Monday, March 09, 2009

Harry Turtledove, Opening Atlantis

Harry Turtledove's Opening Atlantis is a candidate for the Prometheus Award. I suspect it'll be chosen as a finalist since it's well written and interesting and has strong pro-freedom themes. Unfortunately for Turtledove (who was a co-winner last year for The Gladiator), some of my other favorites have more topical themes and are just as fun to read.

Opening Atlantis posits that an extra contintent has been inserted in the middle of the Atlantic, but otherwise history and geography are pretty much unchanged compared to our timeline. Not surprisingly, the new continent is noticed during the Age of Discovery, and since it's located in the Atlantic, it is named for the (realized to be mythological) Atlantis. The geography, flora, and fauna are surprising to the discoverers and eventual settlers. One recurring side note is the characters who recognize that the indigenous species are different in the old world, on Atlantis, and in Terranova (North America). They don't quite point to the possibility of evolution explicitly, but it's the kind of idle wonder that one imagines occurs many times before an explanation is found.

Turtledove's story is presented in three parts from successive eras, which are roughly Settlement and Independence, Battling the Pirates, and Dragged into the European War. Each of the segments has Edward Radcliffe or his descendants as central figures, and the first and last each features a different battle over freedom-related issues. In the first part, Atlantis is discovered and settled by English, French, and Spanish fishermen and their families. Lured by familiar climate, each group settles on a different section of the coast, and builds multiple towns that trade, but maintain separate cultures. The conflict in Part one comes when a nobleman sent away by the British Crown decides that British Atlantis is his new fiefdom. Since the settlers intentionally migrated in order to get away from kings and lords and their incessant war and taxation, it isn't long before they rise up and defeat the invaders. They are helped a lot by their familiarity with local conditions, and their willingness to fight as insurgents.

In the second part, two of Edward's descendants, Red Rodney Radcliffe (a pirate captain) and William Radcliff (a shipping magnate) battle over the fate of a pirate stronghold on the western edge of Atlantis. William allies with other major shipping owners to defeat the pirates and ensure that they'll be able to trade freely. I could say that the freedom-related themes have to do with free trade and cooperation among private enterprises to address a common problem, but truthfully this is just a setup for a series of naval battles. The good guys win.

The third part (my nickname was "Dragged into the European War") covers a period of strife between Britain and France. Early on, there was some discussion of which side Spain would take, and there are hints that other powers are engaged in other theaters, but we only see the battles that take place in Atlantis. Victor Radcliff leads the British-allied settlers, and his French-settler counterpart Roland Kersauzon is descended from the frenchman who first identified the new continent. Early on, the French settlers are reinforced by French troops, but for most of this war, the British navy controls the oceans but isn't concerned about the fate of Atlantis, so the armies on the ground are on their own. Tactics rule the day, and the settlers teach the regular armies several lessons about dealing with insurgents and familiarity with local terrain.

Victor Radcliff is joined by Blaise, an escaped slave who becomes a leader among the British irregulars. A lot of the conflict in this section is about how competent Blaise is and how he is able to win over British settlers who haven't had much previous contact with Blacks. The French and Spanish they run into (and the British regulars) are much less tolerant. Blaise finds several opportunities to point out the parallels between his situation and the freedom that the other settlers are fighting for.

Overall, it's quite a fun read and well up to Turtledove's normal high standards. The characters and their battles and strategic surprises are well-drawn and plausible.

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