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Stars and Stripes Triumphant: A Novel of Alternate History

by Harry Harrison

(Ballantine Del Rey, 249 pages, $24.95, hardcover; January 2003.)

cover scanHarry Harrison's 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 facing America.

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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