5 Alternate History Novels about American Politics
BY RICHARD DERUS (ExpendableMudge)
Oh boy, oh joy! Our quadrennial gladiatorial bloodletting via ballot-box approacheth its gravipoise on November 8th. The election of the President of the United States of America is a big honkin’ deal around the world. This woman will be able to blow entire sections of the world back to the Stone Age should she so desire. And, as we’ve seen in the past sixteen years of political theater, she has also got the country’s permission to monkey around with our Constitutional liberties (insofar as they don’t conflict with corporate profiteering, of course) in some truly appalling ways. This particular President of the United States of America will sign into law one of the worst pieces of legislation (after the USA-PATRIOT Act of 2001, as amended and reauthorized) in the recent history of the country: the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Think things suck Wookiee balls now? Wait three years, until the damn thing takes effect.
The Coil not being a leftist political rag, I suppose I’d best belt up and move on to my list. I’ve selected books I’ve read and enjoyed from the alternate (Ooof, that hurts; it should in my never-humble opinion be alternatIVE history, but Norma Loquendi hath spake.) history genre I’ve been gobbling up at a prodigious rate — since discovering If: or, History Rewritten in my Papaw’s library in 1967 — that illustrate an ancient truism: the grass only looks greener over there.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel, by Stephen L. Carter, caused some very great surprise in its choice of “PoD” (Point of Departure from our own lived history, usually called “OTL” or Our Time Line). How could anyone even imagine Lincoln, secular saint Abe, as a subject of impeachment? Back when I was still furious and outraged over the cancellation of Firefly, I found at prospero.com an online community (unofficially called “The OB,” for “official” or “old” board — there was much discussion about that) of fellow Browncoats with just as much spleen to vent at the gorram Reavers at Fux network for screwing up their introduction and bungling their subsequent handling of this unique delight. One of the charms of that forum was that the people who frequented it were almost all willing to explore ideas for might-have-beens; one small Libertarian group I spent time in as a grain of sand in their nacre bed was particularly receptive to my idea for a novel based on the idea that Lincoln survived assassination, began Presidential Reconstruction in a conciliatory mode, won a third term to “finish the job,” and was impeached and tried on several legitimate counts (overstepping established bounds on his authority, massively interfering with the economy which wasn’t even a Federal job then) in 1870. I never did much beyond cursory research for it because I was busy losing my home to an insurance company’s refusal to pay medical expenses blah blah blah. So here comes Stephen L. Carter with a meticulously crafted take on the basic story that I never wrote. I was peculiarly unjealous.
His version is very different from my thought-experiment as it is set more in line with the historical impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Of course it’s got a lot of political elements — that’s inevitable and completely necessary — but the framework for the story Carter chooses to tell is very personal (and quite improbable in my never-humble opinion) as an African-American woman and a white Northern man join forces to identify and neutralize cabals and conspiracies against President Lincoln. This device adds a sense of intimate investment to an otherwise rarefied intellectual concept of a story. It also, unfortunately, requires a lot of story space better spent up in that rarefied-and-more-directly-relative-to-Lincoln impeachment story. But I assure you that, in this Happy Season, the story of a well-meaning and right-thinking President’s peculiarly tin ear for the political temper of the times is well worth reading under the “(allohistorical) past as prologue” theory.
Custer’s Luck, by Robert Skimin, has an unusual PoD; in fact it’s almost the only time I’ve ever seen it used in a serious alternate history, of the ilk of the time-traveling hordes of South African race warriors affecting the Civil War, or entire geographical areas rrrrripzipplopped out of modern times into the past in order to muck around with history as the hapless chrononauts see fit to do. General George Armstrong Custer was a very popular man, one whose many acts of derring-do and bravado paid off until that fateful day at Little Bighorn in 1876. This is a really thought-provoking PoD for a refreshingly underused possibility in American history. Skimin’s writing is serviceable, but whoever copyedited and proofread this book needs to be kneecapped and then chained while healing to an ancient monk’s carrel where the only available reading material is Words into Type and The Chicago Manual of Style.
A Custer presidency is a fascinating allohistorical byway. The only other treatment I’m aware of it has steampunk/time-travel abscesses dotting its buttocks and a “light, humorous” tone that makes me want to reach for the ball-peen hammer again. Custer’s amazing luck and personal charm might very easily have led him to the White House; his opportunism and greed almost certainly would have led to his downfall; and his mark on the country’s history is likely to have been more flashy than substantive. But Author Skimin does a good job of selecting likely events to illuminate Custer’s character, and so it feels like you’re reading a newspaper account of the Custer presidency, not a bald historian’s recitation nor, a bit more sadly, a novelist’s evocation.
