Alternate Alternate Histories
by Norman Spinrad
THE GENIUS PLAGUE
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THE BERLIN PROJECT
Simon & Schuster, $26.99
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TROPIC OF KANSAS
Harper Collins, $15.99
Arguably Mark Twain invented both the time travel novel and the alternate history novel with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Indeed, it was the template of what followed decades later to become not just one but two interconnected sub-genres of science fiction. Or perhaps just “SF.” For while both of them are usually marketed as science fiction, not fantasies, they have the elements of both. They can, and most often are, written without violating known laws of mass and energy. But on the other hand, time travel is purely a literary device, as is setting a story in a past that ipso facto is different from history as we know it.
The title sort of says it all. The Yankee of Twain’s era is time-traveled by pure bullshit back to the medieval court of King Arthur and his Round Table, where he proceeds to stepwise create a technical, economic, and military revolution. He is then time-teleported back into Twain’s present where it has never happened by more bullshit in order to avoid dealing with a radically different present of the reader created by the alternate past.
But not only did Twain create the modern alternate history novel—via the time travel novel—he had to deal with the literary paradoxes he created that the alternate history and/or time travel tale has been struggling with ever since.
Which is that if you change the past, you cannot help changing the present in which you write the story and in which the readers read it. So any such novel becomes not only an alternate history story but also an alternate present story, and, if you want to carry it into the future, an alternate future story.
Despite A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Mark Twain was no science fiction writer. He never wrote anything similar, and what we would now recognize as science fiction, let alone “SF,” didn’t even exist at the time. He did seem to recognize that this was a paradox. And if you didn’t want to deal with that—and Twain didn’t—you had to erase your alternate past somehow so that it never happened to change your present and future and those of the readers.
Twain just avoided this by bringing his Yankee back into his present unchanged by the alternate past via the same sort of arbitrary bullshit as his time travel into the past, thus avoiding what would become the famous standard paradox of what happens if you go back into your past to kill your father and/or your mother before you are born.
And while what the Yankee did back in Arthurian times was hard science fiction written with Twain’s characteristic sardonic scalpel, the necessary arbitrary bullshit McGuffins to get him back and forth and keep the present day reader’s reality from being altered made the novel technically fantasy, if not at all in style or intent.
And this is how the inherent paradox of the alternate history had mostly been dealt with since Mark Twain created the template. But in The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick began wrestling with the concept of multiplex and not just alternate realities, past, present, and future, and certain aspects of quantum mechanics gave it a certain measure of at least theoretical scientific legitimacy.
The Man in the High Castle is set entirely in an alternate history in which the Nazis and the Japanese won World War II, so that one cannot really tell whether the timeframe of the story is an alternate present created by this alternate past or simply an alternate present period. This could have solved the paradox by ignoring it—standard operating procedure. But Dick being Dick, he granted one of his alternate reality characters a glimpse of an alternate reality in which the Nazis and the Japanese did not win World War II. Namely our own.
So which is the real base reality and which is the virtual alternate reality? The Dickian answer, developed via succeeding novels, is neither and both. There is no such thing as the “base reality,” and therefore a “base history,” or for that matter a “base future.” There is an open-ended clade of multiplex realities, none more “real” than any other—quantum indeterminism with each instantaneous roll of the dice.
Quite a bit of modern speculative fiction has been written in that literary mode ever since. But what if you want to use the present reality—that of yourself and your readers—as the baseline for an extrapolated future, especially in what I call the immediate future, a future that arises from “history as we know it,” or think we do?
The real world problem is that the novel written in the writer’s present to be read in the readers’ present is an impossibility. There can be no such thing as “the contemporary novel,” let alone the contemporary science fiction novel, and my novel Russian Spring taught me a practical lesson in this.
In this novel of what was then the near future, the Soviet Union has existed and evolved. It took me about a year to write it, and about a year and a half after I finished for the publisher to publish it, far from slow in American publishing schedules,
But in the meantime the Soviet Union had vanished, so that the present I had extrapolated from more than two years back had been made obsolete by two years of changing present, turning it into an alternate history novel. This had not been my intention when I wrote it, but what I learned is that it is something very hard to avoid when trying to extrapolate a near future from the true history and/or the present in which you are writing.
However, in the immediate present in which I am writing this, the mating of the straightforward alternate history novel with Dickian and quantum multiplexity has exfoliated alternate ways around it, both literarily and politically, and these days particularly politically.
