Monday, April 24, 2017

Opening Atlantis, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turteldove is the master of the "what if" novel.  What if the South won the Civil War?  What if Hitler prevailed in WW2?  What if the Korean War developed into a full-fledged global nuclear war?  Turtledove's 2007 novel Opening Atlantis is built around the question, What if there were a continent called Atlantis between Europe and what we now know as North America?

An English fisherman follows his Breton counterpart and competitor to new fishing grounds, where the cod are larger than any he's ever seen.  The fishing is great, and the land is even greater, fertile and untouched by human habitation.  So begins his quest to settle this new, rich, and wondrous land.  I enjoyed the story of the early settlers as they established towns and adapted the land to suit their needs.  Their independent streak and quest for self-determination parallels our own nation's history.  Their revolt against the English nobleman who decides to make Atlantis a kingdom of his own, their defeat of the pirates who raided the sea trade, and their cooperation with the British navy to defeat the French, resembled U.S. history (with, of course, lots of key differences).

As is always the case with alternative history stories like this, the deeper the divergence from actual history, the more I tend to lose interest.  I enjoyed the early parts of the book more than the latter parts.  I would like to have heard more about what was going on in Terra Nova, the land the the west of Atlantis.  Turtledove alludes to the Spanish, but barely.  I would like to know what happened to Columbus.  The English came to Atlantis decades before Columbus came to the New World.  Did he end up as a trader?  An explorer?  What about the conquistadors?  Perhaps those are novels for another time.

I would also like to know why Atlantis has such unusual flora and fauna.  Turtledove spends a lot of time talking about the unusual animals that are unlike any the settlers have ever seen, and trees and plants that grow larger and look different than any others.  Terra Nova has the same sorts of animals and vegetation that the Europeans are accustomed to, so how did Atlantis develop so differently?  I kept thinking that Turtledove would come up with some explanation, but he leaves this piece of the puzzle hanging.

Turtledove develops memorable characters.  In Opening Atlantis, he follows a couple of families over many generations.  This makes it an enjoyable novel with an epic feel, but I didn't love it.

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