Saturday, February 13, 2010

Alternate history

A week or so ago I read Fire on the Mountain, Terry Bisson's thrilling alternate-history novel that answers the question: "What if John Brown had won at Harper's Ferry?" This book by the leftist speculative fiction writer Bisson was first published in 1988. PM Press issued it in a new edition last fall to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the raid on Harper's Ferry.

It's short -- all too short, more of a novella that sketches the outlines of the story than a fully formed exploration -- and thus it's tantalizing and at the same time a bit frustrating. On the other hand, there's something to be said for this approach. Basically it opens the reader's mind, leads her onto an imaginative pathway that is only partially lit, then leaves her to keep dreaming about the might-have-beens. Not only dreaming, though, for while it's true that there is there is an inescapably bittersweet quality to this exercise, Fire on the Mountain also functions, or at least it did for me, as a boost, a tonic, a balm. Ultimately, the reader is left not only to mourn what might have been but never was, she is turned not only backward in sadness--but the reader is reinvigorated to fight for what must be, she is turned forward toward a future of necessary struggle, certain of victories to come.

The introduction to the new PM Press edition is by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who informs us in the first line, "I am, by any measure, a sci-fi head." Who knew? Furthermore, writes Mumia:
I admit to more than being a sci-fihead. I'm hopelessly sentimental, so much so that to read Fire today wrings tears from me, not just at the sheer beauty of his prose, his fertile turn of phrase, but above all for his vision, one born in a revolutionary, and profoundly humanistic, consciousness. ... This is a splendid work of imagination, guaranteed to make your spine tingle.
It did just that for me.

Slavery was a mere moment ago in U.S. history. In a very real sense, in tangible, measurable ways, its effects are present in every aspect of the here and now. Conversely, then, it makes sense that if some key moments had turned out differently -- as here with Bisson's conceit of speculating about the effects of a victory for Tubman (for in his version she is not ill, does not miss the raid, which makes all the difference) and Brown -- everything that followed would be different too. Some of the most exhilarating moments in the book arrive when the reader comes up against some passage that depicts some of these stark differences. And not only in this country (two countries in the book). The whole world is different. Which makes perfect sense.

And reminds us that the whole world can -- and must, and will -- be different. That action, mass action by the workers and oppressed, can -- and must, and will -- change everything. It is in providing such a reminder, I think, that Bisson's book finds its highest worth.