes me feel like there should be many more stories to be written about her further adventures in that alternate world.

Harry Turtledove includes a story of his own, "The Phantom Tolbukhin," about an alternate Eastern Front of World War II that lasts much longer and becomes far more brutal. I'm not sure exactly where the point of divergences is, but I'm thinking it may have involved some kind of change in the war in the west which resulted in Hitler having fewer resources to throw against the Soviet Union, and ultimately in a bogged-down Eastern Front in which neither he nor Stalin could gain the upper hand. It almost feels like Vietnam, but obviously without the dissent at home that ultimately led to the US getting out of that Southeast Asian country -- a German Jane Fonda would have gotten a knock on the door from the Gestapo and that would've been the end of her. So I'm not sure if that's what Turtledove meant to evoke, since as a Jew, however secular, he would be no friend of the Nazis.

In "An Old Man's Summer," Esther Friesner asks what might have happened had Eisenhower's stroke during his second term as President been more severe, leaving him unable to continue in office. It's a bittersweet story that never actually names Eisenhower, relying upon the reader's knowledge of history to identify him through the names of various associates. As a result, it seems something of an in-joke, and thus could be frustrating to someone who hasn't studied that period.

In "The Last Crusader," Bill Fawcett posits a world in which Napoleon Bonaparte took holy orders in the Catholic clergy and ultimately became a cardinal, putting him in a very different relationship with the French Revolution.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz said that it was God's own providence that the battleships were within the harbor at the time, and not out in the open ocean pursuing the Japanese where it would have been impossible to recover those that sank. However, many historians have wondered how things might have been different if the United States forces in Hawaii had been ready for battle on that fateful day instead of being caught by surprise. In "Billy Mitchell's Overt Act," William Sanders makes a slight change in the career of naval aviation pioneer Billy Mitchell which results in the Japanese getting a bloodied nose for their efforts at catching us by surprise. However, the initial victory has a sting in its tail -- because there is no initial humiliation to heat the blood of the American people, they are less willing to carry the war through on the long haul. As things become increasingly difficult, disenchantment on the home front leads to calls for a negotiated settlement rather than unconditional surrender. However, the specific forms that this disenchantment took seem to me more like a projection of the 1960's and anti-Vietnam protests backwards into the very different culture of the 1940's, which was a much more conformistic culture in which authority was still respected and isolationism tended to operate through accepted channels rather than in counter-cultural defiance.

In "A Hard Day for Mother," William R. Forstchen has Joshua Chamberlain accept a teaching position at VMI, which leads him to decide to throw his lot with the Confederacy rather than fight the brave young men he's taught. As a result, he gives the Confederacy just enough of an edge at a key turning point that it is able to win its independence. However, I found the ending, in which the Union and Confederacy end up settling their differences peaceably a generation later and reunite, to be contrived. Far more plausible to my mind is Harry Turtledove's own multi-volume roman fleuve of generations of bitterness in which first one side and then the other determines revenge, ending in horrific genocide and forcible reunification by a North so thoroughly disgusted as to see the only possibility for peace to lie in the CSA's elimination as a sovereign nation.

The next two stories, David Weber's "The Captain from Kirkbean" and John W. Mina's "Vive L'Amiral," both deal with the great age of naval combat under sail. In the first, the man we know as John Paul Jones remains a British subject rather than abandoning that allegiance for the Continental forces, and as a result of a skirmish with American ships receives wounds that suggest he will become something of a Nelson figure. And in the latter, Nelson himself, frustrated at being beached after his work in the West Indies, seeks employment with the French navy and ends up on the opposite side in the Napoleonic Wars. While I found the former rather amusing, the latter stretched my suspension of disbelief too far. Nelson's patriotism, and particularly his sense of the sovereign as his personal patron, was such a fundamental part of his character that I really cannot believe that he would have switched sides out of mere frustration at a lack of work. Had he been falsely accused of a crime he did not commit and then drummed out of the navy in a clearly rigged court martial, I could believe him abandoning his country in disgust, but only barely.

In "Bloodstained Ground," Brian Thomsen posits a slightly different outcome of the Battle of Little Big Horn leading to a very different world a few decades later. However, I'm somewhat uncertain as to just why Custer's survival should lead to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being a disastrous flop rather than a success and Sam Clemens turning into a drunken has-ben.

In "Vati," R. M. Meluch gives us a world in which someone talks a little sense into Hitler and he agrees to push the Me-262 as a fighter in time to prevent the D-Day invasion. However, that bit of sense goes only so far, and Hitler being the sort to always go for double or nothing, he doesn't capitalize upon the success by negotiating a peace with the Western Allies in order to concentrate on beating Stalin in the east. Instead, he insists on winning a complete victory, and the end of the story suggests that he has succeeded only in prolonging his ultimate defeat. There is a suggestion that the Luftwaffe officer who got the Me-262 program pushed through may end up becoming a leader in a plot to oust Hitler, rather like the Valkerie plot in our own timeline, but the ending is somewhat ambiguous.

Overall, it's a good set of stories, although some of them are more rigorous than others. But there are no real duds, although some of them dealt with subjects sufficiently obscure and distant from my areas of expertise that I really wasn't equipped to pass judgment upon them.

Table of Contents

  • "The Test of Gold" by Lillian Stewart Carl
  • "Tradition" by Elizabeth Moon
  • "And to the Republic for Which It Stands" by Brad Linaweaver
  • "The Charge of Lee's Brigade" by S.M. Stirling
  • "The Craft of War" by Lois Tilton
  • "Queen of the Amazons" by Jody Lynn Nye
  • "The Phantom Tolbukhin" by Harry Turtledove
  • "An Old Man's Summer" by Esther Friesner
  • "The Last Crusader" by Bill Fawcett
  • "Billy Mitchell's Overt Act" by William Sanders
  • "A Case for Justice" by Janet Berliner
  • "A Hard Day for Mother" by William R. Forstchen
  • "The Captain from Kirkbean" by David Weber
  • "Vive l'Amiral" by John Mina
  • "Bloodstained Ground" by Brian M. Thomsen
  • "Vati" by R.M. Meluch

Review posted March 8, 2009

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