I've been reading a lot of historically-oriented speculative fiction this summer. It's been fun! I like what I'd call "speculative history" because it can hold in tension two of the most distinctive impulses in speculative writing. On the one hand, an "alternate history" can develop as a coolly intellectual thought experiment, an investigation into the principles of historical change using "what-if" scenarios, tweaking some aspect of the past to discover what consequences follow from it. On the other hand, a historical romance can passionately evoke past worlds now lost to time or missed opportunity. These impulses are in tension, but they're not mutually exclusive. The best works in this kind, like Guy Gavriel Kay's parallel-world fantasies or Howard Waldrop's short stories, follow both impulses at once. None of the books that I've read this summer reach the level of these, but the better ones use the competing impulses in speculative history to powerful effect. They teach their readers to love the worlds they evoke, and in the process they challenge their readers to consider how our own world might be different. Two of these novels, both first books for their authors, both set in America in the present or relatively recent past, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of speculative history.
Here's a frozen moment from a different world. Cheyenne warriors, mounted on bipedal dinosaurs, race at speeds no horse can match to prevent the women and children of their camp from being massacred in a surprise attack by U.S. Army forces. They had left the camp undefended to journey to a parley with representatives of President George Armstrong Custer to discuss the return of his son, whom they hold hostage. Will they arrive in time? What will happen to relations between the Cheyenne and the United States as a result of this sneak attack? What will happen to relations between George Custer, Jr., and his captors, whom the younger Custer has gradually learned to respect? This is a turning point in the plot of Kurt R.A. Giambastiani's The Year the Cloud Fell: An Alternate History.
In Giambastini's alternate history, a change in natural history underpins a major change in the political history of North America. Certain species of dinosaurs, including small (as dinosaurs go) runners (of the ornithomimid family ) and tyrannosaurs have survived to the present era on the North American prairies. Domesticated by the tribes of the Great Plains, these beasts give the Native Americans decisive military advantages over U.S. forces in speed and destructive power. Consequently in the late nineteenth century, the northern Plains, technically part of the United States since the Louisiana Purchase, remain outside U.S. control, and the Union's settlement of the Pacific coast has never taken place. The plot of the novel is set in motion when the Army, directed by Custer, Sr., tries a new approach to defeating the Cheyenne Alliance. They will send an experimental dirigible airship, piloted by Custer, Jr., to scout the Cheyenne's territory. If they can find the Cheyenne's permanent settlements, they can neutralize the Cheyenne warriors' advantages in mobility by attacking the settlements, forcing the Cheyenne to fight a stationary battle in defense. Giambastiani sets up a multi-layered thought experiment, providing the material means to make his alterations of military history, which he takes very seriously, plausible.
Giambastiani's history is alternate in another sense, however. Although one of its protagonists, the younger Custer, is a U.S. soldier, much of the novel is narrated from the perspective of the two Cheyenne whose lives become most intimately intertwined with his: Speaks While Leaving, a woman who has a vision that anticipates Custer's arrival among the Cheyenne, and Storm Arriving, the warrior who brings him to the Cheyenne camp. In that sense, The Year the Cloud Fell offers the alternate history that might have been told by the Cheyenne themselves. The book's title, in fact, is their way of naming the time of the story (A.D. 1886 in the European reckoning), and the book begins with the vision of Speaks While Leaving. The plot is decisively shaped by the power of Cheyenne spiritual life, by the potencies of their visions and sacrifices.
The design of the plot as a whole is fairly simple: it combines a war story, structured by a series of battles, with a story of cultural contact, structured in the usual way. The two sides, represented by Storm Arriving and Custer, Jr., begin in mutual suspicion and contempt. Yet, as they speak together and watch each other day by day, understanding begins, followed by respect, and, finally, by friendship. This simple plot structure works in part because Giambastiani is intellectually inventive in his plot twists (I found the course of the book's resolution genuinely surprising and exciting) but more because of his passion for the culture of the Cheyenne. Even though it's clear where the plot is going as Custer gets to know the Cheyenne, it still held my attention because that culture is so vividly and fully realized: I was every bit as fascinated and impressed by what I learned as Custer was himself. It's impossible to represent that process here in this review, but it begins for Custer, perhaps, as he learns how to ride a dinosaur mount (called a "whistler"), by observing his captors:
George grabbed the rope across his knees more out of instinct than out of memory of his instructions. The whistler's long-legged walk was a slow rolling gait with a sideways sashay. Rocking along with the beast quickly nauseated him and caused his head to pound. By watching the others it became apparent that the best riding method was to keep one's head level and straight while the legs and hips moved with the beast. He found this effect, however, unsettling. The sensation was like his body had been disconnected somewhere between his hips and his navel.
As George learns more by observation, he will become much more unsettled and disconnected within himself before he reconciles what he is learning with his assumptions about the world. The reader can learn with George because his process of learning is so precisely rendered. We can see the movement of the whistlers and feel George's reaction. When he eventually becomes an accomplished rider, we share with him the wonder of racing across the open prairie, and his learning to love to ride is a small but important part of the larger process of learning and development that he undergoes.
What prevents the novel from being a simple tract extolling the Native American way of life is the fact that this process of learning and development is mutual. Storm Arriving learns as George does, and the Cheyenne as a people are changed by what George brings to them. In this way, the passion of the novel for the Cheyenne strengthens the novel's thought experiment by illuminating a process of cultural exchange that might preserve a threatened people. The Year the Cloud Fell makes great use of the potentials of speculative history.
