I finished Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South (spoilers at link, of course) a couple weeks ago. I had a weird, mixed reaction to it. I love alternate history in general, and this is an important book in the history of that sub-genre. And I love actual history, and the actual history in the book was meticulously researched. [Spoilers; also possible triggers.]But I had a hard time with the pervasive racism that has to be depicted in a book about 20th- or 21st-century Afrikaner white supremacists travelling back in time to ensure that the South wins the Civil War. I don’t have a similarly hard time with nonfiction history, and I think I might have less of a hard time with a historical novel that didn’t alter actual history so much. And of course, accurate fiction set in the early 21st century also has to depict racism, albeit without quite the same focus on it. So I’m not quite sure what it was about this book that made it so hard to read. (I liked it better after the end of the war, when it became about politics; not sure if that’s because the tone of the book changed or if it’s just that I’d gotten used to the book and its universe by then.)
The other thing I didn’t like about it, was that it mixed very plausible, believable characters with some really implausible behaviours and reactions. I mean, the whole premise is time travel and altering history, and I’m willing to suspend disbelief that far, but a lot of the things about how the time travellers behaved and how the 19th-century Southerners reacted to them and their technology seemed completely implausible.
I have started reading Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries, about the epidemic of sleeping sickness (epidemic encephalitis or encephalitis lethargica) following World War I. I’m only about halfway through it, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s largely taken from case histories, but it also creates an excellent sense of the era. Here’s an example:
For New Yorkers, for Americans, and for the world, the 1920s would prove to be the decade with the most rapid technological change in history. In one generation, travel by horse and carriage would make way for autos; people would travel underground, and soon, in the sky; wireless radio would change ship travel; kitchen appliances and indoor plumbing would become mainstream; light would come from a switch and heat through pipes; telephones would appear in the majority of homes; and the canned music and crackling voice of radio would provide home entertainment and news.One minor quibble I have with it is that it’s a bit fictionalized and novelistic, including details that I can’t imagine are all actually attested in contemporary sources. But that certainly adds to the vividness, and it’s a very vivid book. Definitely recommended.
¹ So in this post I have two cases of the same or similar titles appearing in italics as the name of a standalone work or series, and also in quotation marks as the title of an episode of a series. There’s something wrong with that.