Tropic of Kansas, by Christopher Brown, is a textbook—and politically passionate—example of this. It is reminiscent in a way of certain Russian science fiction of the Soviet era, when science fiction set on other planets or other realities or both was used to criticize politics and culture without overtly doing it in order to get itself officially published and avoid a trip to the gulag. As often as not, the writers got away with it, but not always.
In Tropic of Kansas, the United States of America is no more—well, not exactly. There is still a federal government operating out of Washington, D.C., which calls itself the United States, but what was a single nation has been fragmented.
The “Tropic of Kansas” of the title is roughly the middle of the country, the “red states” of current (or anyway current as I write this) Trumpland, its denizens the “deplorables” chez Hillary Clinton, its farmlands chemically raped by corporate industrial farming, its industrial economy in ruins, its population pauperized or worse, itself in turn a fragmented gangland jungle, anarchism without a human face. Despised, looked down upon, used as gunfodder and the economic version of same, by the self-styled government of the United States, and the coastal uberculture that encapsulates it.
The federal government of what still calls and considers itself the United States of America continues to play lip service to the Constitution, but has degenerated into a military-economic-media-fascist dictatorship ruthlessly ruled by a President Thomas Mack who is well past any two-term limit. The dictatorial President and his cronies have more or less given up on reuniting the nation and concentrate on the economic rape and military overlordship of Latin America and keeping the midlands of America more or less under police state control.
The viewpoint protagonists of the novel are the semi-siblings Sig and Tania. She is a black Washington lawyer working within and more or less for the security machine of the fascist police state. Sig is of indeterminate race and a feral denizen of the Tropic of Kansas human ganglands, ecological wastelands, and patchwork forests and jungles arising from some of the ruins.
There are isolated ideologically libertarian and politically anarchistic communes in this behavioral sink as well as savage gangs—many of whom consider themselves freelance police and act like murderous pirates. There have been local revolutions, either put down by the superior military forces of the “United States” or allowed to exist as internal protectorates, or still fighting small-scale resistances.
This is a tale of how Sig and Tania develop political consciousnesses on both sides of the line and stepwise transmogrify into key players in the violent revolution that emerges from this setup.
There is, more or less, a coherent economic and governmental anarchistic ideology among the scattered communes in the Tropic of Kansas. In the first place they are communes, somewhat like Zionist kibbutzes, self-governing groups without governments or in principle even leaders, the extreme anarchistic idea being that only the people as a whole should make decisions. As the revolution gradually coalesces, what emerges is a web of nodes in networks with no centers.
As Bob Dylan put it, don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters. Or better still, steal them or blow them up, and any centralized government behind them.
This is more or less presented by Brown as a kind of rough and ready utopian design for a post-revolution America to arise from the ashes, and there is nothing non-violent about the eventual revolution to achieve it—far from it. As the story progresses, as the naturally physically violent Sig becomes politically conscious, and the government lawyer Tania gradually kicks out the jambs to become a revolutionary and then a revolutionary warrior, it becomes, or if you have it devolves, into long passages of detailed, gory, and very well written battle sequences.
The literary and political dice are loaded and you know which side Christopher Brown is passionately on. This is a novel with angry and overt political intent, obviously a speculative jeremiad of where the divided America that elected Donald Trump is headed and a call to revolutionary action—and not necessarily non-violent action—to change the present that is leading to this dystopian future.
Or is it?
Wait a minute.
I am writing this in August 2017. Tropic of Kansas has been recently published. Which means that the publishing date of the novel after the text was finalized must have been set no less than a year ago and probably longer. And let’s say it took Brown at least six months to write it. Which takes the beginning of the process back to at least February 2016.
Long before the surprise election of Donald Trump.
Tropic of Kansas simply cannot be a projection of the dystopian future the post-Trump present is making, because it was written before there even was a Trumpian present. It has to be an alternate history novel whose divergence from the timeline in which I am writing and in which it can be read came well before.
And therefore it is.
A new mutation of the alternate history novel.
The modern, or if you prefer, post-modern, alternate history novel as often as not now morphs into an alternate present and future novel, an alternate reality novel, the alternate reality split from that of the history of the readers’ own. JFK is not killed in Dallas. Hitler dies in World War I and there is no World War II. The Republic of Texas does not join the United States. Jesus is not crucified. Caesar is not assassinated. And so forth.
