The Guns of the South
Harry Turtledove, 1992

This is one of the more famous alternate histories out there, though it's actually a time travel / dicking-around-with-the-past story rather than one based purely on historical contingency. The premise is that members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, pissed that South Africa has retreated from apartheid, travel back to the American Civil War and outfit the rebels with AK-47 assault rifles. They hope that when the South thereby wins the war, the Confederate States of America, as a nation explicitly committed to slavery, will eventually lend its power to the cause of white supremacy in South Africa. But it turns out that the rebel victory comes too late for the Afrikaners' purpose, as the war has already made it impossible for slavery to continue in its antebellum form. Robert E. Lee becomes an advocate of a gradual abolition of the peculiar institution, and the Afrikaners decide that they're going to have to intervene in history more directly.

I wrote a paper on Nazis-won-WWII fiction in grad school in which I argued that such stories fell into two broad categories: one, that a victorious Nazi Germany would really be just another big police state with some operatic flourishes, and would eventually loosen up as the USSR did under Khrushchev; and two, that it would herald the apocalypse, as the culture imposed a mindset upon people akin to schizophrenia. The stakes in the South-won-the-Civil-War genre aren't as high, but there's still a divide between, on the one hand, works such as C.S.A. that posit a Confederacy in which slavery continues right into the 21st century, and on the other, those that contend that slavery couldn't have lasted very long even in an independent South given the worldwide momentum against it. The Guns of the South plants itself squarely in the latter camp. Me, I don't really know what to think. I tend to be skeptical of "historical momentum" as a concept, and I definitely don't share the widespread faith that systems naturally self-regulate — that some unforeseen ecological mechanism will surely compensate for dumping massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, say, or that corruption and the black market would surely have checked the zealotry of the Nazis. Given that the South turned to a campaign of terrorism to enforce black subjugation even in the face of opposition from a government that had just devastated it in a years-long war, it seems unlikely that with the power of a national government working for the former rebels, things would have turned out better for the blacks. You can argue that the responsibilities of government would have forced the Confederates to become more moderate, but the Republicans of the 21st century have shown that those who adopt insurgent tactics when out of power don't suddenly become enlightened stewards of the polity when in power. They become despots.

As for The Guns of the South as a novel... oh, I reckon it gets the job done. The thing that jumped out at me, reading it after many months of working on a movie script — a form in which economy is valued above all else — was how unconcerned with economy the author seemed to be. Like, there's a scene early on in which the Afrikaners train the rebel officers how to use and how to clean an AK-47. Turtledove presents the entire lesson from start to finish. Okay, fair enough. But then it's time for the officers to explain it to the common soldiers... and we have to sit through that whole lesson too! There are also scenes that seem to be there purely for the sake of hanging out with a character for a while; reading these, I found that part of me said, "Man, you gotta tighten this up!" while another part of me envied the author for having that kind of luxury.

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