It should be made clear at the outset, especially for American SF readers, that Wolfgang Jeschke's vast Das Cusanus-Spiel (2005) is not an alternate history (or not at first). For readers primarily used to English-language SF, Jeschke's take on the near future may seem more uncanny valley than prognosis, as we are, at this point in the new century, far more likely to encounter some vacuum-packed godgame alternate history than we are to run across tales designed to tell us what is likely to happen If This Goes On. The book impels us to look for a Jonbar Point, but there is none—or not for a long while, and when it comes the multiverse corrects for it, cancels it out.
So Tor's decision to publish The Cusanus Game, gamely and I think well translated by Ross Benjamin, seems brave. Jeschke may end his tale with some of the post-Zelazny Secret Master jiggery-pokery we've all gotten pretty used to by now, and he may have thought that by doing so he was Making Beseech to Anglophones unused to finding themselves bound into futures without a Safe Word; but I think his heart was not in it. I think that, like most Europeans who've lived through the past 60 years of Postwar, Jeschke, who was born in 1934, seems only able to conceive of Secret Masters as Blavatsky wetdreams (she is cited), and of fixable futures as iterations of the pathetic fallacy: in this case that Gaia puts out for us.
The dominant American SF tradition has tended, by conflating change and redemption, precisely to succumb to the pathetic fallacy: hence the gated-community garden-suburb Gaias we've gotten so used to encountering in those Hard SF manuals for the privileged that we still sometimes get tricked into reading. But it's getting harder for writers in this century to indulge in hoax Thought Experiments without corpsing, and when they weary of trying to tell stories in which change saves the world (or maybe before they even start), they tend to jump fence these days into virtual-reality paranoia tales, or young adult dystopias whose tyrants are not us but our parents, or the clockwork whimsy-lands of alternate history.
The Cusanus Game neither succumbs to that fallacy, nor does it take any of the other outs. Which is all to say (I guess) that the book was written for adults; it is not to say (one must add) that it is entirely successful in its aim. The main problem in creating a story here may be an adult incapacity to believe in heroes (see below) though the protagonist proves capable of a (heavily telegraphed) act of lunatic heroism that fails to Jonbar-Point the world. A less serious problem—one solvable by cutting a hundred pages or so of what in retrospect seems essentially backstory—is the protagonist of the tale.
The problem with her breaks into two: she spends much of the novel as a student, one too young to forget herself for an instant, as demonstrated in page after page of down-to-the-last-detail reminiscence that should have been evicted from Cusanus; and Jeschke has shaped the unpacking of the world she lives in as a series of lessons she is taught, not only by the very shape of the journey northwards through ravaged Europe she is forced to take by her educators, but also via a long series of infodumps that too often impart stuff she should already know (and that we have already guessed). Some of these infodumps replicate classroom procedures; others may be triggered by a chance meeting in the street or pub or train; still others she repeats to herself. Every new scene in this exceptionally long tale (530 big pages) threatens to teach us something: a tactic which leaves relatively little room to show us much, and rather too often makes us want to play hookey.
So young Domenica Lagrina is a bit of a pill, chuntering on about her college chums, her parents, her lover (their sex chastely undescribed, except for when it doesn't work, for reasons the reader will have worked out before she does), her apprehensions about getting into the next level of graduate studies. But the underlying undeviating seriousness of the tale, its adult refusal of kicks, keeps us in the book. Thirty or so years hence, the diminishment of the civil world (that we evacuated the planet to make room for) continues unabated. South of Rome, climate change has desiccated the land, and "the hot breath of the future could be felt, heralding the arrival of Africa"; the collapse of monocultures has desertified those territories not yet too dry to survive in, while the oceans rise beyond great but ultimately useless dams; the Sixth Extinction continues to accelerate, wherever non-human species survive; the failing governments of Europe obsessively attempt to ban refugees fleeing deserts already broken beyond repair. All of this is, as it were, agenda stuff: we already know something like this is in the works; what we feel here, in the first hundred or so pages of Game, is less novum than linkage: what the inevitable linking together of all the calamities might actually feel like.
