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How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove
Published by Del Ray Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove is set in an alternate universe where the South won the Civil War and forced the US to recognize the independence of the Confederate States of America. The breakpoint is Robert E. Lee's lost orders, which were wrapped around a couple cigars. In our timeline, they were discovered by a Union scout and recognized for what they were, so that the Union commander got the jump on Lee at a critical moment. In that world, the Confederate courier recovered them and the plans remained safely in Confederate hands.
The novel begins almost twenty years later. Tension is brewing as the CSA plans to purchase two provinces from the Empire of Mexico -- land that will grant them direct access to the Pacific Ocean. The United States has just elected its first Republican president since Abraham Lincoln was voted out of office for losing the War of Succession. Blaine is determined not to let the Confederates have this land, and hostilities quickly escalate to full-scale war.
Most of the major characters -- Jeb Stuart, Sam Clemens, Alfred von Schlieffen, etc -- are individuals who were major figures in our own timeline. It is fascinating to see how events have warped their lives. For instance, Sam Clemens is a newspaperman in San Francisco and apparently never published any novels under the pen name of Mark Twain. Schlieffen is the German military attachˇ in the United States and witnesses first-hand the horrors of industrial-age warfare at the Battle of Louisville (in our timeline, I don't believe he ever visited the New World or really appreciated the strategic and tactical significance of the Civil War). Most memorably, the embittered Abraham Lincoln has come to regard northern capitalism as an evil equal to southern slavery, and has embraced socialism as the hope of the future (however he denies Marxist beliefs of the inevitability of the proletarian revolution and instead believes that proper government intervention can ameleorate the excesses of capitalism and move directly into an equitable solution for worker and capitalist alike). And Teddy Roosevelt goes from gung-ho rancher through military hero to budding politician determined that the United States will not suffer another humilations at the hands of the English or the Rebs, nor will it fall to Lincoln's socialist ideas, which he regards as a trap that will lead to the sort of infighting that external enemies can use to their advantage.
Turtledove handles this novel with his usual thoroughness. In nearly five hundred dense pages, he weaves a world of multiple viewpoints and settings, from Washington DC to Louisville to the Sonora Desert to Montana to San Francisco. He does not pull his punches, but shows the horror of war with unflinching frankness. Spearbearer characters do not simply gasp out heroic statements and neatly plop on the ground. Rather, men lie dying with their guts falling out or their heads half torn off. Fredrick Douglass must give one man the only mercy he can, although his Christian upbringing recoils at deliberate mercy killing. We get to know several minor characters only to see them die on-stage, often unpleasantly.
At the end, as the United States has just been served a second humiliating defeat, we can see the major players lining up for Turtledove's alternate Great War. The United States, formerly aloof but taught the importance of having allies, makes an alliance with Germany. Roosevelt is determined that he shall not lead the United States into another losing war -- a rather obvious set-up for the next book. Schlieffen (an oddly likeable character in all his earnestness) will probably be dead by the beginning of the Great War (in our timeline he died in 1913), but the plans he is creating in this novel will probably be a major factor, and his students like Ludendorff will probably be major players in the Great War of that world as they were in ours. (The ending also explicates the title -- by the time of this novel, very few of the leaders of the War of Succession remain among the living, and the next conflict will be led and fought by younger generations).
The story continues in The Great War: American Front
Click to buy How Few Remain in paperback
Review posted January 30, 1999
Updated April 1, 2001
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