It is not for nothing that they call Harry Turtledove the master of alternative history. His wildly famous 1992 book Guns of the South was just one of his many works that explored how history might have been had a few small things changed its course—or maybe a few large things.
In Guns of the South, Turtledove imagines what might have happened if the Confederacy had had superior weaponry over the Union. And not just a little bit superior: what if the Confederacy had AK-47s and grenade launchers? This is what happened in the novel when, in 1864, some mysterious men showed up, wearing what we call camouflage but for which the confederates had no name, and making AK-47s, which could be used either in semi- or fully-automatic mode, and an unlimited amount of ammunition available for very little money—and for nearly worthless confederate money, at that. The men revealed to General Robert E. Lee and other top confederates that they were from the future—they had a time machine that brought them from 2014 back exactly 150 years. The result is gory and unsurprising, though its details are exciting: Confederate troops storm Washington, D.C., where Abraham Lincoln concedes defeat. The Confederacy just wants to be left alone, and the Union leaves them alone.
But there is a price to be paid. The mysterious camouflaged men told Lee that, if the Union had won the war, black people would eventually have enslaved white people. But what Lee and others eventually discover is that these men were lying about the future. They were a South African militia of white separatists who hated the very existence of black people. They were using a Confederate victory as a means of ensuring white supremacy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Emancipation was already beginning in the Confederacy, and it was a great benefit to the economy. But the racists hated it any way—they wanted to have dominion over blacks, even if it bankrupted their confederacy.
The author portrays many Confederates as evil racists, but others, including the sergeant through whose eyes much of the action is seen, and including Lee, were moderates who admitted to themselves that even a Confederate victory would not ensure the indefinite continuation of slavery, which was despised by literally every other nation in the world. After Lee became a civilian, and ran for Confederate president, he campaigned for gradual emancipation of the slaves. The South African supremacists, of course, hated this, and they turned their weapons against the Confederacy for which they had just a couple of years earlier fought. They had overwhelming firepower advantage, but there were only a few hundred of them—racist splinter groups are always small, even in apartheid South Africa. The moderate confederates, principal among them Robert E. Lee, prevail over them and ease their way into racial equality.
Turtledove’s writing is clear and beautiful, sometimes formulaic but never poor. The twists of plot and the delightful characters even by themselves make the book good.
Why am I reviewing this old book? In 1992, neither Turtledove nor anyone else could imagine that the kind of fierce hatred of blacks that fueled South African apartheid could possibly exist in America. But it does. It is impossible to make an accurate count of how many racists there are in America. But when you consider how widespread and common the white power protests are, and, what is more, the sheer number of assault weapons they have built up, it is easy to believe that somewhere around a half million Americans are ready to take up arms against the rest of us in order to establish a White Supremacist Nation. And I believe that they would be willing to stage an act of terrorism every bit as bloody and violent as that of the Afrikaner racists in this novel. In 1992, Turtledove had to imagine a foreign source for a few hundred such racists; today, right here in America, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands.
That is, real history has turned out thousands of times worse than a novelist could have imagined it a little over a quarter century ago. It seems impossible to avoid the inevitable firestorm that will result from white hatred of blacks in America. Evolution has given us both good and bad instincts, and the intelligence to choose the good; sadly, I see no way in which intelligence and goodness can possibly prevail in this selfish and hostile nation that we have become.