Saturday, January 16

Harry Turtledove: The Disunited States of America

A young man and his mother travel to a parallel universe where the United Stated didn’t actually unite and North America is a patchwork of individual nations.
While away on a day trip there is an outbreak of a highly contagious, and highly deadly, virus resulting in the country of Virginia quarantining its citizens. The young man is reasonably confident that immunisations from his own universe will be effective in preventing him from contracting the disease but he is nonetheless stuck in a small town and worried about his distant mother.
It is here he meets a young woman, a Californian visiting family, who is likewise stuck until the quarantine is lifted. Her political views are vastly different from those of the locals; particularly her belief in racial equality and the young man finds it hard to maintain the façade of racism required for him to pass himself off as a true Virginian. But letting his cover slip would endanger not only himself and his mother but his entire universe.
When it is discovered that the virus is a genetically modified version of measles deliberately released upon the Virginians by the neighbouring nation of Ohio war is declared. Virginia soon finds itself fighting on two fronts as the native black population take advantage of the war to rise up against white oppression.
When a soldier billeted in town dies of the virus the young man slips into the soldier’s uniform and makes his way back through the war torn countryside to his mother, getting caught up in active fighting along the way.
As armies advance the young woman and her grandmother escape the town and head for the city in hope of escaping back to California. When the grandmother comes down with the virus the young woman seeks out the young man for help.
He convinces medics in his own universe to send a cure which he gives to the young woman for her grandmother before returning with his mother to his own universe.
When I got this novel I didn’t realise that it was the forth book in a series (though how I missed the fact when the cover clearly states Crosstime Traffic book four I don’t know). I can only assume that the questions I had about world building, particularly the technology involved in jumping between alternate universes, had been addressed in previous books since it is not mentioned in this one. Having said that this story stands alone well and though familiarity with the previous stories in the series, and a better knowledge of US geography and history, would probably have given me a deeper understanding of the story it wasn’t strictly necessary.
First for the good: while the story focussed on racism, it also addressed a number of other issues, running the gamut from when profanity might be considered acceptable to the morality of war. The complexities of the issues are not over simplified for the target audience, the historical, social, political and emotional aspects of them being acknowledged, though the conclusion of their moral value strictly adheres to modern mores. Character growth, via flashes of understanding, is minor but brilliantly done making me think this author is capable of much more than we see here.
BUT: I can’t help but feel that the author bit off more than he could chew with this book. The concept is great but for the main part the writing just wasn’t up to it. Ideas are reiterated frequently with no new insight, giving the feel of a repeated lecture that quickly loses reader interest. This is to the detriment of other, equally important, issues which could have been explored in more depth but were not. The main characters, supposedly in their late teens, think, behave and speak as though they were much younger. And there is no clear explanation as to why the young man is there in the first place (though this might have been presented in earlier works).
Not a bad book but perhaps a bit too much going on at once. I don’t think I’ll be following up earlier instalments in the Crosstime Traffic series.-Lynn

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