Monday, May 10, 2010

Marching Through Georgia - A Book Review

"Six generations of his family had made war for the Domination of Draka. Eric von Shrakenberg wanted to bring peace, but to do that he would have to become a better killer than any of them."

Being that one of my favorite subjects is history it should seem only natural that one of my favorite types of fiction is Alternate History.

Alternate History is fiction that takes place in a world where history turned out differently. Two of the most commonly occuring stories take place in worlds where the Civil War turned out differently or where World War II turned out differently. A staple of Alternate History is a "Point of Divergence", the event that occurs in the fictional history and not in ours. Often times the Point of Divergence can be a specific event such as "what if the South won the Battle of Gettysburg?" or a more general event such as "what if Nazi Germany won World War II?"

Good Alternate History doesn't focus on the timeline too much, instead it tells a story that takes place within that timeline.

Marching Through Georgia by S.M. Stirling is a much different take on an alternate World War II. In this book the Point of Divergence occurs during the American Revolutionary War, when the Netherlands declares war on Great Britain. Consequently, Great Britain captures the Dutch colony in southern Africa during the war.

America still wins it's independence and after the war Great Britain offers land to all American Loyalists as well as anyone who fought for the crown (in real life they were offered land in Canada).

The refugees head to South Africa and found the "Crown Colony of Drakia" (named for Sir Francis Drake). Taking their slaves with them they direct all their efforts to taking land and slaves for the new colony.

Their drive for conquest fuels a much faster development of technology than occured in real life. For instance, aircraft and automobiles (steam powered) are developed a generation earlier than they historically were.

The Drakians found a society upon slavery and conquest. Their society is extremely rigid, there are two types of people: Citizens and Serfs. Citizens make up only 9% of the population. Serfs are the slaves, they have no rights whatsoever. Draka society is extremely brutal in order to dissuade any attempts at serf rebellions.

Over the course of the late 18th and 19th centuries the Drakas are reinforced by French refugees from Haiti, Icelanders, refugees from the French Revolution and defeated American Confederates.

The Draka are fanatical soldiers. All Citizens are sent to military training schools at the age of 5 and undergo intensive military training until the age of 18 when they are required to serve at least 4 years in the military. Draka soldiers, both men and women are extremely strong, tough and deadly. Citizen soldiers make up 40% of the military, the other 60% is "Janissary" (slave soldiers).

The Drakas soon prove too powerful to contain and by the end of the 19th century they have conquered all of Africa. People in the conquered countries are all enslaved. By the 20th century their attitude towards race has changed. At first their racism was directed towards non-whites, but now, like the ancient Romans, they view all non-Draka as cattle to be enslaved.

When World War I breaks out "Dominion of Draka" joins Great Britain and invades and overruns the Ottoman Empire. After the end of the war the Draka declare themselves independent and invade the rest of the Middle East and then continue into Asia until they reach the Yangtze River.

The United States is Also much larger, having invaded and conquered Canada during the War of 1812, and Central America in the 1850's. By the 20th century the United States encompasses all of North and Central America and the Caribbean.

Hitler comes to power in Germany in 1932. In 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union invade and occupy Poland. Hitler then turns his attention west and invades the rest of Europe, with Spain joining the Axis. Unable to defeat the British, the German Kriegsmarine, successfully blockades them. In 1941 Hitler launched Operationb Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union. Due to the Second Russian Civil War, the USSR is much weaker than they were historically and the Wehrmacht sweeps across Russian and into the Ural Mountains. The Empire of Japan has also invaded the Soviet Union from the east, occupied the rest of China not annexed by the Draka, as well as conquered all of the South Pacific and the northern half of Australia.

The book itself opens in 1942. The United States and the British Empire are facing extinction from Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, respectively. Knowledge of Hitler's Holocaust has kept the the US and the UK from allying with Germany. The only choice for them is an alliance with the Draka.

Earlier in 1942 the Draka invaded and occupied Italy and are now preparing for an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. A Draka airborn division led by Centurion Eric von Shrakenberg is charged with beginning the invasion by taking the Ossetian Military Highway in Nazi-occupied Georgia, at the same time an entire legion of Draka troops will invade from Draka-held Kazakhstan.

Although they are able to occupy the town, their equipment was accidentally dropped far outside the town. They are soon cut off by the enemy forces and must now hold the town and the highway against the German reinforcements which includes a division of the 1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler division.

I enjoyed the book as instead of simply depicting a different outcome to World War II, the author has invented a society that never existed to begin with and described the timeline in detail (provided in an appendix at the end of the book). The author devoted much attention to describing the battle scenes and is well-versed in military technology. Because of the faster pace of technological development, the tanks and airplanes described are more powerful than those that historically existed.

The book itself was written in 1988 when events in the Republic of South Africa were coming to a head and it was obvious that soon that Apartheid system would be ended by one means or another. And although the author has never commented upon this, it is obvious that one of the inspirations for the book was a world where South Africa grew too powerful for any country to contain and took their caste system to it's logical extreme.

The interesting thing about the Draka is that they are not simply one-dimensional bad guys. They extensively cultivate the environment for aesthetics and for conservation purposes. They are lovers of fine art. They have strong family ties.

But it is always obvious that the Draka are evil. They are ruthless conquerers and their military is notorious for it's atrocity. Soldiers engage in the wholesale rape, murder and pillage of conquered people.

The book effectively creates a world with an enemy whose atrocity dwarfs anything Hitler's Third Reich ever committed. And as later (described in the timeline) the Draka proceed to invade and conquer the rest of Europe, the Nazis become almost sympathetic, struggling in vain to defend their country from an enemy even worse than they are.

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