Jeschke adds one arbitrary (though as it turns out not unlikely) event, a gigantic explosion at a nuclear plant in 2028 (a decade or so before the main action) in the small city of Cattenon in the Rhine Valley, which turns much of Germany and Poland into a teratogenic nightmare—but even here Jeschke fails to avert his gaze from our own likely story: not only Chernobyl: but the fact that a giant nuclear plant has been operational in Cattenon since about 1990.
So Dominca's slow trip northwards through the fatally diseased penetralia of Europe until she reaches Amsterdam, where her mission will begin, is a guided tour into what is visible if we look. America is hardly mentioned, for the story of Jeschke's Europe is an epiphenomenon, as always, of the millennia-long killer tale of interactions along the incurable borderlands between the Afro-Asian heart of the world and its killer peninsula.
Her mission is what The Cusanus Game is all "about": a project—meticulously articulated in terms more technical than I rightly understood, though I believed what was being argued—to send trained operatives, like Domenica, back through time to the fifteenth century, and there gather samples of the flora we had subsequently destroyed, in order to jumpstart the world again, so that Homo sapiens can eat again, and survive. The underlying argument is that the multiverse is a great stalk comprising a huge number of braids or world lines, a structure which is self-regulating, so that it is extremely difficult (and perhaps impossible) to create a Jonbar Point that works: the less likely outcome is absorbed back into the self-correcting tree. But it is theoretically possible to do as Domenica is sent to accomplish, though any traceable impress she makes upon the year 1552 while picking her herbs is hugely likely to abort her out of there, maybe fatally. Domenica is a rare individual capable of sensing (as though haunted by doppelgangers) more than one world simultaneously in the braid. How this impells her to attempt to communicate with the eponymous Nikolaus Cusanus (1401—1464) is not exactly easy to elucidate (certainly for me). But if it is the case that Cusanus thought of the phenomenal universe as having been "contracted" from what he called God (and what Jeschke's principals might call Tree), then perhaps he might be open to the concept of future change (not exactly a fifteenth century meme) as an unfolding of reality: more foliation than progress, perhaps: but however his thought is described the man gives off, here in Jeschke and else, the sense of an amplitude of readiness.
Sadly, Cusanus cannot be reached, or if there is a foliation or braid of embedded afflatus of the holy where he can be reached, and where he can found a school of thought that might scrutinize phenomena in terms of possible outcomes (which is to say the deductive method), that world cannot survive. In a very cunning chapter entitled "The Cusan Accleratio" (it was published separately in 1999), a Cusanian world is hypothesized where an Academy is indeed founded and accelerates European history; but the stigmata inherent in organic life metastasize through the world corpus just the same as ever, and by 1945 the President of Europe, Charles de Gaulle, proclaims Festung Europa: a continent impregnably walled against the consequences of progress. The contracted universe—the contract, maybe with God—is unbroken.
So Domenica has no chance of shaking the tree, even when she violates every precept she has been taught and tries to communicate with Cusanus and open his eyes to the future. As amply forshadowed in the text, she (or a doppelganger) is seized as a witch, her samples of flora destroyed, and is burned at the stake. (She survives, as we knew she would, for her story has been told in a retrospective first person.) She leaves the fifteenth century with nothing accomplished (though one of her colleagues does bring some samples back). The fifteenth century is caricatured; perhaps Jeschke is simply presenting his not entirely brilliant protagonist’s take on things, though it does seem unduly philistine to lament the lack of decent music like what Beethoven wrote, this with reference to a century which housed two of the greatest composers in the Western world, Dufay and Ockeghem, both active in northern Europe at the right time. . . .
In the end, it does seem that maybe some good will have been done through the importation of new stock, though Jeschke is (once again) too adult to give us the pleasure of contemplating any clear gain derivable from Story. A godgame figure at the end of time who is often called an angel, and who tells us he was once known as Hermes, seems to have introduced the theory of time travel to the twenty-first century, perhaps so a few shoots might flourish, and fertilize the tree; and he (or his talking rat companion) seem to have saved Domenica, thick as she is, for some role up the line on the planet called Highgate (is this a joke?) where they live dancingly, and where glass architectures of the Modernist mind swing and sway; but what that role may be we do not learn. The book is shut, without a continuing voice.
