Ardman, Harvey. Reunion: What If the Civil War Had Never Happened?

np: Amazon Digital Services, 2014.

I’ve never heard of Ardman but this one came to my notice because I’m a long-time fan of alternate histories. What-if-ing is great intellectual fun — if you do it right and play by the rules. Ardman has written some twenty books, nearly all of them workmanlike nonfiction, and has produced a number of television documentaries (and lots of commercials, apparently), but this appears to be his first attempt at fiction.

It’s a straight-to-Kindle novel and the premise — the Point of Departure — is simple: What if the newly-elected Lincoln in 1861 decided to just let the Southern states go rather than committing the country to a war in which he feared as many as 10,000 men might be killed? Now it’s 150 years later, the Confederacy is running out of steam, the U.S. has morphed into the North American Union by admitting Ontario, and Mexico took back Texas in 2005, though Hurricane Katrina prevented them from capturing NOLA as well. Things are heading for a three-way crisis and the long-time Good Ol’ Boy CSA president and the newly elected (and Black) NAU president decide to meet in person at a summit — something which hasn’t happened in more than a century. They both have long shared a dream, too — the reunification of North and South. But how are they going to convince the people of their respective nations that it’s the best thing to do?

As a novel, the book has problems, mostly in the clichéd characters and the attempts to reproduce regional speech patterns. Many of the interpersonal relationships are pretty predictable, though there are a few surprises there. And while the plot never gets out of control, the narrative style tends to wander from relatively sophisticated to rather naïve.

As a construct in alternate history, however — the sort of thing a group of geeks might come up with over a long weekend — it’s a pretty interesting set-up. Slavery has finally been eliminated in the South (under pressure from Europe, apparently) but Blacks are very much second-class citizens. The old-line plantation-owners, those who have run the CSA for generations for their own ends, have finally accepted that their time is coming to an end. And Ardman seems to understand the causes and effects of these forces.

However, there are also anomalies that an historian would catch: Since North America stayed out of the Great War, the Kaiser won and Germany is still the wealthiest and most powerful Western nation — which is one of the motivations for reunion: To make English-speaking North America a serious competitor. But the author refers to NAU President Callaway as “the leader of the free world.” Moreover, there was never a Hitler or a World War II (nor, apparently, a Bolshevik revolution, and nothing about what happened to Britain in 1917), but there is nevertheless a global Internet, despite the fact that ARPA never existed. (Younger people might assume that this would be “inevitable,” but given the much slower pace of technological development, I don’t think I buy it.) There’s even a Google, and a Skype — and under those names, too, though the author often plays with other products’ brand names. Laptops seem identical to those in our own 21st century, but would computers really have developed so rapidly and so far without the impetus of wartime and Cold War military spending? Again, the author makes cultural assumptions for the purpose of his story without considering all the ramifications. (That’s why good alternate history is so difficult to do.)

Having said all that, it’s not a horrible book. If you like alternate history yarns, you’ll probably enjoy this one. Ardman is at least as good a writer as Turtledove in this field — though that might not be saying much.

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