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Ryan's Reviews - How Few Remain, by Harry Turtledove

Thande

BidenHarris, vaccine, England's got the same Queen
Published by SLP
It's interesting one of Ryan's critiques is Turtledove's use of historically significant and senior characters over ordinary people, because I remember one of the biggest criticisms of the later TL-191 books when they first came out is that their protagonists were all ordinary people and the historically significant ones were in the background. I think that was borne of the idea that Turtledove's characterisations are often not very deep (zinc oxide passim) so How Few Remain was at least enlivened by the fact that we could look for references to these real historical figures' lives and how they were different.
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
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This is one of the books that convinces me that Turtledove is actually best as a YA novelist than anything else. How Few Remain is a bit like The Wheel of Time: a book ostensibly written for adults that is actually best enjoyed by ten to fifteen year olds who can inhale it whole, enjoying the showpieces and adventure without yet being annoyed at thin characters and repetitive prose.

When you return to it as an adult you notice the waste of much of the premise- the alliance systems frozen in amber, a surviving Mexican Empire that we never actually see, a CSA that more or less is a functioning republic with little to distinguish it from our timeline.
On the other hand- Teddy Roosevelt fighting cavalry battles with the British! Marines raiding San Francisco! Apaches fighting Jeb Stuart!

I suppose that's the sad thing about Turtledove. This and Guns of the South (and also, I suppose, the ghastly aliens invade WW2 books) pointed to a possible path where he embraced the pulpy adventure side of his works. Down that path would be further problems with the Lost Cause and probably with female characters, but the books would be light and fun.
Down another path would be a proper engagement with the scenarios he sets up, alternate history that actually looks at the consequences of a POD- the stuff with socialist Lincoln is genuinely interesting, for instance.

Instead, he's fallen between two stools. He's not nearly a good enough writer for 'serious' fiction, but he remains too po-faced even in light works like this for the adult reader to completely go along with the absurdity.

Still, I am fond of this book. I grabbed my uncle's copy when I was twelve and read it at least twice, and it made me power through quite a lot of TL-191 until I realised how bored I'd become. Which might be a backhanded compliment, but my point is that the goodwill it generated produced a lot of momentum....
 
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Thande

BidenHarris, vaccine, England's got the same Queen
Published by SLP
This is one of the books that convinces me that Turtledove is actually best as a YA novelist than anything else. How Few Remain is a bit like The Wheel of Time: a book ostensibly written for adults that is actually best enjoyed by ten to fifteen year olds who can inhale it whole, enjoying the showpieces and adventure without yet being annoyed at thin characters and repetitive prose.

When you return to it as an adult you notice the waste of much of the premise- the alliance systems frozen in amber, a surviving Mexican Empire that we never actually see, a CSA that more or less is a functioning republic with little to distinguish it from our timeline.
On the other hand- Teddy Roosevelt fighting cavalry battles with the British! Marines raiding San Francisco! Apaches fighting Jeb Stuart!

I suppose that's the sad thing about Turtledove. This and Guns of the South (and also, I suppose, the ghastly aliens invade WW2 books) pointed to a possible path where he embraced the pulpy adventure side of his works. Down that path would be further problems with the Lost Cause and probably with female characters, but the books would be light and fun.
Down another path would be a proper engagement with the scenarios he sets up, alternate history that actually looks at the consequences of a POD- the stuff with socialist Lincoln is genuinely interesting, for instance.

Instead, he's fallen between two stools. He's not nearly a good enough writer for 'serious' fiction, but he remains too po-faced even in light works like this for the adult reader to completely go along with the absurdity.

Still, I am fond of this book. I grabbed my uncle's copy when I was twelve and read it at least twice, and it made me power through quite a lot of TL-191 until I realised how bored I'd become. Which might be a backhanded compliment, but my point is that the goodwill it generated produced a lot of momentum....
This isn't the place for it, but Worldwar (well the first three books of it) is still my favourite thing Turtledove's ever written and I will fight you over it. It's definitely a pulp embrace as you describe but there's nothing wrong with that.

(And also it's how teenage me found out there was more to WW2 than 'the Nazis blitz London, rationing, evacuees, and then D-Day happens')
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
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Instead, he's fallen between two stools. He's not nearly a good enough writer for 'serious' fiction, but he remains too po-faced even in light works like this for the adult reader to completely go along with the absurdity.
Interestingly, this is the exact problem that a lot of technothriller writers, especially later ones have. They're not good or knowledgeable enough, and their works are too inherently out-there to be truly serious, but the sort of THIS IS RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES" pretentiousness keeps them from just being like Jon Land, Mack Maloney, or Jerry Ahern and running with the crazy. But I digress.

For Turtledove himself, I'd think your explanation also illustrates why he gets worse the longer he writes. For short stories, he can just do the set-piece and he frequently does it well. For individual novels, he's not good at the 'meat',so he's frequently more uneven. And for long series, well, let's just say that I didn't have much enthusiasm, even as a kid, for slogging through all of WorldWar despite genuinely liking the first book.
 

