Monday, January 23, 2012
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
So what would have happened if John F. Kennedy had never been assassinated?
My first answer is the commonsensical one that we’ll never know as he was assassinated and that’s that.
My more devious answer is this:- there’s no guarantee that all that much would have changed in the general course of events. Perhaps we are too prone to consider some incidents as turning-points in history when they were nothing of the sort. Science-fiction writers have hammered away at the “butterfly effect” – the concept of one tiny and apparently insignificant event causing massive change to the whole fabric of history. As an alternative I suggest the “elephant effect” – when an elephant crashes down dead in the jungle, it doesn’t change the general nature of the jungle. Maybe Kennedy’s assassination changed the course of American history. Or maybe it just meant that a few American presidents had different names from what they would have had, while the larger forces that move history ticked on as they were going to anyway. Nobody can know. Counter-factual versions of history are not entirely rational modes of thought as they are not capable of falsification.
Anyway, regardless of my misgivings, counter-factual questions continue to tease writers of science fiction and “alternative histories”.
Among American writers the most popular seem to be “What if the Axis had won the Second World War?” (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and many others by various authors) and “What if the South had won the American Civil War?” This latter question has fuelled literally hundreds of American alternative histories, up to and including Spike Lee’s “documentary” film C.S.A.
But the great original, and maybe still the best of them, is Bring the Jubilee by the otherwise obscure science-fiction writer Ward Moore (1903-78). It was first published in the Ballantine sci-fi series in 1953. It was in that edition that I first accessed it, as a teenager, from my father’s shelves, where it sat alongside dozens of other Ballentine sci-fi offerings.
The novel’s hero Hodgins Backmaker is a not-very-bright chap who lives, in the 1950s, in the truncated United States of America that would have existed if the South had won the civil war. The United States are weak, have limited technology and a social system that is almost feudal. There is no outright slavery, but the poorer classes often make a living by becoming “indentured” to the wealthier. After generations, the USA still seethes with resentment over its defeat by the South. A secret society called the “Grand Army” commits terrorist acts, persecutes blacks (seen as having embroiled the USA in its war and defeat) and dreams of recovering the USA’s lost pre-eminence. (This is obviously the mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan that, in reality, was vomited up in the defeated South).
Meanwhile, the victorious South has becomes a world power by conquering most of Central and South America. It shares the world with the British Empire and a German Empire that emerged after an alternative version of the First World War known as the Emperors’ War. It is the thriving South that has cities with skyscrapers. In the North, New York is a big city, but it is a backwater compared with the Southern metropolises.
Hodgins Backmaker becomes an historian and, like so many others in the defeated United States, obsesses about how the North came to be defeated. Eventually he is part of a secret experiment in physics. A time machine is invented that takes him back to what is seen as the decisive moment of the South’s victory – the Battle of Gettysburg.
It has to be emphasised that over two thirds of Bring the Jubilee concerns itself with a simple exposition of Backmaker’s world.
Much of it is plausible – the South’s conquest of a large empire is logical, given the Southern military tradition and the long-term ambitions of Confederate politicians. So is the sullen revanchism of the defeated North.
Other parts are a bit more questionable. Ward Moore assumes that the North’s defeat would have meant a major retardation of technological advances in the world, with no internal combustion engine or heavier-than-air aircraft having been invented. The alternative world of the 1950s is still one of railways, dirigibles, literal horsepower and telegraph as the speediest form of communication. This presupposes the technology we know being perfected only in the America we know, and not having been able to develop in Europe and elsewhere (where, in historical fact, much of it did develop).
Only in the last third of the novel does Bring the Jubilee become a time-travel tale. Hodgins Backmaker is transported back to the Battle of Gettysburg with important consequences.
The strongest point of Bring the Jubilee is that it develops its alternative history in such detail, and only then gives us the option of rejoining true history. That way, we are not left wondering what the consequences of altered events would be (as we are in a book that moves towards JFK not being assassinated).
I will not talk Bring the Jubilee up as a great work of literature. It is not that but, understandably, it has often been re-published. It is often recommended to American students when they do basic historiography courses, so that they get some inkling of what “counter-factual” means. It is a well-written and thoughtful work of science-fiction. And, as a special recommendation, it has the distinct advantage of being quite trim and short. Unlike other more pretentious alternative histories that have followed in its footsteps, it runs to fewer than 200 pages.