Alternate History Book Club: The Guns Of The South

It's that time of the month again: time to talk about The Guns of the South, one of Harry Turtledove's most notable time travel/alternate history works. (Now doubly alternate history by way of paleofuture, given that 2013 is almost over without any sign of time travel, much less time-travelling Afrikaners...)

As this is a discussion thread, spoilers are to be expected.

And as for discussion, here are some questions to get people started. Answer any or none of them, as it suits you!

0. Did you like the book? Why or why not?

1. Leaving aside the time travel element, how plausible did you find this work to be?

2. The Guns of the South was first published in 1992--are there any plot elements you think would be different if it were written today?

3. What characters did you like, dislike, or find especially interesting--and why?

4. What implications does the failure of the Rivington men have for other fictional groups looking to change history?

5. What might the world of The Guns of the South look like 50 or 100 years later? How will the rest of the world react as the truth about Rivington spreads? (Or rather, how long will the Confederacy manage to keep it a state secret?)

6. Are there any variations on this general plot that you think could be interesting?

7. Are there any other elements (AH or otherwise) that you found interesting or noteworthy?

8. After Bring The Jubilee, this is now our second look at a Confederate victory world. For those who have read both, are there any comparisons you'd like to make?
Loved this book! It along with the 1632 series are my favorite in the scifi/AH realm. The only difference to me if it were written in the present to me would be that the Rivington men would have even less support than they did, given that apartheid ended much more smoothly than most figured, even with the turbulence it went through
0. I very much liked this book. It was one of my first exposures to alternate history, and it was a really engaging and interesting story.

1. I'm not really sure how plausible it is. Certain parts that hinge on personalities, like Lee's personal beliefs about slavery, seem a bit out of synch with what I've come to understand since I read the book, but then again, we are talking about the reactions of people to something frankly impossible, so anything might, and probably could, happen. It wasn't really a big concern of mine when I read it, and I still don't care much. The story works without overt efforts towards plausibility.

2. Well, I don't know what plot elements might be different, but I can guess that he wouldn't say the time travelers came from 2014.:p

3. I think Lee was my favorite character, just because we spent so much time with him in the novel. Lincoln-in-defeat was another interesting character, as was the Confederate woman soldier.

4. The Rivington men, if they are the archetype of the kind of people who want to change history, are a pretty good sign that such efforts probably fail more often then succeed. They had all the ideological motivation and resources necessary to launch themselves 150 years back in time, but they made enemies of everyone by trying to stay in charge and by shoving their 'modern' attitudes around (Lee didn't take to being told what he was allowed to stand for, the slaves who managed to hate the Rivington men more than anyone else, etc).

5. The Union having already worked out a copy (however imperfect) of the AK-47 leads me to think the Rivington 'inventions' are going to spread like wildfire. They're too powerful and too valuable to keep perfectly under control, and using them effectively (handing them out to hundreds of thousands of soldiers) means you'll never be able to hold onto all of them. Beyond the guns and concepts (medical and otherwise) that the Rivington men can give, the other technology will be harder to replicate. The point about lacking the tools to make the tools to make even a crude computer is well-taken. They will strive for the concept, and, in all likelihood, arrive at it much sooner than OTL, but it will take time.

Everyone who can get the AK-47 will, and everyone who can't will want one. It might be slower in reaching Europe, but whoever gets it first will do some incredible things with it.

6. There was a Guns of the North ASB TL here some time ago, where time-travelling black nationalists gave the TL-191 US modern guns and tanks just time for the 2nd Mexican War.

7. The part where Rhoodie lies to Lee about the OTL future was interesting. You could tell whatever kind of lie you wanted about the future, and produce 'photographic' evidence if you're the only source.

Lee using a future history book to find the Union soldier who was at the Battle of the Crater was also kinda cool.

8. Compared to Bring the Jubilee, Guns of the South is actually a lot more realistic, ironically. Guns of the South stays closer to the PoD, so maybe it isn't a fair comparison, but given the starting point, GotS is a more likely progression than BtJ is from its starting point.
In retrospect the book's not as clever as I thought although it was still quite enjoyable (and vastly less sophisticated than Eric Flint's "1632" series it clearly influenced a bit.)

The Afrikaaners would be lost with large conventional military issues since they hadn't fought in those for a century, just unconventional guerrilla war in very small units with lots of terror tactics, perhaps Selous Scouts. So they'd be lost with Lee's issues of maneuvering huge armies over rough territory without reliable maps.

Or assuming they were smarter than the book gave them credit for, they'd bring reliable terrain maps of Northern Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania etc.-whether Rand McNally Road Atlases, USGS Maps, Google Earth printouts, or later day Civil War textbook's history maps which'd be extremely helpful.

From unconventional warfare experience they'd have a much greater appreciation for constant and accurate communications so bringing back lots of field radios, maybe decades old military surplus sets which'd make a huge difference as Lee notes near the end of the book to one of his "advisors" who seems dumbfounded.

