Thursday, April 12, 2012

Review: "Stars and Stripes" trilogy by Harry Harrison

Guest Review by Chris Nuttall.

Stars and Stripes Forever
Stars and Stripes in Peril

Stars and Stripes Triumphant

It is quite easy to see why Harry Harrison got published in the first place. His Stainless Steel Rat series remains one of my favourite comedy SF books, although the last one wasn't so good. His attempts at writing more serious novels have generally been flops, although there have sometimes been redeeming features that made up for tissue-thin plots and unexciting characters. Harrison is not cut out for writing serious novels and it shows.

And then there is the Stars and Stripes series.

I shall be blunt. The series is completely without a single redeeming point at all. The level of research demonstrated by Harrison is roughly on the same level as a primary schoolchild writing his first short story. The characterisation is pretty much non-existent. The understanding of contemporary issues (in the United States, Confederate States, Britain and Ireland) is very limited. His grasp of military affairs...I’m speechless.

Having vented my opinion, I shall now proceed to outline the plot. The Trent Affair, as in OTL, results in a major diplomatic crisis between the United States and Great Britain. On the verge of resolving the crisis, Prince Albert drops dead, ensuring that the hostile atmosphere is never dispelled. (To be fair to Harrison, this POD is actually a very good one.) Another crisis leads to an exchange of fire between the US border forces and British troops in Canada. Britain declares war and invades the United States. Though a major navigational mishap, Britain accidentally invades the CSA as well. The CSA offers an alliance between the two Americas to throw out the British. The Bold Noble Yankees evict the Murdering Pillaging Redcoats. Washington is burned by British troops (again). The British commit more blunders. Noble Valiant Americans liberate Oppressed French Canadians from British oppression. (Canada accepts US statehood.) The CSA agrees to return to the Union and free the slaves. Book one ends.

Book two opens with the Dastardly British launching yet another Cunning Invasion Plan. This time, they’re building a road across Latin America for reasons that don’t make sense even in the book. It ends with a completely implausible invasion of Ireland by the USA.

Book three opens with the British still having failed to learn their lesson (or improve their tactics, for that matter.) It ends with Britain being invaded by American forces, to the cheers of the grateful population. Oh, and the Americans invent tanks.

I’m not sure where to begin when it comes to demolishing these books.

Let’s start with the characters. There are no standard POV characters running through the book (Harrison must have made this deliberate because in some of his earlier work, he has actually mastered this.) Events are seen through the eyes of whoever was there at the time. If you happen to be American, you will probably love the descriptions of Americans mouthing politically correct platitudes and being Noble Valiant Etc. The British characters are...well, the kindest thing I can say about them is that they’re stereotypes, twirling their moustaches as they tuck into roast beef and potatoes in very hot climates. Every character in the series would have to go through a lot of development before they could be called one-dimensional. General Lee is particularly annoying in this respect. He isn't the sober Virginia Gentleman of OTL, but someone who could give MacArthur a run for his money as an egoist. He’s also given to quoting himself time and time again.

And then there’s the slavery issue. The slaves get freed...WTF? Harrison, I suspect, didn't want to face up to the truth – that white Americans generally thought of blacks as an inferior race at the time, and accepting black equality would have been hard for them. Sure, Harrison is right – slavery was a great evil – yet dealing with it took more than just a civil war. And then there’s Harrison’s complete lack of understanding of 1860s Ireland. He took the politics of 1970 and pushed them into 1860s.

(Apparently, the Irish would be fine with being invaded by the US, provided the regiments involved were a mixture of Catholics and Protestants. This might be explained by the fact that the British have invented the Holocaust 150 years early and are apparently killing off the Irish as fast as they can.)

The military issue...well, one is left wondering how any semi-competent editor could have passed the book, because Harrison’s mistakes know no bounds. American troops routinely perform operations that would have daunted their present-day forebears. (Sherman and Lee march several thousand miles in three days!) His descriptions of British units, weapons and tactics show very little research past stereotypes. There is no clear explanation as to how a British sailing fleet (!) could move right up to Washington and burn the city, when the city was VERY well defended. He loses track of what ships are where, or what has happened to them. He failed to study the weaknesses in the early American ironclads and allowed them to be portrayed as an invincible weapon.

And then there’s the whole intelligence issue. The Americans (and Irish) gather intelligence in a manner that wouldn't work against the Keystone Cops. They blunder around blabbing their plans to all and sundry, their incompetence only matched by that of their British enemies – who are Evil and therefore must fail at every opportunity, despite the help of their foes – and...oh, I can’t go on. Its intelligence gathering that makes the German infiltration program of 1940 look competent.

I could go on, but I'm not going to bother.

Don’t buy this series. Just don’t.

A military analysis of the series is online here and here.

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Chris Nuttall blogs at The Chrishanger. His books can be found on Amazon Kindle.


  1. So because you enjoyed the series, that makes the blogger an idiot? That makes sense

  2. Hey guys, play nice. I don't think Chris was calling the fans of the series an idiot. He was just sharing his opinion of the series. Adrian, if you feel the series has merits, then please share your thoughts in the comments section.

    I for one never read the Stars and Stripes, but I did read Harrison's The Hammer and the Cross and I enjoyed that novel.

  3. Sorry, Seb and Mitro, no offence meant.I was just surprised that there was obviously nothing in the book that Chris liked. As I said, I found it a good read and thought provoking - and I am not completely au fait with that era anyway..

  4. I suppose it depends on what you want in a book.

    I can swallow a story with flying dragons and magicians throwing spells at each other. I can enjoy a story of a time-travelling alien flying through space in a police box. What I don't enjoy is a book that claims to be alternate history when large parts of it show that the writer has made a mockery of the whole idea by doing very little actual research.

    Very little in the book stands up to actual analysis and it goes WELL beyond the level of declaring (for example) that Operation Sealion worked. For example, the US troops do vastly better than TODAY's military could do, enjoy a technological dominance that simply didn't exist, embrace attitudes that are out of time and sweep their differences under the carpet to deal with British chin-stroking morons.

    The Patriot, the holywood movie, showed more research than this. And that was awful.


  5. So it's basically a Mel Gibson film in book form.

  6. I found some other links that may be of interest to this review:


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