While the world passes me by and real people have lives, I continue to debate myself over whether or not alternate history fiction ought to be considered science fiction. In the strict sense, probably not, despite the fact that it's mostly written by SF writers and sold in the SF section. But alternate history certainly is speculative fiction, a label that isn't in wide use today despite the vogue it enjoyed decades ago among the "new wave" SF writers seeking to distance themselves from the genre's pulpy roots.
So while the most forward-thinking SF is often speculative, backward-thinking speculation is alternate history's raison d'etre. Certainly the two genres have a fraternal relationship, which gives me all the reason I need to review alternate history here. Good thing too; had I decided to be a stick-in-the-mud SF and fantasy purist, I'd have denied myself the chance to read an exciting book like Eric Flint's 1812: The Rivers of War. (The 1812 wasn't part of the title until the paperback release.)
A thought-provoking and gloriously action-packed saga set during the ongoing War of 1812, Rivers looks at one event in that epoch-defining conflict, tweaks it only slightly, and moves on from there. Some alternate history stories can take an unrealistic approach to the whole "butterfly effect" aspect of cause and effect, placing undue emphasis on minor details which may or may not have really made the profound changes the author presumes. Conversely, a good alternate history writer understands history isn't a straight line but a branching tree. Its course won't usually be drastically altered just by one key event, but a panoply of events happening in concert. Case in point: Europe before the Great War was a powder keg just waiting to be lit. Had Arch-Duke Ferdinand not been shot when he was, something equally volatile would in all likelihood have happened in short order to get the war underway.
And yet, there is something to the notion that small events can have great consequences, if they happen to the right person, at either the right or wrong time. The Rivers of War opens in early 1814, during the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, an Alabama rout in which blustery General Andrew Jackson annihilated around 800 Creek indians with the help of some Cherokee allies. Jackson's concern was that the Creeks were, of course, an obstacle to settling Alabama, but worse, that the Creeks were being armed by the hostile Spanish in Florida. With Britain the real enemy, its peerlessly trained and battle-hardened armies running roughshod over the poorly commanded American militias, the Creek War had been a nuisance Jackson (and the country) didn't need — especially with Britain and Spain eagerly fomenting anti-American hostility among the unallied indian tribes.
Now here is where Flint deviates from history. During this battle, a young lieutenant named Sam Houston — whose best-known legacy is his defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto following the Alamo — received a nasty arrow wound to the groin that put him out of action for a while and gave him problems for the rest of his life. In the novel, the arrow just grazes Houston, allowing him to remain a major player in the immediate aftermath of the battle. And this aftermath, as Flint tells it, will involve the fate of the Cherokee Nation, a tribe that Houston (who lived among them for years as a teenager after running away from home) considers family. In The Rivers of War, Flint essentially wants the Trail of Tears, one of America's most shameful memories, to unhappen, and he establishes a plausible fictional scenario towards this end.
In addition to vivid depictions of real historical figures (the scenery-chewing Jackson is especially enjoyable) familiar to us from dollar bills and otherwise, Flint sprinkles his cast with a diverse array of fictitious folks inspired, if not by actual individuals, by the kinds of people encountered in his extensive research. Sergeant Patrick Driscol leads the pack here, a gruff Scots-Irishman whose memories of British depradations in Ireland instilled in him such a corrosive loathing of the British that he fought for a while for Napoleon. Driscol enters the fray by distinguishing himself in battle against the British along the Canadian border, losing an arm in the meleé. He is then dispatched to Washington, where he teams up with Sam Houston in a valiant defense of the U.S. Capitol (a spectacular setpiece). The novel's final third has Houston and Driscol joining Jackson in New Orleans for the battle that will decide whether or not America will stand as a nation. For if the British gain control of the vast Mississippi River, the main route of commerce into the country from the Gulf, it's pretty much all over.
So much historical fiction (alternate or otherwise) suffers from an overly academic approach; dry compendiums of facts and figures, with the heroes of history rendered as lifelike as one of those Disneyland animatronic statues. Flint charges into the thing like a saber-swinging general on a white horse, delivering battle scenes of a cinematic grandeur while warmly rendering all of his characters as relatably human without giving into the one-dimensional temptation to "demythologize" their historical stature. Everyone seems larger than life and yet down to earth at the same time. It's extraordinary. True, one could quibble a few points. While there's a lot of detail given to discussions of race relations at the time — one thing that might surprise readers not well read on the period is that the races even then were pretty well mixed; many of the story's Cherokee characters have so much Scottish and European blood that they appear entirely Caucasian — I couldn't help thinking that Flint was having some of his characters thinking about racial parity in terms a bit too egalitarian to be 100% realistic for the times. But I did like the way race was included as a plot element without being used as an excuse to step up to the PC lectern and pontificate.
And if there's so much as a boring sentence in the book, I didn't find it. This is simply fine, action-packed entertainment, and I think it would have been even if Flint had chosen to do a straightforward historical novel rather than an alternate history. Because it's obvious Eric Flint understands that history is a bunch of great stories, more than anything else. And in The Rivers of War, he's offered his own, a rousing tale of an America that could have been, and one worthy of the America that did, in fact, occur.