Another Flawed Sci-Fi Gem: Fire on the Mountain

Posted: June 5, 2015 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
Tags: , , , ,


fire on the mountain front cover(Fire on the Mountain, by Terry Bisson. PM Press, 1988/2009, 156 pp., $15.95)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

A few years ago, PM Press reissued Fire on the Mountain, which first appeared in 1988. It’s one of the better alternative history novels, in that–unlike all too many–it has a lot to say about both politics and social issues, especially about race relations and racial attitudes in the U.S.

The novel’s takeoff point is John Brown’s raid on Harper’s ferry in 1859, which in Fire on the Mountain succeeds, and sparks a slave revolt in the South. The book’s main interest is in the description of the raid and subsequent revolt. Its narrator is “Dr. Abraham,” who vividly describes what he saw and took part in as a 12-year-old slave. Abraham’s first-person narrative is the strongest part of the book. It’s very believable, and the tone is spot on.

Another strong point is the narration, through “letters” to his beloved,  of “Thomas Hunter,” an anti-slavery white doctor who gets caught up in the revolt. Again, the tone is spot on; as well, Bisson does a remarkable job of portraying Hunter’s unconsciously racist attitudes, and how they change over time.

One frustrating aspect of this portion of the book is that Bisson goes into almost no detail about the course of the revolt. The reader learns very early on that it was successful, and not much beyond that. . . . which brings us to the other portion of the book, set in 1959.

At that date, there’s a successful black socialist republic, with wonders galore, in what was the U.S. South. Here, the narrative switches to third person, and follows Yasmin Odinga, a college professor and widow of a black astronaut hero, who’s traveling to Harper’s Ferry to research her husband’s ancestors.  Bisson switches back and forth between passages about the revolt, narrated by Abraham, and the passages about Odinga.

Unfortunately, this is where the flaws in the book become all too obvious. It’s difficult to buy Odinga’s character (she’s too idealized), and it’s difficult to care about her or any of the other 1959 characters. This is in part due to the difference between first-person and third-person narration, which is exacerbated by the “distance” in the third-person passages. This accounts for some of the problem; the rest is due to the characters existing seemingly for the sole purpose of making political points.

This section of the book does have its virtues, though. One is mention of an “alternative history novel,” John Brown’s Body, which exactly follows actual events in U.S. history–and is considered a macabre horror story.

As for the scientific and technological wonders of Bisson’s socialist republic, it appears that he didn’t even try for plausibility. Those marvels he mentions range from the far-fetched to the ludicrous, for instance:  zeppelins (of course) for long-distance travel;  a Mars program that succeeded in the early 1950s; Egyptian cars that have ceramic blocks with ceramic pistons controlled through magnetic fields(!); and “moon shoes” that change colors and actively adapt themselves to wearers’ feet. Why Bisson chose to prominently feature these absurdities is anybody’s guess.

And there’s essentially no description of the workings of Bisson’s socialist republic. There’s nothing on its political structure, and next to nothing on its economic structure; there’s not even a passage describing daily life in it.  It ends up being little more than a name.

If Bisson had omitted the weak, propagandistic portion of the book set in 1959 and had developed at length the section set in 1859 -1862, this could have been–probably would have been–a great book. But it isn’t. Instead, it’s a deeply flawed book that’s still well worth reading because of the gripping first-person sections and Bisson’s genuine insights into racial attitudes and race relations.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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