In Tropic of Kansas, Christopher Brown does something quite different. Something that as far as I know had never been done before except by Roland Wagner in Rêves de Gloire, a novel not yet translated into English, but published, well before Tropic of Kansas could have been written, only in French.
I have no idea whether Christopher Brown even reads French, let alone whether he might have read Roland Wagner’s novel. But I did review it in the pages of this very magazine and described what Wagner did, so it’s conceivable that Brown could have read that. Still, it’s more likely that Brown and Wagner came up with the same mutation of the alternate history novel independently and for different literary reasons.
Brown and Wagner both premised their alternate pasts leading to alternate presents and futures, and therefore alternate realities, not on single historical changes but on multiplicities of them. Roland Wagner revealed this early on in his novel, but Christopher Brown reveals that that was what he was doing in Tropic of Kansas more gradually. Or perhaps what’s happened along “our” timeline between the time the book was written and the time it was published has made it seem so. And maybe cunningly both.
Namely the election of Donald Trump and the deepening cultural and political rift between “Coastal Blue State America” and “Red State America,” AKA Middle America, AKA the Bible Belt, AKA the Rust Belt, AKA the turf of the “deplorables” chez Hillary Clinton.
AKA the Tropic of Kansas.
For at first this is what it seems to be, not an alternate timeline, but a dystopian prediction of where our America is going if the vector is not changed—a hopeful and angry righteous literary attempt to make itself a self-unfulfilling prophecy.
But it is and it isn’t. As one reads on, as Brown reveals the past that created this future, it becomes clearer and clearer that this is an alternate near future America. Ronald Reagan was assassinated, the Washington Monument was destroyed, Haig became president, and so forth, in this alternate timeline back in its history, unlike in ours.
And in the alternate future of Tropic of Kansas, the anarchistic progressive semi-socialist revolution arises in the land of the title, and Hillary Clinton’s deplorables are the heroes and heroines.
I do not believe it is a critic’s place to read the mind of the book’s writer and therefore discern his overall political creed, but it is fair, if not imperative, to comment on that of his novel, in which it is not only clear, but passionately so. At least within Tropic of Kansas, you certainly don’t have to ask which side the novel is on. And given the nature of the current divide in the America of our timeline and what side the literati thereof are generally on, it is to say the least rather interesting that in Christopher Brown’s novel, it is the “deplorables” who are the heroic progressive revolutionaries.
Thus by writing this politically charged novel as an alternate future arising from an alternate past, rather than as a straightforward speculation of the future of “our” America post-Trump, he makes much the same points without having to deal with the mission impossible of bridging the gap between the America he was writing it in and the America of his readers at least two chaotic years later on the other side.
Of course, though not usually recognized, including by me until now, in our real publishing world, any speculative novel, indeed even any novel set in the so-called present, is going to be published no less than two years after the author started writing it. So from the point of view of the eventual reader, even a novel set in the so-called present of the writer is going to be a historical novel.
Think of what was then a contemporary novel written two years before 9/11, or Pearl Harbor, or the collapse of the Soviet Union, or Hiroshima. This is one of the reasons, maybe the major reason, why the so-called mainstream novel more often than not steers clear of the political, technological, scientific, and even cultural surround of the period in which it is being written.
But the near-future speculative novel can’t really do this, because the essence of the true science fiction novel is the interface between the internal consciousness of its characters and the total external surround. One way around this conundrum is to avoid setting a fixed date for the story, which maybe gives you a few years’ cushion. But an unexpected existential beanball, the discovery of an alien civilization, etc., can throw an instant monkey wrench into that.
Another way around this is to set the story in the immediate present in which you are writing it and throw the existential hardball yourself as well as fuzzing the date, so that is front and center. If you are lucky, the novel will not violate any changes in the two-year gap, and the McGuffin will exist in a possible immediate, but undated speculative future.
This is, or at least has been, the most common strategy, and if well written, usually works on a literary and speculative level, The Genius Plague by David Walton being a good example. Walton has written two novels centered on quantum indeterminance set in the fuzzy present-cum-indeterminate immediate future and made unlikely events credible thereby. He doesn’t use quantum indeterminance here, but he does set The Genius Plague in an indeterminate immediate future that at least in the beginning is vague enough in political and cultural detail to tightrope walk across the aforementioned two-year gap.
