H.'s Reviews > C.S.A. - Confederate States of America: A Novel

C.S.A. - Confederate States of America by Howard B. Means
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's review
Feb 28, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: modern-sf

In CSA, Means attempts the ambitious goal of writing a book that straddles two (really, three) genres: thriller and alternate history (itself at the intersection of speculative fiction and historical fiction). Each has its demands. Suffice to say, CSA falls short. The book description calls CSA as “fascinating, provocative, [and] sophisticated,” all good qualities for a thriller. Regrettably, it is none of the above. The historical fiction aspect of alternate history demands the fine attention to historical detail upon which historical fiction fans insist. Again, Means’s effort falls short. I’ll leave critique of the alternate resolution of the Civil War to other reviewers better qualified to comment. A writer of alternate history must also supply the imagination and insight into human nature fans of speculative fiction seek. CSA works, I think, on the imagination part, but it fails to apply the requisite insight to make it work.

Civil War alternate history is a crowded field, and Means works hard to present a unique alternate history. This is the sort of thing that requires a little extra elbow grease by the author to make it work. Means puts in no such work, instead expecting us to accept his world without explanation. It’s a world where the South not only won, but won a complete victory. The South chose to keep the north as sort of a vassal state rather than install its government to govern the old United States. Slaves were almost immediately freed after the Civil War ends. Separate but Equal means something it never did in reality, as there is an all-black House and all-white Senate, a black VP and white president, and an identical black UVA beside the original white one (wasteful university capital spending, indeed).

Each is a stretch, to say the least. But, conceivably, they could work. And, again conceivably, they could be used for a very interesting study of human nature, particularly that old American bugaboo, race relations. But Means never does the legwork to why the CSA wound up with a black House and white Senate (a plausible explanation would be that violence or the threat of violence from a black majority led to détente with a compromise solution leaving African-Americans with the House). Nor does he use the structure he put in as a window into any sort of deep insight into human nature. The idea that Separate but Equal, even if truly equal, is still deeply wrong is certainly worthy of greater exploration, but CSA never really puts it to use.
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