Thursday, 8 September 2011

Over the hills and far away..

I'm writing this post from a B&B in Lincoln, where I'm attending the Asylum UK Steampunk Convivial. I must confess to being more than a little apprehensive at the prospect, as despite my love of VSF I'm not really much into the steampunk subculture, which owes as much to the goth scene as it does HG Wells. I'm afraid my humble attempts at the mandatory costuming look pitiful next to those more into the scene, despite having assistance from a self-styled Crafting Queen. The weekend's official programme seems to have absolutely no gaming content whatsoever, although I have been tasked with running a semi-impromptu RPG session tomorrow while we're waiting for the event to formally open.

We have a GASLIGHT game pencilled in for next Sunday at Manchester Area Wargames Society, this time open to anyone who wants to join in (with certain limits, one must keep the riff-raff out, you understand.) While it's going to be too short notice to get either the slum housing or the Fenians or Russians ready to play, I'm hoping to get at least a couple of new vehicles into play for the existing factions. The Brits have a couple of mini tankettes formerly made by Ground Zero Games, the Germans have the Scheltrum "Armoured Pullman" while the Evil Genius forces has the heavily modified Iron Drake from the Scotia Grendel fantasy line, augmented with a turret from Ramshackle Games "Tridlins" catalogue, plus hopefully the converted Brass Coffin model, based/blatantly copied from Papa Midnight's conversion.

As research for my upcoming Fenian army, I've just re-read the Stars and Stripes trilogy by Harry Harrison. It's an alternate history novel which diverges from our history early in the American Civil War. Through bad diplomacy and a sequence of unlikely events, North and South re-unite to give the British Empire a good kicking, pausing only to liberate Ireland before invading England and kicking out the monarchy in order to impose their version of democracy.

You'd think this story would be full of excellent inspiration for VSF wargames, but you'd be wrong. Harrison is reputed to be very anti-British in real life, and this comes blaring through in the books. Every single British character is portrayed as incompetent, bigoted, rude and completely unable to adapt to new ideas. Queen Victoria is portrayed as a drooling semi-imebecile, every British politician a jingoistic warmonger. The British soldiers stationed in Mexico are portrayed as completely unable to adapt to a hot climate, despite having redeployed there from India. I think it's accurate to say that in all three books there is not one positive adjective ever applied to a character from the British side.

Compare and contrast the Americans, who are all peace-loving but uber-competent visionary professionals, who instantly adapt to the new technologies of war that debuted in the Civil War. After promptly setting aside any "misunderstandings" over the whole messy slavery business, they instantly re-equip all their forces with repeating rifles, a seemingly unlimited supply of Gatling guns and a brand new class of nigh-unsinkable and surprisingly seaworthy Ironclad Monitors. Harrison sets up his scenario to give the Americans every single possible advantage, and as a result they steamroller the Brits in every encounter. USS Monitor meets HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy's most advanced ironclad, in a perfect storm of favourable circumstances.

What rankles a little is that Harrison seems to flirt briefly with some potentially meaty plot elements, only to quickly move on to more one dimensional "British bad, America good" ranting. The problems of the South reintegrating into the Union are teased at briefly, with a major plot twist in the first book, which is then instantly forgotten. The centuries of ill feeling between Catholics and Protestant in Ireland are steamrollered over once the Americans declare Ireland liberated and the complaints of the minority Protestants are mentioned then immediately brushed aside. The final pages of the book show the Americans in the conquered Republic of England (having also broken the union with Scotland) casting their eyes eastward to mainland Europe and speculating whether at some point they too would need "sorting out",
And then despite blatantly loading all the dice in America's favour and displaying a clear ignorance of some of the warfighting technology he describes (grapeshot being effective at a range of over a mile, in the first shot of the Battle of Hampton Roads, no less), in an interview included at the end off the first book, Harrison piously proclaims that his story is exactly how it would have happened.

The best way, I've found, to enjoy the Stars and Stripes series is to ignore Harrison's claims that he's writing Alternate History. He's not. He's actually writing a pastiche of the "Coming War" genre that was extremely popular in the late 19th century. In it, writers would postulate some new and revolutionary warfighting technology or method that would be used to finally vanquish the enemy. HG Wells' "The Land Ironclads" is one such story, as is "The Battle of Dorking". I've read a couple of other examples, one German and one American, in which the British were the enemy, their traditional-bound military completely unable to resist the new and scientific methods of warfare used against them, leading to a series of one-sided slaughters. The Stars and Stripes book match this tone down to the smallest detail.

The other way to get the most out of the Stars and Stripes books is to put them down and instead read Harry Turtledove's "How Few Remain", from a Harry who really knows how to write alternate history. After the South survives the Civil War intact, a second civil war flares up in the 1880s. Turtledove looks at the impact of a lot of the same new technology as Harrison, but does so in a much more convincing narrative. The fighting in 1881 becomes a grim foreshadowing of the trench warfare of WW1, which Turtledove would go on to cover extensively in the Great War series which follows on from events in this novel. But How Few Remain stands up well as a rollicking piece of war fiction in its own right, despite its intended role as an introduction to the three alt-history series that followed on from it.


  1. It's also funny how Harrison convenient forgets that the roots for the antidote for trench warfare caused by rifled bullets (best known as BlitzKreig) were the first world war tanks and the ideas that were pioneered by british military thinkers.

    Yeah I know the british generals in the great war were guilty of failing to see their out-dated methods just didn't work, and that a "jolly good push" wouldn't do anything other than leave a lot of men dead. Machine guns were "dashedly unsporting" and poison gas was just the methods of monsters. I think at the time the notion of all-out war was totally alien to the brits.

    But it's quite easy to point out American Civil War generals like McClellan who where equally guilty of stupidity beyond belief. Although you could argue that it was this poor performance that pushed the idea of emancipation of the slaves, so you could at least trust them to fight for you. (shakes head slowly)

    I think when you look back in history all military technology suffered from either poor adoption rate or initial lack of ideas in how to effectively use it. And you know I think that's perfectly understandable!

    Anyway enjoy the rest of your convivial and keep up the great posts. Hope you dont mind me chipping in!

  2. Not at all, old friend, I'm just surprised and delighted to see you discussing military history these days.

    Harrison conveniently forgets a lot of stuff. He forgets that despite the evidence of the Civil War, the US didn't adopt a repeater as the primary firearm until 1892, a couple of years after the hidebound and inflexible British adopted the Lee Metford. He even describes some of the British forces as still using the Brown Bess muskets that fought Napoleon, despite the fact that since the Crimea the British Army had switched entirely to the 1853 Enfield Rifled Musket, a Minie-style weapon that incidentally was the second most common rifle used by both sides in the Civil War.

    Regarding the shortsightedness of WWI Generals in adapting to the new weapons, there's a lovely bit in Turtledove's Great War trilogy involving General George Armstrong Custer (who in this alternative history was too busy fighting the 2nd Civil War in How Few Remain and never met his fate at Little Big Horn) is set up largely as the General Melchett/Haig character responsible for countless bloody futile assaults. Pig-headed, hidebound, inflexible.

    And yet, when tanks are first introduced, he's the one who really gets how best to use them. As an ex-cavalryman he instinctively knows to use them concentrated to punch a hole in the enemy line and then use their speed to exploit the gap instead of in penny-packets as infantry support.

    It's a totally unexpected twist, yet rings very true. It's another reason why Turtledove is so much better at this stuff than Harrison.