Tabac Iberez

Impetious
Published by SLP
Interestingly, this is the exact problem that a lot of technothriller writers, especially later ones have. They're not good or knowledgeable enough, and their works are too inherently out-there to be truly serious, but the sort of THIS IS RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES" pretentiousness keeps them from just being like Jon Land, Mack Maloney, or Jerry Ahern and running with the crazy. But I digress.
The trick to it is that if you can't embrace the crazy, you need to at least keep from being too sane. Headline news and current events are always stale by the time the book ships, so instead you best weapon is to be bold and ridiculous. Go above and beyond and they'll never notice the spackle.
 

Kato

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Thanks for the FTOTB plug at the end, and yes, the ACW (and specifically the evil side winning) timeline has always felt like the American counterpart to a British Nazi Victory. It's definitely one I'd happily commission for a collection, were it down to me. There are still diamonds to be found in clichéd settings.

How Few Remain was actually one of the first AH novels I read, back in 2007, though I'd read SS-GB, The Moscow Option, and the What If collections before then. HFR was the first that I got properly into, probably for the pulpy qualities discussed above.Turtledove and Paradox between them can probably claim equal credit for firing that interest up at just the right time for me to discover AH.com, EdT, Kaiserreich, and all that followed.

OTL famous person living a different life remains one of my favourite AH tropes, and HFR was my first introduction to it. Its well noted that Lincoln in particular is an example of something original at the time reading more cliché 22 years later. I also remember that HFR had an in-universe MAP to help non-American readers like me know where these places were and why they mattered. Somehow I remember that being rare in published AH at the time (for understandable reasons of there simply not being today's wealth of cartographic resources to hand 2-3 decades ago).

Hivemind consensus on Turtledove seems to be that his standalone's (as which HFR can be read and would once have been) are better than his series'. From reading bits of both I'd concur. As mentioned already, his characterisation isn't all that strong, which shows up worst in the fictional characters created from whole cloth. I was interested in what Socialist Lincoln got up to. I was interested in what obscure Samuel Clemens might have got up to, had he not served primarily to observe British marine raids and his wife's vaginal dampness. I wasn't remotely interested in whatever the interchangeable viewpoints of the later 191 books got up to, especially when the timeline parallelism made it all so predictable.
 

Thande

BidenHarris, vaccine, England's got the same Queen
Published by SLP
I wasn't remotely interested in whatever the interchangeable viewpoints of the later 191 books got up to, especially when the timeline parallelism made it all so predictable.
Of course, I've often felt that to an extent those don't work for a non-American audience because they're not there to tell interestingly different AH speculation, they're there to make a social history point to Americans that "there is nothing special or unique about the USA, its culture is a certain way in OTL because it didn't fight a war on home soil after 1860, but if that had continued, then the US would be just like Europe and would have a socialist party and conscription and your grandparents would have been living lives like this etc. etc."

He did use more books than necessary to make this point which is where criticism is fairer (the old canard that he did it to put his kids trhough college, etc.)
 

Kato

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Of course, I've often felt that to an extent those don't work for a non-American audience because they're not there to tell interestingly different AH speculation, they're there to make a social history point to Americans that "there is nothing special or unique about the USA, its culture is a certain way in OTL because it didn't fight a war on home soil after 1860, but if that had continued, then the US would be just like Europe and would have a socialist party and conscription and your grandparents would have been living lives like this etc. etc."

He did use more books than necessary to make this point which is where criticism is fairer (the old canard that he did it to put his kids trhough college, etc.)
Which is fair, and a worthwhile deconstruction of Exceptionalism as an idea (it's also why I find post-occupation/collaboration Sea Lion stories interesting). It just feels that rather than the European phases of World Wars transplanted to the American interior, it would have worked better having the wars and inter-American conflicts arise and play out in a more organic way. HFR to its credit does this more so than the later books. At what point does the "we'd be just like Europe" social history argument fall down from its own circularity when the time line is written to deliberately follow the OTL pacing of 1871-1945 Europe?

I mean, I'm nit picking from a position of 20 years refinement and development to the AH genre, where tastes and expectations have risen above what limitations would have existed when getting an AH story published for a mass market in the 90s. I enjoyed the books for what they were, it's just a shame that the latter parts lacked the originality of the opening volume.
 

Burton K Wheeler

The G.O.A.T. That Can't Be Got
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It's interesting one of Ryan's critiques is Turtledove's use of historically significant and senior characters over ordinary people, because I remember one of the biggest criticisms of the later TL-191 books when they first came out is that their protagonists were all ordinary people and the historically significant ones were in the background. I think that was borne of the idea that Turtledove's characterisations are often not very deep (zinc oxide passim) so How Few Remain was at least enlivened by the fact that we could look for references to these real historical figures' lives and how they were different.
Disagree about Turtledove's characterization. His characters are often very ordinary, and when there's a lot of them, they run together because they're all Average Person Caught Up In History, but they aren't bad per se.