On the same note, wouldn't you bring back better optics? Cheap to costly but modern binoculars, let alone spotting scopes, rifle scopes/Mil-dots, range-finders, night-vision goggles and scopes, etc. would not only be obvoious to the Afrikaaners from warfare, hunting, and target shooting, they're also comparatively cheap.

Boots...for a barefoot army like Lee's, wouldn't bringing some container loads of good boots or even sneakers, anything that helped them walk faster and healthier? Real soldiers who walk a lot notice their foot comfort as well as the impacts of sprained ankles, infections, abrasions, blisters, corns, bunions, hypothermia, bugs, crossing streams and swamps... Would put far more men in the fight in good shape and be a huge morale booster (that Gettysburg was fought for a rumored shoe factory stockpile and nearly all accounts talk about the Confederate's lack of shoes, coats, equipment, etc.).

Field Rations whether military or cases of modern snack and trail bars would make a huge difference as well, cheap, easy to source, and again the hunger element is in every Civil War book. Soldiers rarely need to be told food is important for their capacity, alertness, movement speed, morale, ability to suffer through lousy weather, etc..

The AK-47 is a smart choice, in Africa there's so many they can be bought for $35 and ammunition by the case is easy too. But picking up Soviet sniper rifles (i.e. Moisin-Nagants with scopes, let alone Dragunovs) was/is surprisingly cheap too and would drastically improve the Confederates' ability to take out officers and artillery crews, just as sniper/skirmisher doctrine in the War had been showing by 1862 (and European wars going back into the 1500's), and anyone who'd been in unconventional war or done much hunting would know this (their Boer greatgrandfathers with scoped rifles were a major problem for the British, so again, how clueless are these guys?) While buying rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, field mortars, claymore mines, etc. is tough in the U.S., they'd have a far easier time of it in Africa and know how potent they'd be from the long guerrilla wars there and again a cursory reading of Civil War texts that talk about the impacts of any kind of artillery, shrapnel, effective ranges, early mortars and mines, let alone the RPG vs. Union river gunboats or locomotives or mortars against wooden sailing ships blockading the ports or encampments.

Training the Confederate troops in modern doctrines about small unit tactics, ambushes, withdrawals, skirmishing, interlocking fields of fire, foxholes/fortified positions, camouflage/ghillie suits, fire and maneuver, etc. would be enormously helpful to Lee while resented by most of his officers (except Mosby, Forrest, etc.) and that's easy to fit in a time machine since it's between the time-travelers' ears and a few books.

Apparently these Afrikaaners grew up in military camps and have no other experience or knowledge (i.e. farming methods, livestock breeding/vet care/feed, mining methods and metals smelting, coal processing, fuels refining, power generation, heavy equipment operation and repair, construction, etc. while in fact normal Afrikaaners know a lot of this stuff given it's a mining center with advanced technologies and 200 years of sizable agricultural production. It'd be odd for them not to bring geologic maps of the South for resource deposits, ignore the many opportunities to improve key operations like the Tredegar Iron Works, ignore public opinion/media, or just increasing food production and road quality. This get tackled as a major part of most time travelers' efforts from a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court forward because it makes too much sense not to (and often creates most of the dramatic tension.)
I liked the book overall. I thought the time-travel element was actually handled quite realistically, in terms of how Lee and the rest processed the revelation and came to understand what it meant. Turtledove hit the right balance by showing these 19th Century leaders to be shocked by the idea that time-travelers could exist, but at the same time, they're not a bunch of born-yesterday cave-dwellers, so they're able to piece together what their technology does, what their mission is, and how they got here.

Good question about its publication. The early 90's was a time when race was high on America's cultural radar, after Rodney King, the L.A. riots, and so on. Perhaps my biggest criticism of the book is, as others would observe, the way too rosy outlook on the CSA's ability to become something not racist. But at the same time, given the conflicts that were going on back then, perhaps Turtledove felt compelled to write something optimistic about race relations in America, saying that even in the worst times in American history, the country was not going to sink to the level of ideological white supremacist neo-Nazis, and had the potential to create a more harmonious society.

The issues of the day end up shaping all forms of culture in one way or the other. Perhaps if Guns of the South had been published today, there would be more of a focus on economic inequality, with emphasis being placed on the Confederate States having power concentrated among plantation aristocrats, while both slaves and poor illiterate rural whites were left disenfranchised.

I read Guns of the South first and Bring the Jubilee second, and was pretty surprised by the differences between them. I think Jubilee is the more compelling story overall, and Hodge is a very compelling and humanistic protagonist. But Guns does a better job of really analyzing the Confederate States of America, what it was like, and the issues it would face. Turtledove gets accused of being too optimistic about the CSA's potential, but then again, Ward Moore has the CSA steamrolling its way to becoming a world power. Turtledove did a better job of highlighting the country's internal contradictions and problems.