Monday, April 30, 2012

The Disunited States of America by Harry Turtledove

Published September 6, 2006.

Author website.

Justin's family are Time Traders. The summer before he's due to start college, he goes with them to a different Virginia, in a timeline where the American states never became a single country, and American history has consisted of a series of small wars. Despite his unease, he accompanies Randolph Brooks, another Time Trader, on a visit to the tiny upland town of Elizabeth, Virginia. He'll only be away from his parents for a few days.

Beckie Royer thanks her stars that she's from California, the most prosperous and advanced country in North America. But just now she's in Virginia with her grandmother, who wants to revisit the tiny mountain town where she grew up. The only interesting thing there is a boy named Justin--and he'll be gone soon.

Then war between Virginia and Ohio breaks out anew. Ohio sets a tailored virus loose on Virginia. Virginia swiftly imposes a quarantine, trapping Becky and Justin and Randolph Brooks in Elizabeth. Even Crosstime Traffic can't help. All the three of them can do is watch as plague and violence take over the town.

It's nothing new in history, not in this timeline or any other. It's part of the human condition. And just now, this part of the human condition sucks.  (

This is actually the fourth book in the CROSSTIME TRAFFIC series but I didn't know that when I took the book on for review.  No worries though since it read pretty much as a standalone.  I'm going to take a leaping guess here and assume that book one actually explains the whole concept of crosstime traffic and why Justin's home timeline thinks they're the only ones special enough to be able to travel across time.  That whole concept just read really wrong to me.  That only Justin's timeline had those capabilities and they kept altering other timelines for the "good" of that timeline, and to prevent them from traveling across time, again for the "greater good."  Talk about playing god.  This is where I might be missing something from other books and since the whys aren't explained in THE DISUNITED STATES OF AMERICA I'm kind of left wanting in that area.  But my bad for picking up a series at book four.

As for the story within the greater CROSSTIME TRAFFIC story, it was, meh, okay.  The voice did little for me as it was more omniscient and a bit schizophrenic at times.  Becky's voice especially, in my opinion, kept changing and she would say things, like little sayings, that just didn't seem genuine to her character.  It was kind of jarring.  Justin was pretty constant in voice and development which leads me to believe that the author might have had a better time writing in either limited third or first via Justin as opposed to omniscient third.  It just didn't really work out too well when he was in Becky's voice.  The phrases were a little too kitschy and a lot of the times she sounded like what the author probably thought a teenage girl from California sounded like, in 1966.  She was just really artificial in her structure to me.

The story itself passed by in a blur and I found myself skimming a lot.  There was a lot of thinly veiled moralizing going on about inequality and "what if's" that I was kind of over it.  I'm really not into fiction for morals so when I have one pressed at me I tend to zone out.  The author also seemed to be really pushing the backstory of this particular timeline just as much as he was trying to push the story forward.  There were a lot of info burps going on that were creating the cornerstone for this particular world and they always seemed to happen when there was a lull in the plot, which was often.

Not much really happened to the characters until the end of the story.  The invasion itself didn't happen until at least two thirds of the way through and up until then it was a lot of talks in the back yard (seriously, every time Justin and Becky got together it was clunky storytelling in the backyard with fizzes, aka soda) and stuff happening on TV and the radio but nowhere near.  And it doesn't play out like what the blurb, I think, insinuates.  Or even by what the cover would intone.  Once the fecal matter smacks against the rotating device Justin and Becky's paths deviate and they get where they need to go on their own.  So the package was a bit deceptive because there wasn't much of a collaborative effort on their part.

All the blurbs in the book were raving about how awesome of an alt-history writer Turtledove is but what I saw was a really scattered plot, a piecemeal world and awkward writing, more often than not telling instead of showing.  I felt relatively little for any of the characters and really the only redeeming part for me was when Justin had to step into the shoes of a soldier in order to get to his destination.  That was really the only instance of suspense and true action I felt in the entire book.  That was the only place where I actually got to SEE Justin as more than the author's puppet.  Everything else was just yak, yak, yak and complain and coins.  It felt empty.

I do like how it's a different take on the whole dystopian front.  You know, instead of being an actual dystopian it's an alt-history that thus alters the present and future.  It's a breath of fresh air in that regard. But outside of that I was unimpressed.  Maybe if I'd started the series from the beginning I'd feel differently, with more background information on the home timeline and Justin's world but I'm really not sure how good that would do.  I seem to have the most problems with the author's writing style.  A bit harder to change.

Read THE DISUNITED STATES OF AMERICA if you're looking for something different than the standard dystopians out there.  It really is a good break in that regard.  Just be cognizant of the writing.  It's not all that phenomenal.

Ban Factor: Low - It's actually a pretty innocuous story.  Not much swearing, not much violence (considering) and barely any romance.  I don't know what the banners could get offended by here.  I mean, there are Christian god references and everything!  And not mocking!
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