Alternative History can feel like the unloved stepchild of the speculative fiction family. Strict Historical Fiction is more respectable, Sci-Fi and Fantasy are more authorially liberating. Moreover (in our timeline at least) alternative historical fiction has been dominated by people who are for some reason most interested, of all the huge range of possible historical counter-possibilities, in asking, “what if the nazis/confederates/fascists won?” It seems like there is a really obvious answer to this question: it would have been bad. I don’t need a novel, or a series of them, to tell me that. I don’t really want to read Harry Turtledove again (though I have, oh I have). I don’t want to read The Man In The High Castle (though I have, twice). I don’t even want to read The Plot Against America (I actually haven’t, and I am pretty happy about it).
This foreclosure is nevertheless sad. There is not inherently less possibility or traction in speculating about what it would be like if our world were different in a contingent way than there is in speculating about what it would be like if our world were different in a fundamental way. Different possibilities, not fewer, not lesser. Jeanne Thornton’s new book, Summer Fun, shows us what some of those possibilities might be.
Its central counter-possibility is a relatively small one. What if the difficult, deeply weird creative genius at the centre of the 1960s surf-pop band that went on to become a sort of synecdoche for wholesome American whiteness had been, not a cis dude, but a trans woman? It is important to be precise. The speculative question asked here is not the prurient, gossip-mongering, obvious one, the sort of question that might be phrased as “what if Brian Wilson (or Kurt Cobain, or Phil Collins, or whoever) was trans?” Instead the question is much more interesting: what if the person who came to fill that spot in (White) American Culture was trans? Not putatively trans, not hypothetically so, but actually trans and existing as such. What would such a person’s life be like and, more to the point, how, if at all, would her existence in it change (White) American Culture?
Of course, even before we find out that this is the central alternative Thornton is dealing with, there are other signs that this is a different (and cooler) America to our own. For one thing, there are the flying cars:
The flying Impala your dad bought for himself just this past May 1959, B—, was a monster: blue turquoise like a lightning bolt, its hood distended and pregnant with raw horsepower, chromed hoverstripes and gravity-brakes and tailfins capable of hurling the car into high Martian orbit.
Importantly, these cars are in no way caused by the fact that, in the world of the book, the presiding genius of tuneful Americana is a flagrant transsexual, nor do they cause this to happen. There is no causal connection. Thornton’s alternative world does not rearrange itself according to an underlying Turtledovian logic, where all the same “great men” continue to be actors in a coherent narrative about the battle of good and evil, and all consequences flow from one unitary point of departure. The fact that in this timeline someone (The Wright brothers? Henry Ford?) has worked out, presumably in the 1920s or 1930s, how to make cars fly is a change, but it doesn’t necessarily change anything else, and certainly doesn’t subvert hegemonic structures of domination. America is still America. This is, it is already clear, just from the cars, a messier, more raggedy, and uncoordinated kind of alternative history.
Instead, the true point of departure for Thornton’s alternative history comes when the protagonist, whose dead name we are never told (whenever anyone, including the narrator, says it, it is blanked out as “B—”) but who we will come to know as Diane, in the first flush of her stardom, still presenting as a boy, goes to a party at the home of her label’s A&R man, and meets his girlfriend, Lana, who is also a transsexual.
Such a meeting is, in many ways, transgressive. Dominant cultures in the 1960s (or even at the millennium, when I came out, or even now) both within and outside of trans communities, work to render trans people invisible in the world by pushing us towards one of two possibilities: to be closeted (to appear as if we were cis people of our birth-assigned gender) or to be stealth (to appear as if we were cis people of our acquired gender). Both of these possibilities for seeming cis are disguises, survival tactics, grammars, traps. To be able to render oneself invisible is a superpower. To be required to render oneself invisible is a limitation.
Most starkly, perhaps, it is a limitation on our sociality. The more successfully we appear cis, the fewer cracks and tells we have, the harder it is for us to recognise each other, to come together. And, of course, the more of a risk such a coming together represents, as a disruption of our successful camouflage. This scene represents, or imagines, such a moment of dangerous disruption through sociality. Two trans women, wearing different cloaks of invisibility, come into proximity. For a while neither recognizes what the other is. Their disguise holds. And then—it doesn’t. And then they meet.