Or maybe not quite.
The two central characters are brothers. Paul Johns is a mycologist, an expert in fungus biology, and except for the opening prologue is a not a viewpoint character and never a first person narrator. His brother Neil is both, and he works as an analyst for the NSA. That’s the National Security Agency, folks, and the introductory PR sheet says that David Walton “lives a double life as a top secret engineer working with the U.S. intelligence community. . . .”
Whether Walton actually works within the National Security Agency like his lead first person viewpoint narrator Neil Johns is left unclear. Perhaps for necessary reasons, because if his fictional National Security Agency, with its precise and detailed description of its vast headquarters including its near paranoiac security setup and what it does and how that works is based on intimate personal experience, it would seem rather personally dicey given the high security both depicted in the novel and existing in the real world. American intelligence agencies are known to require vetting of such stuff written by employees or even ex-employees, and even sometimes forbid publication.
But be that as it may, the combat between Neil and the NSA versus Paul and the Genius Plague of the title—and combat it becomes, as well as scientific, political, cultural, and even existential dispute—is the central story of the novel.
Whatever Walton really may know about the secret workings and powers of the National Security Agency, he certainly knows his mycology, which is central to the novel. And while mycology may not be a so-called “hard science” in the literal conventional sense, believable science that does not violate known laws of mass and energy it is, and Walton’s fascinating lesson in fungus biology manages to make something as seemingly unlikely as the Genius Plague at least seem credible as speculative science.
Fungi are not animal—nor are they exactly vegetable—but a third phylum that does not live by predation and is not photosynthetic. Fungi generally appear to surface creatures like ourselves as mushrooms and so forth above ground as singular organisms, saprophytes, attaching themselves to trees and plants as either parasites, symbiotes, or savages of dead protoplasm.
But below ground are vast fungal masses, the largest and oldest organisms of the planet, in a certain sense immortal, spreading far and wide, surfacing above here and there. From one point of view they are—or it is—colonies of simple independent organisms. But from a broader point of view they are superorganisms without central brains or connecting nervous systems, but somehow able to influence both plants and animal above to serve their simple mindless prime directive to grow, spread, and prosper by rewarding actions or ecologies that favor them and punishing those that don’t.
As far as I can tell, this much is non-rubber science, a form of symbiosis in which behavior favoring the fungus favors the plants and animals, too. But the Genius Plague extends it to sentient beings, namely humans. Fungi tendrils infest human brains and increase their mental capacities without thought of “conquest,” without even anything like conscious thought at all on the part of the fungi, merely to make humans more intelligent and healthier so as to evolve their consciousnesses and therefore cultures toward environments favoring the singular tropism of fungi—to survive, grow, and spread.
So on the one hand, chez Paul Johns and humans who have been infected, it is considered a great boon, but on the other hand, chez Neil Johns, the National Security Agency, and those who have not been infected and don’t want to be, the Genius Plague is indeed a plague that threatens to replace an independent humanity acting according to its complex of motivations, for better or for worse, with an enslaved species whose prime directive is to serve that of the consciousnessless fungi.
And that is the central action, the philosophical and political conflicts of the novel, epitomized in the personal stories of Neil and Paul. How it climaxes I am not about to give away here, except to that say it works very well, on a personal, scientific, political, cultural, and literary level. The world of the immediate future cannot avoid being changed rather drastically by the Genius Plague one way or another and probably both, which a writer of speculative fiction is not only entitled to do, but which, after all, is the whole point.
However, at the very end, considered past the epiphany, and therefore merely a coda, Walton seems to be setting himself up for writing a sequel set in the future that the Genius Plague made, or maybe a whole franchised novel series. This may certainly be a financial temptation strongly encouraged by publishers, and accepting it may not be unlike the choice of allowing fungus to enhance your intelligence at a certain cost, namely independent and positively evolving literary development, in this case to enhance their bottom line and your bank account.
You take the money, and you takes yer choice.
But there’s no guarantee that this bottom line symbiosis will work. And if it doesn’t work for both sides, it can’t work at all.
David Walton’s earlier novel Superposition was brilliant on a speculative scientific level, plot level, and literary level. But he followed it with Supersymmetry, which had the same alien villainy, conveniently revealed as probably immortal. Most of the same central characters returned to the pages by literary prestidigitation, the scientific speculation losing coherence, a kind of autoanimatronic Disney that didn’t really work.
