BOOK REVIEW: “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara (1974)

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“The Killer Angels” isn’t even remotely a Science Fiction book. It’s a straight ahead historical fiction set in and around the battle of Gettysburg, during the American Civil War. “Why,” you ask, “Is he reviewing something that is in no way Science Fiction?” Good question: I’m reviewing it because Joss Whedon once stated that this book was one of the two principle influences behind the creation of “Firefly.” (The other major influence being the John Wayne/Rock Hudson movie “The Undefeated.”) As such, and given that I’m sort of fascinated by the Civil War in general, I thought “What the heck?” So here it is:

PLAY BY PLAY

The Confederate Army invades the United States, and attempts to defeat the Union Army at the more-or-less random location in Pennsylvania, but they lose.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

I probably should have said “Spoilers” before that synopsis. Sorry.

This is a very good book, though it’s not really my kind of thing. I’ll admit it right up front: I’m not that cool. I generally only read Science Fiction, and the occasional weirdo bit of esoteric literature like Calvino and Nabokov and Poe and Joyce and whatnot. I’m not in the least bit highbrow: If it don’t got ray guns in it, I’m generally not interested, unless it’s just some inherently strange literary sculpture that holds my attention through sheer beauty (As with Nabokov) or strangeness (As with Calvino). Pretty much I don’t do ‘straight fiction’ well at all, which isn’t to say there’s anything bad with straight fiction, it’s just not something that interests me. I also don’t talk about football much. Make of that what you will.

That said, even though this is a well-written, entertaining, interesting book, and even though I’m something of a history buff, the utter lack of an alien invasion or a sapient computer was rather daunting to me, and it took me nearly two years to plow through it. To be fair: at least six months of that time was because I’d misplaced it, but still: I’m a dullard.

In general, the story is roughly evenly divided between north and south, with Lee and Longstreet as the focus on the Southern side, and with Chamberlain and Buford on the Union one. There are a roughly-equal number of ancillary historical characters on either side - foreign observers, other officers, etc - as well as a small group of entirely fictional ‘Average Joe’ characters on each side. Actually, I should say that I took them to be fictional because of the way they were depicted, but in researching for this review (yes, I do that), I’ve discovered that only one of them wasn’t an actual historical person.

Of the ‘real’ characters, Longstreet makes the largest impression, as a mopey man who’s lost his faith in just about everything, but keeps on going because he doesn’t have anything else to do. His brooding introspection, and his aloof distance from the other Southern officers is interesting, and occasionally compelling. He’s utterly dedicated to Lee, and will do things he knows are disastrous simply because the old man asks it of him. Curiously, Lee himself is depicted as an enfeebled old man, rapidly growing weaker, and increasingly out of touch with the nature of the conflict. Despite getting roughly equal time, Chamberlain and Buford don’t have near the resonance of their rebel counterparts, but then that’s an inherent and probably unavoidable problem in any story about the Civil War: the losers were the romantic, exciting, sexy ones. The winners were essentially interchangeable “Grist for the mill” as General Grant famously said. In Colonials versus Cylons, who’s going to be more interesting? I overstate, obviously, but you get my point.

Of the nonfictional “Average Joe“ characters , the Northern ones make more of an impression than the southern, curiously. In general, we spend most of our time with a New England Yankee Captain Ellis Speer, who’s on the front line in the final battle. Speer seems too modern to me, frankly. I’d assumed this was the Author’s own voice, being placed in a fictional character. Now that I know Speer was a real guy, well, it still may be the Author’s own voice. The character’s progressive agnosticism, his “Brave new world” view of the conflict and life seem, to me, at odds with the way people of the time thought and wrote and believed. It comes across to me as Emmersonian, taken to somewhat ludicrous levels, but, hey, that could just be me.

This is a broody tome. Easily half its length is internal monolog, deliberations, and ruminative thoughts of the characters, debating their decision making process. On the one hand, this is fascinating as it shows us how their minds work. On the other hand, some characters seem unable to take a trip to the can without ten pages of self-recriminations. And occasionally I was dragged out of the story by the realization that all these internal deliberations weren’t real - no one can know the mind of another, certainly not at this remove in history - unless said other actually wrote down what he was thinking at the time. Lee is famously inscrutable. So on the one hand, this is engaging, and on the other hand, it’s completely fictional. We know what they did, we don’t know what they were thinking, however. In that regard, much of the novel is an apologetic.

The one fictional character in the book is an Irish immigrant named “Buster Kilrain.” “Buster” wasn’t used as a name until Buster Keaton did it in the 20th Century

One aspect that always fascinates me about Civil War stories is that they are all, inherently, about culture clash: Agrarian versus Industrial, Anglic versus Germanic, Gentry versus Egalitarian, Mannered versus Boorish, Pretentious versus Impudent. It’s good stuff, and it’s really the starting point of the whole “Cowboys versus the Robber Barons” stuff that eventually becomes a trope of Westerns from here on out. That said: I have to think this book is a little too pointed in that regard. Captain Speer views the Southern secession as an attempt to go back to the time of Kings, an attempt to place the cause of freedom back in the box, destroy the noble equality that was won by blood in the Revolution, and so on. There’s a British observer traveling with the Rebels who feels effectively the same way, and just so there can be no mistaking it, each character lays this out at least eight times in the course of the novel.

This, to me, seems to be completely at odds with how most people felt at the time, and seems like an anachronistic attempt to place a modern interpretation on an historic event. Everything I’ve read about (And by) Southerners during the war seems to indicate that they were staunchly dedicated to the idea that the Union was trying to take away their freedom, or hem it in. They were all about freedom, provided you weren’t black, or, to a lesser extent, a chick. Curiously, they treated Indians better than the North did in this period.

So: in a nutshell: it’s a pretty good book, though I’m not sure it’s good enough to justify the Pulitzer it won in ‘75. It’s of historic interest to a Science Fiction fan for its influence on Firefly, but it’s not required reading since the part of the story this influenced takes place mostly between the first and second scenes of the first episode.

Curiously: Shaara also wrote a good deal of Science Fiction, though I’ve never read any of it. Here’s a list:
http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Michael_Shaara

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Sure. We win. USA! USA! USA! USA!

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