Stars and Stripes in Peril by Harry Harrison

Hodder & Stoughton, 2000, 330pp, £16.99
reviewed in Vector 212, July-August 2000

What is the point of alternative history? Surely it is to examine how things might have turned out otherwise, to see what might be different and, just as importantly, what might be the same. This lays certain demands upon an author: reasonable historical knowledge, truthfulness in portraying the genuine historical characters who appear in the fiction, a rational development from the point of change. Logic demands that no historical event that happened after the moment of change should be known to the participants in the novel; common sense demands that anything which did or did not work in the real historical period should not suddenly change its nature for the sake of fiction.

Harry Harrison, in the second volume of his ‘Stars and Stripes’ series (and, worryingly, this volume does speak of it as a ‘series’, the first volume called it merely a ‘trilogy’), blithely ignores every one of those demands. Let’s see, in the first volume the ‘Trent’ incident of November and December 1861 was not resolved and the USA, right at the start of its Civil War, found itself also at war with Britain. But the British military response was ludicrously bungled and at the mid-point of the battle of Shiloh, April 1862, Union and Confederate forces combined to defeat the British invader. From that moment the Civil War was effectively over, and within months, so the first volume told us, the country was re-united under Lincoln, Sherman was appointed to overall command of both armies, and the British were soundly beaten.

This new volume begins with the British building a road across Mexico, which can be used to unite Pacific and Atlantic forces for a renewed invasion of America. Curiously, the incompetent British of the first volume are suddenly super-competent, setting up their defences so that they are invulnerable to army, navy or guerilla attack. The American response: to set up an intelligence operation that is probably beyond what America would have been capable of even as late as the First World War; to employ technological innovations such as the Gatling gun (in reality the Gatling gun of the time was more dangerous to its users than to anyone else and so was never used during the Civil War, but in Harrison’s universe every American innovation works perfectly first time), and to launch an invasion of Ireland.

Yes, invade Ireland! Despite the fact that the First World War, over fifty years later, showed how inadequate the American navy was for transporting large forces across the Atlantic, three full armies are landed in Ireland in complete secrecy. They are commanded by Generals Sherman and Lee, who spend a lot of time congratulating each other on their Civil War prowess, despite the fact that by the time this Civil War ended Lee had not commanded an army and Sherman is being praised for exploits which wouldn’t happen until after the supposed date of these events. And within days they have achieved what is, by the standards of the time, a bloodless victory, at one swoop uniting Ireland in a way that, given the centuries of violence and the current efforts to achieve peace, is nothing sort of an insult.

Harrison’s grasp of the events, characters and possibilities of the early 1860s is virtually non-existent, so let us just accept this as an out-and-out fantasy. Alas, even as a no-brain action adventure novel this book fails. The action scenes are passed over in a few bloodless paragraphs that convey no tension, no thrill of involvement, no colour of drama; talk, on the other hand, drags on for page after page, yet not one single character knows how to hold a discussion. No-one opens their mouth except to deliver a lecture, often of the most mind-numbingly dull kind.

Why do we read alternative histories? There are hundreds, thousands of reasons – but not one of them applies to this woeful effort.