The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell
The question this novelette from Subterranean Press raises is a simple one. By their nature, all creative works are “political” because the purpose is to interact with the people who experience them. For these purposes, it doesn’t matter what the format of the work is. It can be fiction or not, in written form or not. The means of delivery is irrelevant. The content is the essence and each format comes with its own set of rules. So, for example, the rules require a journalist to be truthful whereas, by definition, someone writing fiction is not constrained by reality but is expected to be original, i.e. plagiarism can be a more serious problem. So when a creative person chooses the medium, access to the target audience depends on meeting that audience’s expectations or not pushing the envelope beyond what the audience will accept. So back to the question of “politics”. Although it’s a naive reaction to a book, I found The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell (the pen name of John G. Hemry) hard to read because the political point of view being expressed is so far removed from my own. I’m not using the word “politics” in its narrow sense of discourse for the purposes of an election or for debating public policy because we take that to mean something potentially divisive or partisan. Ironically, even that definition is probably misleading. Politics fixes the prices for staples like bread or petrol through taxation and the availability or denial of subsidies. As I write this, there are riots in Indonesia over government attempts to end fuel subsidies, Egypt may be about to repeat its bread riots, Zambia is struggling to end the subsidy of maize, America is debating whether to impose controls on the right to buy and carry guns, and so on.
All aspects of our lives are touched by politics in one way or another, and we make political decisions on how to live our lives, i.e. personal choices are self-governance. So when an author decides what to write about, he or she is expressing opinions about the content. In romantic fiction, for example, an author’s lead female character assesses the suitors. What jobs do they have? What possessions do they own? What are their prospects? Are they good breeding material? Are they the right race and religion? And so on. So this book is an exercise in storytelling. It’s an alternate history set in America where the victory against the British and the subsequent introduction of a democratic constitution under Washington have been lost. This describes the beginning of the second revolution and fires the first shots in what will become a civil war. It could have been written in a sly way, allowing issues to arise naturally. Sadly, it’s polemical and, at times, confrontational in asserting the correctness of the author’s point of view. While there’s no doubt we should all resist tyranny, we could have been given a fantasy or allegory to transform the battle against authoritarianism into art. Instead we get a jail break and a first set-piece battle to make it seem “real”. To my mind, this naturalism makes the book highly “political” and too overtly so. If the author is going to write about revolution, the least he could do is hold up a mirror and show us something more interesting about the process.
All alternate history depends on the quality of the “what if”. In this case, we go back to the Presidency under Thomas Jefferson and have Vice President Aaron Burr pack the senior ranks of the army with political appointees. Because the chain of command held up, this converted the army into a political tool and it became a force of repression as rich power-brokers took command in the White House. We then get the usual rewriting of history, military tribunals replacing conventional courts, slavery confirmed throughout America, indentured labour expanded in the North. It’s a classic model of ownership applied to a society. However, a few brave souls begin to organise and speak out. So here we have Abraham Lincoln a prisoner convicted of sedition and Joshua Chamberlain sent to work alongside the slaves on a plantation. Except an increasingly confident army faction takes action and rescues both men, hoping their academic and political expertise will enable them to run a more successful PR campaign to raise the people in support of armed insurrection. This leads us up to the Battle of Gettysburg where the more radical tactics of the New Republic defeat the traditional battle plans of the incumbent army, in part led by political hacks with little actual combat experience. For those of you not up on American history, the title of the book is a reference to the Gettysburg Address given by Abraham Lincoln in November, 1863. When talking about the sacrifices made in the battle as a contribution towards the birth of freedom, Lincoln praises those who fell and gave “the last full measure of devotion”.
In another context, the military fiction might have been entertaining but, in The Last Full Measure, the result is tedious and perfunctory, the sequence of events largely depending on coincidence and happenstance. So this is not recommended unless you want a book that panders to your specific “political”, in this case Republican, point of view, namely that the US Constitution as interpreted by Republicans must be upheld no matter what the cost.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.