Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Liberating Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove's Liberating Atlantis is the final book of the trilogy, which covers the successful rebellion that ends slavery slightly earlier than in our own timeline. The protagonist is Frederick Radcliff, a slave and descendent of Victor Radcliff, himself a major character in both the previous books. Frederick Radcliff is the grandson of a slave woman "lent" to Victor between the battles in United States of Atlantis. Victor suffers a fair amount of angst in that story over the existance of a slave-born son when he has no surviving children with his wife.

Frederick is a smart and competent house slave who trips over a loose floorboard at an inopportune time and is given "5 lashes, well laid on" as direct punishment, and demoted to be a field slave. It doesn't take him long to be fed up with his new circumstances and luck soon feeds him an opportunity which he grabs and takes advantage of. A squad of soldiers are ferrying weapons and ammunition when they are hit with yellow fever; they stop to recover at the plantation where Frederick lives and toils. After the fever takes a few soldiers and their sentries get a little lax, Frederick leads a small band of slaves to grab the munitions and kill the soldiers along with their owners.

From there, the rebellion spreads, and Frederick proves an able leader. They find enough supplies on the nearby plantations and intercept supplies intended for the army that comes to suppress the rebellion. The army underestimates their abilities often enough that they are successful, and eventually negotiate terms with the national government.

Turtledove does a good job of presenting freedom-oriented ideas but in this book, they're in extremely non-controversial areas (everyone has an equal right to be free, governing is hard). His characters are all mixes of good and bad aspects, with even the southerners getting good points in occasionally, and not being any more consistently stupid than their opponents.

One of the ideas Turtledove explored in the series is the workings of the Roman consul system in which the power of the federal executive is checked by electing pairs of chief executives who serve in alternating periods and can veto each others' actions. The system worked alright for Rome for a long time, but as Turtledove portrays it, it falls apart in contentious times. In particular, the system calls for the consuls to serve in times of war as field generals alternating duties daily. The two consuls in this novel eventually figure out how to work together to make some progress, even when they disagree about their aims. It is more entertaining and instructive to see wild ideas demonstrated in fiction to argue that they might work, rather than to show that they don't work any better than we'd expect.

On the whole, a good read. Worthy of being a Prometheus finalist, and the first time, I think, that an author has had two finalists the same year. A few authors, most recently Charles Stross, had two novels nominated the same year.

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