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The Marble Man: The Guns of the South, The Lost Cause, and Harry Turtledove

MAC161

Well-known member
Published by SLP
Location
WI, USA
I'm a bit hesitant to jump into this thread, but the Civil War devotee/scholar in me won't let me do otherwise :D .

I very much agree with the argument that Turtledove wrote GOTS with what he had at the time (i.e., a lot of "Lost Cause" or similar perceptions about Lee in particular still being prominent) and so to us AH writers today, it looks odd at best and unpalatable at worst. The key is recognizing/never forgetting such contextual influences or, yes, potential or real biases; I still enjoy Bring the Jubilee and Gettysburg/Killer Angels despite such issues. Forrest's depiction is obviously more problematic; I felt that Turtledove tried to balance his demonic reputation with his battlefield skill, and maybe use him as a counterpoint to the more "civilized" Lee, but didn't quite succeed. He does a decent job portraying how Forrest, Wigfall and others might be swayed with great difficulty towards abolition with the benefit of judgment from their descendants and the actions of the AWB, but ultimately, yes, it feels too awkward and unlikely to be plausible. The evolution of the Caudell character in this regard was more believable, likely because he's far more of a blank slate than Lee, Forrest or any other historical figure of the time.

The biggest problem I have with the book (and have had since I first picked it up in my early teens) was the use of South Africans as time-traveling gunrunners; even at that young age, I wondered "surely there are neo-Confederates & other white supremacists in the early '90s who would've jumped at the chance to give the South AK-47s?" I suspect that given the end of apartheid at the time of writing, Turtledove might've figured that angry AWB types made good villains; yet they felt out of place even for AH, and the justification for/ultimate goal in altering the Civil War that they gave Lee was, to put it politely, a mix of clunky and "huh??" Yes, they used the excuse that their time machine could only go back 150 years, but a more believable use of them as characters (esp. given the scene with the AWB book laying out their ideology) would've been their going back to WWII to make sure Hitler won and South Africa became an apartheid "paradise." Were this book to be written today, I have little doubt there's plenty of R-W militia groups who'd be used in their place, and to far more chilling effect.

Bottom line: I still like to read GOTS on occasion (due to its status as one of the first works introducing me to AH, and mostly when I'm in need of thematically-appropriate reading to go with a writing project), but there's much about it that makes me cringe nowadays, and so I approach it with caution and a hopefully critical enough eye.
 

Charles EP M.

Well-known member
Published by SLP
It seems a pretty firm-but-fair review by @moth, as the novel is still being read now.

The "Lost Cause" and mainstream acceptability of confederate symbols until relatively recently is something that has to be remembered, because the further we get from then the weirder it's going to seem to future generations. I have a friend in Georgia who was genuinely shaken at eighteen to read the primary sources for secession and saw they all mentioned slavery, because it went against everything he'd been told. I bet you in ten years time, another eighteen-year-old will find that unfathomable, "how could you not know?", because by then someone's probably used lasers to turn Stone Mountain into a Star Wars picture.
 

Alex Richards

Certified Goose Aware
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
It seems a pretty firm-but-fair review by @moth, as the novel is still being read now.

The "Lost Cause" and mainstream acceptability of confederate symbols until relatively recently is something that has to be remembered, because the further we get from then the weirder it's going to seem to future generations. I have a friend in Georgia who was genuinely shaken at eighteen to read the primary sources for secession and saw they all mentioned slavery, because it went against everything he'd been told. I bet you in ten years time, another eighteen-year-old will find that unfathomable, "how could you not know?", because by then someone's probably used lasers to turn Stone Mountain into a Star Wars picture.
I can literally track in the last few years discussions with my Dad on this where he seems to have become a lot more accepting of the point about why the Stars and Bars is so awkward having grown up only seeing it in stuff like Dukes of Hazzard.
 

ChrisNuttall

Active member
The biggest problem I have with the book (and have had since I first picked it up in my early teens) was the use of South Africans as time-traveling gunrunners; even at that young age, I wondered "surely there are neo-Confederates & other white supremacists in the early '90s who would've jumped at the chance to give the South AK-47s?" I suspect that given the end of apartheid at the time of writing, Turtledove might've figured that angry AWB types made good villains; yet they felt out of place even for AH, and the justification for/ultimate goal in altering the Civil War that they gave Lee was, to put it politely, a mix of clunky and "huh??" Yes, they used the excuse that their time machine could only go back 150 years, but a more believable use of them as characters (esp. given the scene with the AWB book laying out their ideology) would've been their going back to WWII to make sure Hitler won and South Africa became an apartheid "paradise." Were this book to be written today, I have little doubt there's plenty of R-W militia groups who'd be used in their place, and to far more chilling effect.
I never had the impression, going by unreliable memory, that the AWB had the resources of a modern-day state behind them. They had AK-47s, a handful of more advanced weapons, history books, radios and a small number of other things. They didn’t have tanks, aircraft or nukes. That suggests, to me, that they were a paramilitary group at best and there were limits to what they could obtain before going back in time to set wrong what once went right.

Their options are therefore more limited than you might suppose, if their goal is to create a client state and/or ally for Apartheid SA.

Nazi Germany? They would have trouble changing the course of the war - a few thousand AKs aren’t going to make much of a difference - and it would be very hard to gain a position of influence over the Reich. The gap between AWB and the Nazis isn’t that big - besides, the Nazis might regard South Africa as an enemy state.