Phoenix Fire by Tim O'Laughlin also turns on a struggle to preserve. In this contemporary fantasy, a group of friends in northern California join forces to save a stand of old-growth redwoods from a timber company controlled by a ruthless multi-national corporation. Both Phoenix Fire and The Year the Cloud Fell might be called politically correct, and any reader who, like myself, enjoys cheering for the Sioux against Custer or for the redwoods against the timber companies will find plenty to cheer about in both these novels. But while The Year the Cloud Fell is much more than a political tract or a feel-good story for progressives, Phoenix Fire's appeal is much more limited because, I think, it neglects the thought experiment potentials of speculative history. Its fantasy elements enable it to present an alternative vision of how activists might succeed against their rich and corrupt opponents, but that vision lacks the depth and complexity that make The Year the Cloud Fell so compelling.
Phoenix Fire, as its name hints, is a fantasy of reincarnation. The characters have past lives that they discover through regression therapy under hypnosis. It turns out that souls have relationships extending over many lives. Your friends and lovers and enemies in this life were linked together in your previous lives, too. When characters discover their past, they grow in wisdom, and some gain mystical powers, loosely defined. In the opening chapters of the novel, a group of friends discover their past lives and a challenging truth. Through many lifetimes, they have been struggling against the ruthless power of The One Without a Soul. Over and over again, he has killed them, feeding on their agonies, before they could unite to defeat him. In this life, he is CEO of a corporation that has just completed a hostile takeover of a timber company. He's spoiling to put the ax to the old-growth timber, and he'd be even happier if he can cut down his ancient enemies on his way to the trees. Can the friends live long enough this time to stop him?
In the field of speculative fiction, books are rarely dismissed for having outlandish premises. On the contrary, such premises are often an attraction to readers, and new writers in the field can make their marks by generating strikingly original settings and ideas. Indians on dinosaurs? Pretty outlandish premise! So if my description of the plot of Phoenix Fire seems a bit flippant in its account of the novel's premise, that's not because an outlandish plot design is a flaw in itself. This premise has potential, and the novel is not an unsatisfying read. The author has real passion for his characters, for the Mendocino area where the novel is set, and for the laid-back, new-age, countercultural way of life that flourishes among the enduring forests there. His handling of his setting, plot, and characters, however, is a bit too simplistic to be compelling.
The writing does not justify the somewhat outlandish premises of the novel by using them to illuminate the characters' struggle. The characters discover and understand their past lives effortlessly and completely, and the fact that all of the major characters discover that they have been friends and lovers in many past lives seems too pat. In the scene in which two of the friends, Larry and Gayle, discover that they are to be the spiritual guides for the group, for example, everything falls into place for them at once, making both their project and their feelings appear simplistic:
Gayle reached out suddenly, taking one of his hands in hers, her eyes wide. "We need both hands," she said, reaching for his other hand, then, more urgently, "Close your eyes." As soon as he did, Larry was filled with an awareness of what he and Gayle had been to each other over time, as if memories hidden behind a series of veils were successively revealed. . . . Separate, they were perfectly ordinary people. In each lifetime, when they had become aware that they were joined in opposition to The One Without a Soul, a metamorphosis occurred, and they became a conduit for spiritual energy from another plane of existence. . . .
When they opened their eyes, blinking at the brightness of the light reflecting off of the surface of the ocean, they shared a new understanding. The questions that had haunted Gayle's eyes had been replaced by a knowing. She smiled. . . . Larry felt a huge weight lift off his shoulders, and as they walked back along the beach, he reveled in the simple, joyful power of love.
If you find it easy to believe in reincarnation and soul-mates, if you like stories in which characters fight an unexplained, ultimate evil, then you may find Phoenix Fire enjoyable. If you don't, you may find much of the novel somewhat difficult to take. In this novel, love is a simple and joyful power that arises instantly and fully when characters discover that they already know all about each other.
This simplicity renders cultural differences irrelevant as well. The main point-of-view character, Ryan, discovers that in his two immediately preceding lives, he was a Polish Jew who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and an Oglala Sioux warrior who died fighting Union soldiers. Now he's an American, a lawyer native to northern California. While it might seem that assimilating the truth of these radically different lives might take some doing or even be, just perhaps, traumatic, Ryan takes it all in stride because, it seems, he's always been the same person, with the same feelings, fighting the same battles against The One Without a Soul, who was Union commander, then a Nazi, and now the CEO. Evil, like good, is always the same.
On first inspection, The Year the Cloud Fell and Phoenix Fire may appear to be very similar alternate histories: politically-charged fantasies that dramatize the struggle to protect native peoples and ecoystems from nationalist or corporate imperialists. The connection Phoenix Fire draws between the Oglala Sioux and the defenders of the redwoods makes this similarity explicit. It would be easy to link these books together in a politically-savvy marketing strategy: "If you support these causes, you'll love these books!"
But looked at more deeply, the novels' politics, which follow from their uses of speculative history, begin to appear quite different, and it's this difference that should matter most, I think, when you decide whether or not to read or buy these books. Put the question, if you want to see the imperialists get theirs, why read one of these novels instead of renting Pocahontas again? Europe and America meet, fall in love, and love conquers hate! Well, with Phoenix Fire I'm tempted to suggest the rental. Phoenix Fire beats the film in that it has interesting characters who aren't merely types, but the development of the story doesn't get far beyond Pocahontas in depth. The Year the Cloud Fell is another matter. While it sometimes shows the awkwardness of an inexperienced writer, the novel is intense, vivid, and anything but simplistic. Enemies become friends only slowly, and allies even more slowly. Details matter in this book, because it is only through real immersion in one another's lives, and the slow learning that comes from it, that characters come to know one another. It's an exceptional work of speculative history.
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