A word to the otherwise wise. Maybe you just might be able to blow up a novel that creates an alternate history as its denouement into the format for a lucrative franchise. But the better, more complex, and more innovated the genesis story, the less likely that the franchise it launches will work well as literary television, for the very same reason that the first novel succeeded.
Harry Turtledove has made what seems to be an open franchise based on an alternate World War II outcome. Gregory Benford, I can confidently say, is not likely to try to launch a franchise with his alternate World War II novel The Berlin Project, for any number of reasons.
But before I go any further, I must strongly advise the reader not to read Benford’s afterword first. I didn’t, and I’m glad I didn’t, not because it is boring, but because it is the best and most illuminating afterword to a novel that I’ve ever read. And probably ever will read, for reasons I would be giving away too much by explaining. Suffice it to say that the novel itself raised interesting questions that I wanted to ask Greg Benford, but the afterword answered them all, and knowing them beforehand would not have enhanced my full enjoyment of the novel.
So please, just trust me, you won’t be sorry, READ THE NOVEL ITSELF FIRST.
At first the title seems weird because this seems to be the complete, detailed, cogent story of the science, technology, politics, and personal interaction of the Manhattan Project. This is a fascinating true history novel that only Gregory Benford could have written, and the aforementioned afterward will explain why in rather amazing fashion.
His central character, Karl Cohen, seems to be a minor character that Benford created for literary convenience, but I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that in the end that proves to be not the case.
Almost all the other characters are real people involved in what evolves into the Manhattan Project. Indeed, almost all of the real significant players in what became the Manhattan Project, to create the first atomic bomb that ended World War II, are characters in this novel, the plot of which is the race between the American project and that of the Nazis. Fermi, Hahn, Einstein, Urey, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Teller, Groves, Heisenberg, and many more. Nor are they cardboard figures—Benford makes them come alive as real human beings.
For those of you who don’t know it, Gregory Benford’s day job is as a major astronomical physicist—and, while he has written a significant oeuvre of science fiction novels, he hasn’t given it up. Virtually all of his science fiction has been hard science fiction, meaning, chez Benford, not “playing tennis with the net down”—that is, not violating known scientific knowledge.
There have been and are a goodly number of such science fiction novels that violate no known laws of mass and energy and whose McGuffin more often than not is a scientific or technological speculation. But no writer I can think of combines such scientific sophistication and nicety with literary and characterizational sophistication as Gregory Benford does. The closest is Arthur C. Clarke, who has collaborated with Benford, perhaps even because he recognized this himself.
In The Berlin Project, Benford manages to not only make the science and technology and its personal and political conflicts and tensions dramatically exciting. And the science itself is not only very complex and questionable, including to the scientists involved, but he makes it the dramatic center of the novel, as it certainly was to everyone involved in the Manhattan Project and the outcome of World War II.
And the race was not only between the Americans and the Germans, but also between the two American scientific teams and factions as to whether to build an atomic bomb based on uranium 235 or on plutonium.
This arcane scientific argument is not only the central dramatic tension, but also something else. I came to Benford’s novel with a pretty good knowledge of the history of the Manhattan Project and a general knowledge of the science involved, too, but learned much more about the science as I read it. Someone who knew more than I knew to begin with might have realized it more quickly, and someone who knew less than I did might have realized it more slowly. But about halfway through I began to realize that this was the fulcrum where The Berlin Project morphed into what in retrospect Benford was revealing slowly, cleverly, and slyly—an alternate history novel with a title that began to make sense.
I really should not reveal much more about Benford’s alternate conclusion of World War II, since the dramatic tension of the last third or so of the novel centers on this. Except to say that who does what and where the first atomic weapons are used is the denouement, and Benford’s political speculation of what the results become is as sophisticated as what has gone before—arguable, but given the premises, not too unlikely.
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, as the cliché is so often said. And this may be a political and cultural truth. But those writers who do learn from it and disagree with what they have learned may create alternatives, for better or for worse, at least within the covers of a book. And thereby perhaps enlightening those who otherwise do not.
Some of those who do not otherwise learn from history might thereby yet be saved from the doom of repeating it. By learning that the future we make, for better or for worse, is the future that we get.
Copyright © 2018 Norman Spinrad