Read for the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club.
One might be deterred by a book with a Confederate shield on the front of it, and rightfully so. But don’t let it dissuade you; this isn’t what it looks like.
This is a well-written and thoroughly enjoyable alternate history in which the South won the American Civil War, which is now referred to as “The War of Southron Independence.” The Confederacy is a rising economic power, while the United States of America is a country in decline, and the protagonist, Hodgins Backmaker, is a country boy with a bookish nature from the destitute USA, where reparations have bankrupted their economy and selling yourself into indentureship is considered a legitimate way to make a living.
But don’t believe a word of this hype in the description:
“Time, moving backwards, and other notional reversals and transpositions attend the picaresque experiences of Hodge Backmaker and the aftermath of a Civil War in which the South was victorious.”
What kind of happy horsesh*t is this? There’s not a thing in this book about time moving backwards or any other such thing! It’s just a well-written alternate history with a dash of time travel at the end. An influential and important book because it’s an early alternate history, written in the 50s, but that’s all. And that ought to be good enough.
Moore shows us a horribly fascist alternate past in which slavery continues, People of Colour are killed wholesale or deported in both the United States and the Confederacy, and technology lags considerably behind the technology of our world. Some things are better: I imagine, since airships replace airplanes, and horse-drawn buggies and locomotives adapted for overland travel replace motor cars, that hydrocarbon pollution is a lot less. Then again, I imagine coal remains in wider use, so who can say?
The protagonist does a lot of not-making decisions when faced with moral choices, and that’s an interesting exploration. The one time he does choose to act, he screws up everything. And that’s also interesting.
My one critique with this book is that I think that once again, this American writer is prone, like most American writers, to overestimating their own importance.
In the absence of a powerful and unified United States, the Spanish possessions in the American continent either fall to the Confederates or remain the property of an autocratic Spanish Empire. I think it’s far more likely that Central and South America would have followed Haiti’s example and overthrown their oppressors, without the big, oppressive, expansionist, unified United States hanging literally over them like the Sword of Damocles.
World War I basically happens, except that it’s called the Emperor’s War. Why would that have changed? The United States was almost entirely insignificant in that war in the first place, and the only reason they entered it at all is because German U-boats started attacking their shipping. I imagine they’d have just attacked the Confederate ships instead, and the Confederates would have entered the War on the side of the Allies. In this book, Moore has the Confederates allying with Germany, and I can’t imagine why they would do that, other than Moore wrote this in the 50s and is used to thinking of Germans as fascists. Well, they weren’t in 1914.
As usual, not one damn bit of attention is paid to what’s going on north of the American border, either; not even when the USA is a struggling, pathetic shell of its former self. Let me tell you what would have happened.
First, Canada wouldn’t exist, because there would have been no need to confederate without a unified American threat. So it would still be an English dominion, with a large French dominion still smack-dab around the Great Lakes. Those dominions would have reasserted sovereignty over the Great Lakes and a considerably more southern border, without America’s “Manifest Destiny” to contend with. Nor would the US have Alaska, because they would not have had the means to purchase it from Russia, and a lot of us Western Canadians would probably be speaking Russian right now.
World War II didn’t happen in this book, and that’s probably legit. Certainly Russia, France and England would be a lot more tense about their possessions in North America, and may not have allied quite so quickly. If it did happen, I imagine that Russia would have been in a better position, so American intervention may not have been necessary. On the other hand, it might have been a different set of belligerents on either side, which might have resulted in Axis victory, what with the Confederacy siding with them (which they almost certainly would have; America only came in on the side of the Allies because of Pearl Harbor, and Hawaii wouldn’t have been part of the US, so that would never have happened – and the US had an immense amount of fascist sympathy as it was!)
The biggest thing is that I don’t think things would have gone as badly for People of Colour. For one thing, there would have been no Missouri Compromise, so black people would not have been entrenched as second-class citizens. For another, many more would have escaped the Confederacy and the US to join the British and French dominions (as many did to join Canada, and they would have had even more motivation to do so.) Slavery was already outlawed in the British Empire by the time the American Civil War broke out. I realize that’s not something Americans give Brits credit for – you all think they’re evil, you can’t help it, you’re taught that as soon as you can read – but I imagine the dominions would have used the pretext of the anti-Chinese and anti-black pogroms described in the book to invade and seize control of all that lovely farmland that’s part of what would have been the remains of the US. So, chances are, the US would simply not exist, and PoC in North America would have done a lot better. Except it’s hard to tell if that would have applied to the First Nations or not.
Maybe I’ll write that novel someday. But at any rate, that’s my big critique, so all in all, an excellent, well-written, enjoyable book that makes you consider the consequences of a single moment of choice; which makes for an excellent science fiction novel.
A note about this edition: this book was cheaply and poorly printed, with font sizes that differed on facing pages, and all kinds of mistakes in punctuation, like leaving out apostrophes entirely in most, but not all, cases. Plus the font is a bit blurry, reminding me of cheap tracts. Get a different edition if you’re going to buy and keep this book.