Stars and Stripes Triumphant: A Novel of Alternate
(Ballantine Del Rey, 249 pages, $24.95, hardcover; January 2003.)
Stars and Stripes Triumphant is the third in a trilogy.
The first, Stars and Stripes Forever, detailed the abortive American
Civil War, abruptly ended when the Union and Confederacy re-joined in
order to stop a continental invasion by the British Empire. The second,
Stars and Stripes in Peril, described a British counterattack,
followed by an American invasion of Ireland and a successful attempt
to free that beleaguered nation from British misrule. The latest volume
opens during a state visit to Belgium by President Abraham Lincoln,
where a somewhat deranged actor named John Wilkes Booth attempts to
assassinate the President but instead only slightly wounds his number
two general, Ulysses S. Grant.
America is at peace, but the peace is tenuous, as the British, who
have "never lost a war", are unwilling to accept defeat. (Whither the
Revolution? It is never said ... ). British ships have begun pirating
American trading vessels and pressing American sailors into British
service, and, ominously, British police are rounding up all the Irish
in England and confining them in concentration camps.
A Russian Count, also a member of the Russian Secret Service, invites
General William Tecumseh Sherman, America's foremost military mastermind,
to accompany him on a spying expedition. Without knowing a thing about
the Russian's bona fides, Sherman accepts. They travel England, map
the enemy's principal fortifications and verify the gravity of the threat
I don't wish to give away too much of the plot but I will say that
there isn't a lot of suspense here. A reunited America has undergone
its own Industrial Revolution. The internal combustion engine, tanks
and even electric lightbulbs are invented with almost magical ease,
and roll off the American assembly lines. And Sherman, ably assisted
by Grant and General Robert E. Lee, begins the mission to convert the
dastardly Empire into a Republic.
The basic concept is clever and could have made an entertaining series,
but the particulars are improbable, even absurd, and there is no characterization
whatsoever. The main actors move along like cardboard cutouts and we
rarely get into their heads. Do they have families? Friends? Lives?
Do they live in houses? We never find out. The depictions of the British
and their rickety Empire are even more superficial, particularly those
of the stupid and neurotic Queen Victoria and her barely competent Prime
Minister, Lord Palmerston. Gladstone and Disraeli, along with the political
philosopher John Locke, are given a more sympathetic treatment, but
these characters are mainly background and have little to do other than
comment upon events.
Harry Harrison is justly considered a grandmaster of science fiction;
I've been reading and enjoying his books for almost half a century.
But Stars and Stripes Triumphant lacks too much in plot, coherence
and characterization to consider it as anything other than a very minor
addition to his considerable body of work.
Review by Robert I Katz.
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