Time travel as a genre fiction concept is not new. There is “The Time Machine” by Wells, like the rest of his books, a venerable classics almost unreadable for modern audience (at least that’s my firm opinion, and I’ve read a few). Dr Who, a great tv series – with dozens of tie-in books – is based around time travel, and a new season is starting. And not long ago a short gem of a book was reviewed here. But I’m not going to write a history of a subgenre. My limited goal is to talk about a few specific examples of easy reads featuring time travel. As it will soon become clear – not pillars of the subgenre, but something from the guilty pleasure section of my library. Shelf with guns and simplistic political ideas, not the one to the rigth, with early Laurell K. Hamilton novels 😉
Harry Turtledove, The Guns of the South (1992)
Turtledove is the biggest name on today’s list, a writer with Ph.D. in Byzantine history and crazy imagination. In his novels Roman legions are relocated to fantasy worlds or Alien invasions interrupt world wars. “After the Downfall”, a book I’ve read recently, tells a story of a Wehrmacht officer teleported to a fantasy world, where he learns tolerance and compassion (while leading armies of “inferior” race in their struggle for freedom). His most famous stand-alone novel is “The Guns of the South”. On the cover – general Robert E. Lee with AK-47 rifle. That’s it. How? Well, a bunch of South African white supremacists found a way to travel through time and arrived in Confederacy in 1864 – when desperate Southerners were ready to receive any kind of support. Results on the battlefield were predictable, imagine some of the more daring charges from Glory, but against concentrated machine gun fire… initially, Union forces get massacred, but… I don’t won’t to spoil too much, but it get better. In the end, our Confederate protagonists find extremal racism of XX-cent. guests distasteful and reluctantly submit to the verdicts of history (sort of).
Research is great, of the Civil War era militaries and technologies, societies… that’s for the reader to decide, I wasn’t that impressed. On my copy, there is an endorsement from James McPherson, author of “Battle Cry of Freedom”, part of Oxford history of the USA series, a superb work of modern historiography (i.e. history that does not limit itself to political debates and battlefields but tries to go deeper into the works of past societies). I… wouldn’t agree with Professor McPherson that “Guns of the South” is a “must reading for every Civil War student”. But for somebody already well versed in history, bored with traditional Civil War novels – it can be lots of fun.
Two caveats – Turtledove is not a great writer. His characters are rather flat, plots tend to be schematic, I don’t think I’ll ever try to read any of hist multi-volume series. I’ve tried to read a regular fantasy of his a few years back and it was terrible as a novel. It was clearly a work of an erudite, but not a very talented artist. And secondly, Turtledove goes easy on Confederates. That does not mean his novel’s tone is sympathetic towards slavery, but it’s clear he likes men like Lee or Longstreet and makes them more acceptable for modern sensibilities than necessary.
That being said, it’s fun to read. AK-47 on XIX-cent. battlefields!! A Turtledove every once in a while is a delectable guilty pleasure for readers enjoying both historical and genre fiction. It’s no surprise that awards for the best stories on famous Alternate History Boards are called “Turtledoves” 🙂 It’s easy to dismiss people playing with history, but to realistically mess with what happened you need some deep knowledge of the past. That’s why I occasionally enjoy both regular alternative history and crazy stuff like “The Guns of the South”.
John Birmingham, Axis of Time trilogy (2004-2006)
The impossible has spawned the unthinkable. A military experiment in the year 2021 has thrust an American-led multinational armada back to 1942, right into the middle of the U.S. naval task force speeding toward Midway Atoll—and what was to be the most spectacular U.S. triumph of the entire war.
It’s a mixture of Turtledove and Clancy. For hardcore military and II WW buffs – loads of fun. For anybody else – waste of time, lets admit it. Politically – full of American jingoism and bastardised neo-conservatism. XXI-cent. soldiers join II world war and… it gets even more bloody, because every side (Allies, Soviets and Germans) receive a future technology transfer. Arrival of a modern task force creates some confusion (highest ranking XXI-cent. Royal Navy officer is an ethnically challenged woman 😉 ), and after twenty years of war on terror our guys seem rather ruthless to their ancestors – with inventions like on-site summary executions of terrorists/war criminals.
Overall, if you are able to enjoy Clancy’s late novels, you won’t mind Birmingham too much. Style is similar, even the novels’ structure, writing is mediocre, but on a level standard for second-rate military thrillers.
The trilogy’s worth lays in its premise. If the idea of modern carrier joining II world war battlefield warms your heart – here’s a pleasurable read for you you’ll feel only slightly guilty about 😉
S.M. Stirling, Island in the Sea of Time series (1998-2000)
Another trilogy, another crazy idea. A small American island of Nantucket (population ca. 10 000) is taken back in time, from 1998 AD to the Bronze Age. Hilarity ensues.
This one has a strong Yankee in King’s Arthur Court feel. A liberal East Coast community is confronted with ancient civilisations and tries to rebuild the world in its image. Concepts like abolition of slavery and women right are commendable, but not easily understandable by the Olmecs and Babylonians. Industrial revolution, professional military and bureaucracy gets wide recognition much easier. If only some of time travellers didn’t try to build their own empires of evil…
It’s history, adventure, and simplified American liberalism. Author seems to believe that every society and epoch could use some American spirit in its pursuit of happiness. His naivety is cute, but I had lots of fun reading nonetheless. The best, for me, was to see a small community trying to re-organize itself under new circumstances, and to save it’s values – and as much of technology – as possible. True pioneers 🙂
I just can’t get rid of a feeling that such simple-mindedness isn’t limited to writers… but still defines the attitudes of many American soldiers and politicians… lets just give everybody a vote and some tech and all will be well, won’t it?
Books though… quite fun, despite their absurdity 😉
All the books here are recommended for readers looking for light-hearted fun (with explosions in the background 😉 ). Be aware, though, that history is complicated and past societies couldn’t be easily fixed by mechanical introduction of our norms. Just as ours will be misunderstood by our succesors 😉