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American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold by Harry Turtledove

Published by Del Rey Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Center Cannot Hold is the second of a trilogy that ties Turtledove's alternate World War I to the conflict that will follow. In this world the Confederate States of America were able to win the American Civil War and gain their independence, creating a long-term locus of conflict along the Mason-Dixon Line. After the Second Mexican War, an angry United States allied with the German Empire and adopted their military virtues, making themselves strong enough to win the Great War that followed.

But the Great War did not resolve the conflicts of the world, only entrenched them in further bitterness. In the years that have followed, the peoples of the various countries of North America continue to adjust to the new political situation, even as it continues to change. Although some of the broad patterns of history are similar to that of our own timeline, for instance the rapid growth of the US stock market due to speculation and the resulting bubble burst and economic downturn, even they are strangely transformed. There is something eerie about watching committed Socialists, even Socialist ward heelers, boasting about the killings they're making in the stock market, and not wanting to listen to the warnings of a more prudent colleague that what goes up must come down. Thus it is not a Republican but a Socialist who presides over the disaster and is subsequently voted out of office. Even war with Japan takes a different form, with the Japanese actually attacking the US mainland in one desperate long-range carrier bombing raid.

Meanwhile in the Confederacy, Jake Featherstone continues his chillingly Hitleresque career, reassembling his forces after the disaster served them by the assassination of the Confederate President by one of his more fantatical followers. Much like Hitler after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch, Featherstone is careful to emphasize his adherence to proper legal procedure at every point after the ban on his party is lifted, reassuring the planter elite that there will be no further rash acts of violence, that even he, the son of an overseer, can be trusted to behave responsibly, like a gentleman.

Turtledove's treatment of Featherstone is one of the great strengths of this series. It would be very easy, very tempting, to simply rewrite Hitler's rise to power with the names changed to ones typical of the American South, without really stopping to consider what the differences in culture would mean. But Turtledove really grasps the difference between the two societies -- although the Junkers and the Southern planters were landed aristocrats, their cultures arose out of histories sufficiently different that they had different sensibilities and different understandings of their place in the world. Furthermore, the South, unlike Germany under the Weimer Republic, had a long history of republican government and of meaningful representation in their state and federal legislative bodies. As a result, they were not as vulnerable as the Germans to certain forms of blandishments, so Featherstone never uses them.

However, this is still a book about which I feel intensely ambivalent. On one hand, the characters are so real that we want to keep finding out what else happened to them. On the other, the actual storyline is moving at a glacial pace. This entire novel is the third part of one enormous bridge linking the Great War trilogy to a probable World War II-equivalent tetralogy. It feels as though a single quick sum-up volume that should have been at the end of the Great War trilogy and a possible summary at the beginning of the next sub-series have instead been expanded to tell in detail everything that happened between them. . The characters as people keep the pages turning, even if nothing is actually moving forward plotwise -- something that appeals to readers who read to sink into a world more than readers who want a tightly plotted, briskly paced self-contained novel.

Because of these issues, this is not a novel with which to begin one's acquaintence with the Great War alternate timeline. The characters and their problems are compelling only because we have come to know them so well in the Great War trilogy that we want to keep them around and know the rest of what happened to them. However, if you have been enjoying Dr. Turtledove's series -- actually more of a roman fleuve -- all along and want to return to the world he has created, you will enjoy The Center Cannot Hold , even if that enjoyment is sometimes something on the order of watching a train wreck in progress and being unable to take your eyes off it, with your sole consolation being the knowledge that after all it is only fiction and you aren't indulging in Schadenfreude about real people.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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