The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell

TheLastFullMeasureThe Last Full Measure is an alternate history novella by Jack Campbell, set in the middle of the Nineteenth Century in the US around the time of the Gettysburg Address. (The title is actually a famous quote from that speech.)

From the publisher:

In a transformed mid-nineteenth century America dominated by plantation owners and kept in line by Southern military forces, a mild-mannered academic from Main, Professor Joshua Chamberlain, stands accused of crimes against the nation. In court alongside him is Abraham Lincoln, whose fiery rhetoric brands him a “threat to the security of the United States of America.” Convicted, Chamberlain is sentenced to forty years hard labor, while Lincoln’s fate is indefinite detention at Fortress Monroe. But Professor Chamberlain then encounters military minds who understand the true ideals upon which the country was founded and who want to foment revolution. To succeed, they need a leader, someone to inspire the people to take up the cause of liberty: Lincoln. All they have to do is flawlessly execute a daring plan to rescue him from the darkest federal prison.

I had high hopes for The Last Full Measure, based on a general interest in the era it depicts and, despite the fact that I’ve never read anything by him, on the reputation of the author. Sadly, my expectations were not met.

The main issue with this short novella (just over 100 pages) is that it works very well as an idea, but the writing is extremely dull and the characters don’t transcend the ideas they are supposed to embody. It’s an interesting alternate history, and one which historians and constitutional thinkers can probably argue about at length, but as a story it’s not successful.

Here’s a sample bit of dialogue:

“What brings a military officer to this state, for so I judge you to be? What was your offense?”

“A former officer,” the other corrected, his mouth twisting at the words. “I refused an unlawful order, one which would have required me to violate the Constitution. After a brief show-trial for treason in front of the hooded judges of one of the military tribunals, here I sit beside you, bound for servitude for the crimes of believing in liberty and in the Republic.”

This kind of speechifying back-and-forth “here I sit” monologue takes the place of most realistic-sounding dialogue throughout the novella. It’s clunky and unnatural and, after a few pages, extremely annoying. It feels as if the author relied only on the historical importance of the people he places in his alternate history setting (Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln) and forgot to turn them into actual, interesting, human-sounding characters. Every character sounds like one of the animatronic statues in the Hall of Presidents in Disneyworld, and displays just as much life.

Even the battle scenes and the supposedly stirring speeches lack any kind of dynamism, probably because the characters are stick figures based on historical sketches, going through the motions in a plot that is held together by historical references that could have been mined for an incredible amount of drama but instead fall completely flat.

For a story involving one of the most stirring and famous moments in American history, The Last Full Measure has barely any impact. It lacks life. It lacks energy. It shows a short slice of (alternate) history but lacks a solid ending. What you’re left with is a short, weak slice of half-assed alternate history combined with half-assed military history.

I rarely get annoyed at books, but in this case I was actually honest-to-goodness annoyed at the way this novella squandered its potential. I’ve heard good things about Jack Campbell, and may still check out some of his military SF when I’m in the mood, but The Last Full Measure is one of the least satisfying books I’ve read all year.

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3 Responses to The Last Full Measure by Jack Campbell

  1. Hmm. I’ve read the first 3 or 4 of his novels (can’t remember how many). They were alright. I will probably finish that first series eventually, but it’s kind of a low priority. There’s a lot of other stuff I’d rather get to first, though Campbell is probably about par for the MilSF course.

    • I go through phases of really really wanting to read military SF, but half of the time I end up just re-reading a Miles Vorkosigan novel. I do plan to try Jack Campbell’s series at some point.

      • Honestly, that’s probably a good policy. MilSF is a bit like fast food for me: the craving hits periodically, then I vaguely regret it later when indigestion strikes.
        (That’s not entirely fair. Some stuff is pretty good.)

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