Still very much worth reading. The book is out of print, but good condition used copies are readily available.
The Plot Against America: A Novel, by Philip Roth, is something that, in my eternal quest for article-fodder, I reread. I’d forgotten how much I dislike Roth’s use of “Philip Roth” as a character; it still feels like a cutesy-poo arched eyebrow and crooked little finger at a tea party given by That Cousin *pursed lips and tiny warning shakes of the head* of Your Father’s.
But the PoD Roth chose, the election of President Lindbergh in 1940 as Roosevelt went after an unprecedented and fairly unpopular third term, didn’t so much as raise a hair in my truth-sensitive eyebrows. The highest office in the land occupied by a manifestly incapable person whose prior fame and squicky personal history (Refreshingly, it’s not about sex with Lindbergh.) led the still-majority of registered-voter “Angry White Men” to vote en bloc for him. This despite the relative prosperity that Roosevelt’s arms sales to the Brits provided after a near-collapse of the recovery from the Great Depression in 1937–38 (factual). All it took, as Roth saw, was a demagogue to find a scapegoat of a weird culture (Judaism was then and is still weird to non-Jews in flyover country; Islam? Fuhgeddabouddit!) and hammer away on how They want to rule Us, They are coming for our women to rape them and then make them have abortions while pointing the guns ripped from their menfolks’ good Christian hands at them. … The slow descent into thuggish public behavior as the new norm, the collective “meh, so what” from those not affected. The disbelieving helplessness of the affected. Roth nailed it. Look around you. I’d say this old curmudgeon is prescient, but in reality he’s just old enough to remember when this nightmare almost came true before. Maybe he does deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Nah. Not really. Then again, neither did Elfriede Jelinek.
It came down to the weather. The Presidential Lincoln had a Plexiglas bubble that, although it would deflect bullets, was mainly meant to keep the First Lady’s Chanel suit and pillbox hat impeccable and still visible. Had scattered showers threatened only the slightest bit more heavily, the bubble-top would’ve been fitted and, in all likelihood, President John F. Kennedy would have fought a hard and vicious campaign against Goldwater in the 1964 election and gone on to face the many troubles of the growing Republic until January 20, 1969.
As Greenfield was actually there on the inside of the political machine at the time, I’m inclined to trust his young-man’s memories of the people involved and how their wildly different constellation around an unsainted-by-death president would have played out. The present moment sees our elected officials gleefully and viciously eviscerating the Voting Rights Act of 1964, a despicable act of moral vandalism; but Greenfield notes almost in passing that such a law would never have been mooted had Kennedy lived. Kennedy, in this book, chooses to pursue peaceful means of crisis management in Vietnam. This non-war and its non-consequences are breathtaking for the development of society, including an almost incredible reorientation of race relations.
It’s always possible that things as they happened are as good as or better than the What-Ifs. I love that Greenfield knows this.
43* When Gore Beat Bush: A Political Fable, by Jeff Greenfield (again!), is one of those Kindle Single things, a long magazine article or very short book that would, pre-digital era, not ever have seen the light of day. I think that would’ve been a shame in this as in so many other cases. Lots of fun stuff to read doesn’t quite make the cut to be brought all the way up to book size; for example, all those little snippets and footnotes in Mary Roach’s books like Stiff or Bonk would probably make excellent Kindle Singles rather than being marooned as largely ignored asides to the main event.
But I digress. Author Greenfield picks a very heads-or-tails PoD for the victory of Gore over Bush: The survival of Elian Gonzalez’s mother from her escape attempt from Cuba and the subsequent obviation of the international incident of a custody battle that centered around the paternal rights of the Cuban-National father versus some random family members in Florida. The loss of Cuban votes in Florida likely cost Gore the election; he easily could’ve won over the Cuban-American vote, and there goes Florida for sure. At $1.99 for the Kindle edition, the only version available, it’s a bargain.
The conclusion of this fantasia is, as it is in all good alternatives to reality, “be careful what you wish for.” Perfection is not of this world. That shouldn’t stop us from striving for it. And it also has the happy unintended side effect of providing permanent employment for storytellers.
RICHARD DERUS (a.k.a. ExpendableMudge on Twitter) is a biblioholic, a tsundoku carrier, and a passionate reader. From underneath his tottering towers of unread tomes, he blogs obsessively about his darlings at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud, where many otherwise unknown books are praised, panned, or poked fun at; The Oak Wheel, where he blogs enthusiastically about short story collections; The Small Press Book Review; Shelf Inflicted, where he was a founding blogger; and wherever else he can find editors who need content, as long as it’s about books.