Posts Tagged ‘Alternate History’


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.

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

Free Radicals front cover


Dominion, by C.J. Sansom(Dominion, by C.J Samson. New York: Mulholland, 2014, 629 pp., $28.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


Move over Harry Turtledove, there’s a new contender for best alternate-history novelist.

C.J. Sansom’s massive Dominion looks at what might have happened (as Samson thinks would have happened, as he mentions in his “Historical Note”) if Churchill had not become British prime minister in May 1940, the appeasement faction of the Conservative Party had remained in power, and had made peace with Germany during or immediately following the fall of France. In broad terms, that would likely have meant (as it does in the novel) that Britain would have been dominated by Germany, its foreign policy allied with Germany’s, that the British government would have become increasingly authoritarian, to the point of stealing elections, spying on its citizens, and violently suppressing dissent, and that it would have engaged in increasingly odious anti-semitism.

Against this background, Samson’s protagonist, career civil servant David Fitzgerald, is recruited and begins spying for the resistance. Sansom does a fine job of showing how the need for secrecy and the constant fear of detection erode both Fitzgerald’s sense of well-being and his personal relationships. Things grow even tenser when an old college friend, Frank, a geologist, learns atomic secrets from his physicist drunken lout of a brother who’s working on neutral America’s atomic bomb project. The rest of the novel concerns the resistance’s attempts to get Frank out of the country and Special Branch’s efforts, directed by the Gestapo, to seize Frank and torture the information out of him.

Throughout, Dominion is almost flawless. Sansom really did his homework for this one, and it shows. His descriptions of 1940s and 1950s Britain seem note perfect, as do his descriptions of the workings of a resistance cell (modeled on the French resistance during WWII). The dialogue is crisp and natural sounding. (Normal speech is a sprawling mess. The trick with dialogue is to make it sound natural without its being natural.) And all of the characters, both male and female, are believable–often all too believable. They range from a brilliant German Gestapo agent, who commits barbaric acts without enjoying them, because he believes they’re necessary, to a working class Scottish communist who clings to a rosy picture of Stalin’s Russia, despite all evidence to the contrary, to an aging, rapidly declining but still heroic Winston Churchill.

The plot unfolds with an awful inevitability. If the old bit of writing advice, put your characters through absolute hell, is correct–and it usually is–Sansom succeeds brilliantly. You end up caring about his characters, and often end up saying to yourself, sometimes 50 or 100 pages before events unfold, “Please don’t let that happen!”

I only found three weak points in the entire book. One is minor: while I was reading the very short portion on radio surveillance, I found myself going, “No, that’s not right. This guy is keeping this short and general to gloss over his ignorance of the subject. Even his generalizations are off.” But most readers would never notice this. (Years and years ago, I worked as a “broadcast engineer”–that is, a technician–at radio and TV stations; broadcast engineers are only a bit more engineerlike than workers doing another job I held ages ago: “sanitation engineer.”) It turned out that I was right about this. In his notes following the conclusion of the text, Sansom says that he’s almost entirely ignorant about radio, and thanks an expert for advice on the subject. Evidently, it was bad advice.

The second problem is more serious. While searching Frank’s house prior to its being searched by Special Branch and the Gestapo, David and two other members of his resistance cell pull a boner that no reasonably security conscious person would likely pull, let alone three security conscious people. That boner turns out to be crucial, though I doubt that it would bother other readers as much as it bothered me.

Finally, and most crucially, the turning point of the novel–Frank’s brief conversation with his drunken brother–seems dubious. It’s hard to buy that a low- or mid-ranking physicist could give crucial information to a nonphysicist in a drunken rant only lasting a minute or two. But grant this premise, and everything else falls into place.  Beautifully.

Dominion is tense and gripping from first page to last. It could well be the best alternate-history novel I’ve ever read.

Highly recommended.

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

Free Radicals front cover