As for the common whinge about historical people in extremely unlikely ATL circumstances that parallel reality, there's nothing really wrong with that if you're doing AH as a literary exercise and not attempting to invoke a parallel timeline or whatever butterfly purists are on about. It, as you say, grounds the story in reality. 80-year-old Custer was one of the most interesting characters in HT's WWI because you already have an idea of who the guy is. This is fine even if you're making fictional characters real (for example, a late 19th century TL that mentions Harry Flashman being involved in some Victorian colonial events).
 

Burton K Wheeler

The G.O.A.T. That Can't Be Got
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Still, I am fond of this book. I grabbed my uncle's copy when I was twelve and read it at least twice, and it made me power through quite a lot of TL-191 until I realised how bored I'd become. Which might be a backhanded compliment, but my point is that the goodwill it generated produced a lot of momentum....
Literally my experience. And 100% agreed.
 

Burton K Wheeler

The G.O.A.T. That Can't Be Got
Location
Tr'ondëk
Interestingly, this is the exact problem that a lot of technothriller writers, especially later ones have. They're not good or knowledgeable enough, and their works are too inherently out-there to be truly serious, but the sort of THIS IS RIPPED FROM THE HEADLINES" pretentiousness keeps them from just being like Jon Land, Mack Maloney, or Jerry Ahern and running with the crazy. But I digress.
I'm reading through the shelf of books that have sat up at my backcountry sites for years, and I had a sort of revelation like this. I read Clear and Present Danger and it was good. The plot sets you up to root for certain things (though Clancy assumes the reader is a right-wing old dude, it still works) and then rubs in your face that actually the world is a much more complex place than you'd fantasize it is and what starts out as the premise of an 80's action movie is actually a political disaster. Lots of little details like the career path of an Army infantryman are really well laid out, like he did lots of research on the topic. It's not a great book, but it's readable, interesting, educational in a very niche way, and remarkable because it pulls the rug out from under the type of person most likely to read it and challenges their worldview without insulting it.

Then I read some other thriller novel from the early 90's about, I don't know, war with Japan and CIA assassins and shit. It might have been Clancy, even. And it was dreck. Like the author knew about a lot of things, and his characters and writing were better than Clancy's, but it was bullshit. I have already forgotten the point, because there wasn't one.

It's really not impossible to have a point and tell a story within a technothriller like early Tom Clancy or a potboiler AH story like HT, but there has to be a point, you can't just churn out lots of words and expect it to be good or memorable. The genre novel is just giving you a framework to build from, but you have to do something with the genre. Tom Clancy should be making people think "Maybe just murdering drug dealers in lovingly described high-tech ways won't actually end crime". HT should be knocking the legs out from under American exceptionalism even if characters born decades after the POD have the same names and parallel career tracks to historical people.
 

David Flin

An evil Socialist, apparently.
As for the common whinge about historical people in extremely unlikely ATL circumstances that parallel reality, there's nothing really wrong with that if you're doing AH as a literary exercise and not attempting to invoke a parallel timeline or whatever butterfly purists are on about.
The caveat I would apply is being consistent with what we know about the historical person. I could, for example, imagine Enoch Powell as an author of Greek-based myths. I couldn't imagine him writing with whimsy and frivolity and taking no account of cause and effect.

I can imagine Gary Sobers as a golfer. I can't imagine him being a golfer with the work ethic of Gary Player.
 

Burton K Wheeler

The G.O.A.T. That Can't Be Got
Location
Tr'ondëk
The caveat I would apply is being consistent with what we know about the historical person. I could, for example, imagine Enoch Powell as an author of Greek-based myths. I couldn't imagine him writing with whimsy and frivolity and taking no account of cause and effect.

I can imagine Gary Sobers as a golfer. I can't imagine him being a golfer with the work ethic of Gary Player.
Yeah, for sure, you have to both address the historical silhouette the person cast (while twisting it slightly) and know details about their life so you don't twist it in unrealistic ways. That's why I like TL-191's Custer. He's recognizably Custer, an egomaniac aggressive glory hound. He's also a half-senile old man reveling in the glory he earned in battle against the British instead of dying on the Little Bighorn. And then he winds up being the only person who's correct about how to break the trench warfare stalemate for the exact same reasons he was wrong in 1876 and died for his mistakes.

It's both obviously the two-dimensional Custer of myth and a character informed by understanding of Custer's whole life and military career, combined with a different ATL path and a clever inversion of his actual historical role.
 

Thande

BidenHarris, vaccine, England's got the same Queen
Published by SLP
80-year-old Custer was one of the most interesting characters in HT's WWI because you already have an idea of who the guy is.
I'd say that's certainly true - I think there's a reason why one version of the synopsis on the back of American Front lists "a septuagenarian General Custer" among the characters. It's always interesting to speculate about people who died young in OTL but who were already famous, and how their lives would have gone later on. It even applies to people who died after achieving a lot but we can still speculate about their last years, as indeed with Lincoln in How Few Remain.
 
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