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Volume 28, Number 2-3, Winter, Spring, 2009

The United States of Atlantis

By Harry Turtledove

Tor, 2009
Reviewed by Chris Hibbert

Harry Turtledove’s The United States of Atlantis is the second book of his series on a mythical extra continent in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, and how its history progresses parallel to the real North America. The story starts up a decade or two after the close of Opening Atlantis, so the main characters from the end of that book are the focus characters throughout this one. In this book, the British tighten up on taxes and import restrictions until the settlers say ‘enough’ and start a revolution parallel to the American one. Victor Radcliff, who was pursuing a retirement career as a farmer after the previous novel, is chosen by the rebel Atlantean Assembly as their General. He has to recruit and arm an army, manage his political overseers, and run a campaign against a force that is better armed, better trained, has control of the seas, and is far from home. Of course, Radcliff has all the advantage of knowing the territory, protecting his home, and having the support of (most of) the populace.

The focus follows the military action almost exclusively. The campaigns are reasonably realistic and well told, with each side winning their share, but the eventual outcome is predictable, so it’s never a surprise when Radcliff’s setbacks are followed by bigger triumphs. The surprising thing to me was there was no attention paid to the events among the Assembly, which was attempting to form a government. It seems to me that the possibilities for alternate history in the area of politics are far richer in this time of intellectual and political ferment than for alternate military history. As it was, freedom-related themes are mostly subliminal. We know that the characters are fighting for the independence of their home, and they occasionally talk about their feelings for the British Crown, but they don’t talk about liberty, or how to organize or regulate a free society.

Alternate military history, on the other hand, is pretty simple, particularly when the geography and forces aren’t constrained to mimic another battle or campaign closely. It’s an interesting sequence of fights, and the strategems and tactics employed are interesting, but they don’t reflect much on any particular previous war.

This book was nominated for the Prometheus Award, and in a weak year it may win. There are hints that the third book in the series (Liberating Atlantis, released in November, so it could be eligible for 2009 or 2010) might be much stronger. Of the nominees that I’ve read, The Unincorporated Man is the only one that I like more for the Prometheus award.

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