Books shut too in the various worlds of Lavie Tidhar without providing safe closure for readers to settle their minds with; his new novel, The Violent Century, seems to be very much a book: one of a sequence of text-reflective tales, of which Osama (2011) seems to be the most closely connected; and indeed I'm so convinced that a third alternate history fantasia about the twentieth century (and maybe a fourth) needs to follow these two that I will hold off on any extensive brooding at this point. One thing can be said already, though: alternate histories are not escapes for Tidhar; they are forensic tools to arraign what we think of as the real.
The dominant world of Osama is an insinuatingly comfortable noirish alternate version of the twentieth century dejuiced of the cartoonish savageries of the real. An imprecise Jonbar Point—a British failure in 1921 to dice Iraq into poison satrapies—seems enough, in the dream-like looseness of the tale, to make plausible a world digressive from the history that generated 9/11. But a series of pulp thrillers about Osama Bin-Laden, Vigilante increasingly exposes a world akin to our own; the plot, which takes a private investigator across the world in search of the series' apparent author, leads essentially nowhere, because the alternate world of Osama is too powerful to be supplanted, or the detective too self-deludingly weak to escape what might be called Pincher Martin's Tooth: a world which is nothing but a self in denial. The reader is permitted to think that to continue living in such a world—in such a book—is diagnostic of a pathology.
The Violent Century is far less easy to escape; though hastily laid down at points, it is clearly a central text of twenty-first century fantastika; and augurs more (see above), if only because it is made clear to us that the novel is a kind of representation of itself, which the implied narrator(s) of the text are as it were consulting: this overrarching narrative voice (only recognizeable through the intermittent but in fact rather frequent use of the pronoun we, which may be an imperial we, who can say) is not given a local habitation I could identify, beyond a sense that "we" are here to observe, and perhaps to evaluate.
We assemble this piecemeal, from broken transcripts, classified intel, old men's recollections. Vienna, in seventy-six. A year that is important to us, for our own selfish reasons. But this is not our story.
That 1976 is the year Tidhar was born may constitute a selfish reason. Or not. I think we've not perhaps been given the tools to find out, yet. The Violent Century is a deposition in a case we have not yet heard.
So be it. Enough happens. The Jonbar Point this time round is explicit: in 1932, a Professor Vomacht turns on a machine that generates a "probability wave" which transubstantiates the quantum level of reality. Those who are sensitive to this subnuclear transformation become Superheroes whose powers reflect (and deflect) their childhood traumas. (I'm quoting here from a paragraph on Lavie Tidhar I put into the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction a couple of days ago, when I was thinking about this book. I'll continue.) Tragically, however, their powers are, as it were, woven into the braid of the world Tree: the history of this transformed world is in most details identical to that of the real world; Century is set mostly in World War Two, where the Holocaust is not averted.
The alternate world of the novel is, in fact, a twentieth century where nothing was averted, except the colouring in. Though some colours are mentioned, infrequently, it is unmistakeably the case that the world of The Violent Century has suffered a quantum change away from the vivid, the first-hand. The main protagonist superheroes, whose names are Fogg and Oblivion (one creates antic obscuring fog shapes and escapes in them; the other deletes bits of reality) are seen mostly in the War, which causes universal suffering, or many years later (they do not age, any more than an acid-free comic ages), when Fogg is interrogated about his relationship with Vomacht's daughter. The interpolated scenes from 1932 are so bright they hurt the eyes. . . .
But such brightness is soon shuttered in fog, in the exhaustion of a world whose fabric has been spent in asserting a futile difference—I do not believe the ending, where the light returns, though it reminded me of Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading (1938). Or at any rate I don't believe it literally; which is to say I don't believe it is the ending. I don't believe the ending of The Violent Century is the ending, and so I think I'm going to wait for more. I hope I do not wait for long.