The Boer Republic? Already isolated, in their minds, from the world; about to go to war with the UK, a war they might still lose even if they had modern weapons. Coming to terms with the UK might work, but would be ideologically problematic. Plus, too great a risk of their team coming apart, as they’re not strangers in a very strange and potentially hostile land.

The CSA offers a number of advantages. The tech gap is wide enough that Lee et al will have no conception of what awaits them (radios, for example), allowing AWB to manipulate Confederate politics and build a 1940s tech base years before its time ... giving them a chance to embed themselves in the fabric of society. The CSA will also be isolated, allowing them a chance to ally with South Africa when - if - it becomes an apartheid state; it will make the CSA dependent on AWB, which will give them a great deal of additional clout. And, as the South Africans are inherently not Southerners, it will be a great deal harder for their group to disintegrate and merge into the local population.

Hope that makes sense.

Chris
 

David Flin

A house of larks and owls
Me, I rather wish the book had the courage of its convictions, and made the Time Travelling Bad Guys be from the USA, and reasonably contemporary. God knows, there was at the time of writing and is now, plenty of people in the southern states who regard(ed) the Lost Cause as a reality, that the Southern States were put upon, and that the White Race was superior.

As it is, a bunch of Apartheid supporters from South Africa are easily dismissed as "It couldn't happen here", when it all to plainly could.

Villains without bite are just cardboard cutout, moustache-twirling jokes.
 

M_Kresal

I am nerd, hear me bore.
Published by SLP
Location
North Alabama
It seems a pretty firm-but-fair review by @moth, as the novel is still being read now.

The "Lost Cause" and mainstream acceptability of confederate symbols until relatively recently is something that has to be remembered, because the further we get from then the weirder it's going to seem to future generations. I have a friend in Georgia who was genuinely shaken at eighteen to read the primary sources for secession and saw they all mentioned slavery, because it went against everything he'd been told. I bet you in ten years time, another eighteen-year-old will find that unfathomable, "how could you not know?", because by then someone's probably used lasers to turn Stone Mountain into a Star Wars picture.
I can literally track in the last few years discussions with my Dad on this where he seems to have become a lot more accepting of the point about why the Stars and Bars is so awkward having grown up only seeing it in stuff like Dukes of Hazzard.
To quote myself from theLost Cause: Genre Trope to Avoid thread last year


Being born and raised in Alabama, I can vouch for this being the experience for an awful lot of folks IF they bother to go looking beyond what they learned in fourth grade Alabama history classes. I've also had the experience of seeing people arguing on Facebook, saying Alabama didn't succeed due to slavery while citing the Alabama Ordinance of Secession to back their case, having apparently never read it. The Lost Cause myth is deeply entrenched here, to put it mildly.

It's also partly the reason why, despite having a Civil War alternate history idea, I've decided for the moment not to pursue writing about it.
 

Sulemain

Brush NOT Benzo
Location
Coventry
It seems a pretty firm-but-fair review by @moth, as the novel is still being read now.

The "Lost Cause" and mainstream acceptability of confederate symbols until relatively recently is something that has to be remembered, because the further we get from then the weirder it's going to seem to future generations. I have a friend in Georgia who was genuinely shaken at eighteen to read the primary sources for secession and saw they all mentioned slavery, because it went against everything he'd been told. I bet you in ten years time, another eighteen-year-old will find that unfathomable, "how could you not know?", because by then someone's probably used lasers to turn Stone Mountain into a Star Wars picture.
It'd be an improvement that's for sure.
 

Strategos' Risk

New member
I'm not saying this by claiming to be on the right side of history, but when I first read GOTS in the early '00s, I always thought it strained credibility that the entire Confederate government having a change of heart just because they read the critique of the future. It made them all marble men at that time, insofar they would willingly allow themselves to be shamed by a future they knew not of, and as one of the senators in the says, "sounds like a damnyankee!" So the whole conceit of them uprooting their entire cultural fabric and destroying their own economy- it's not as if the Rivington Men brought with them notes on how to build automated factories, nor would they know about that- is fundamentally unsound. Not just from a historical or 21st century moral viewpoint, but it's simply unconvincing as a plot point.

That said, the idea of an ISOT happening and that's only known to a single government has always fascinated me, and I always was curious what would have happened in the GOTS world afterwards even if it was run by ahistorically enlightened Confederates.
 

Von Callay

Kept After Class by Mrs. MacBrayne
That said, the idea of an ISOT happening and that's only known to a single government has always fascinated me, and I always was curious what would have happened in the GOTS world afterwards even if it was run by ahistorically enlightened Confederates.
I remember it's noted at the end that the US has started producing their own copies of the AK-47 and gone marching off into Canada with them, so I can't really imagine they have good things in mind for the CSA in the future, slavery or no slavery.
 

Strategos' Risk

New member
How Few Remain but in the GOTS universe would make an entertaining read. I know that GOTS is very much a one-shot story but it would be great to see sequels of it nonetheless even in fanfic form, but there's few. I wrote one lousy one years ago. The best and only one I've seen is a DeviantArt map that shows where the world would be present day in the GOTS world, it had a lot of tantalizing references to conspiracies both maintaining the Confederacy's secret and trying to combat it.
 

Geordie

Big Ol' Soviet Deltic
Published by SLP
Pronouns
he/him
While I must admit that I have not read GOTS, I feel an in-depth examination of alternate history's relationship with the CSA is long overdue. At least all bit the most egregious don't try to whitewash the Nazis.

There is, I fear, a need for a similar discussion about AH and the European colonial powers.
 
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