The brilliance and painfulness of this scene, in which something that that was not meant to happen inserts itself into history, can hardly be overstated, and deserves to be quoted at length (though with some elisions):
She is very tall, you suddenly realize, checked out and leaning against the headboard, now coughing with her long arms hanging from wide shoulders like the wings of some great, transformed swan.
The possibility that’s now occurring to you, B—: you can not unsee it, you can not unhear it. The lamplight triangle is swinging wider and wider as a door is opening in your mind.
You watch the crack spread across her face as she recognizes what you’re seeing. She’s afraid, you realize; she must be so, so afraid. The door in your mind is opening onto the worst possibility in the world […]
Agitated, she stands, circles the bed, and leans against the door to block it. She crosses her arms. You imagine the weight of her against the door. You imagine all the walls coming apart.
Listen, she says, her thin voice snapping like a whip’s cord from the rear of her throat.—I don’t know what ideas you have about me […] before you think about saying shit all to anyone, you’d better think about how it’s gonna make you sound if you—
Her voice is striking through the mildew mist of green droplets that suddenly fills your nostrils, the terrible image like a Fantasia devil forming from bats. Her voice rages like waves […] You’re crying.
Lana sees this, and she stops for a moment. She looks down at you. She can see your projected thoughts, or maybe she can’t see them. You don’t care what she can see. The cold iceberg rising in you; you can’t avoid announcing its presence, coming up through the surface of the ocean where you’re drifting.
I w-wouldn’t say anything, you say.
That’s right, Lana says.
I, I don’t think it’s wrong, you say. —I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all—
Are you okay? Lana suddenly asks, and the room is full of sunlight, and the iceberg that had been rising inside you begins to melt. Boy, how it melts. It melts into a whole new ocean, clean water floating on the surface of the one you’d swam in before, which you suddenly realize was poisonous rainbow gasoline. And you are very warm and you are very numb and you are very, very afraid.
This meeting, as Thornton tells it, releases tremendous power. Enough to melt an iceberg. Enough, perhaps (or perhaps not) to change the world. This is the speculative, counter-historical departure Thornton presents, her equivalent of Lindbergh beating Roosevelt, or Order 191 not being found. The thing that might have happened and didn’t, that could send history hurtling off onto a different course.
Or course, such meetings as this did happen. They must have happened often. Of course, trans people did come together, and did meet, despite all the pressures, even in the 1960s. But because of the danger these meetings represented to all involved, they were not often documented. I don’t think I know of an intentional document of such trans sociality earlier than Jeanne B and Xanthra Phillippa’s incredible 1993 short film, Gender Troublemakers. There is the occasional piece of ephemera—a photograph, a court record—related to such meetings. Sometimes, if you are lucky, it is still possible to meet an older trans person who remembers, who, if you ask them, will tell you about hanging out with trans sex workers as a closeted teenager in the 1950s, or going on an all-trans-woman feminist New Age retreat in the 1970s. But as things that have been explicitly recorded, that are part of history or even literary history, they are absent, it is as if they never were. They need, instead, to be imagined.
Perhaps the counter-history in Summer Fun is not a counter-history where this meeting happened. Perhaps it is a counter-history where the fact this meeting happened mattered.
Most notably, in Summer Fun, this meeting matters because it transforms Diane’s life completely. She takes the name Diane, wears women’s clothes, asks to be referred to with she/her pronouns. And she sets out, as a trans woman, to make a Great American Record, which she attempts to tape, for complicated reasons, in the Donner Pass. Improbably, though she has to negotiate the skepticism of her band, and the one cis woman on the trip telling her she is brave, Diane is broadly successful:
And when you come down from the mountain, Diane—when you and your collaborators put your clothes back on, pack up the cars, let the asphalt river carry you back west to the last outpost of civilization—you’ll take this entire recording and crop it to a tight ten seconds, mixing it behind an urgent bass-and- organ fill, a glaze of joy and river scum to provide texture that all but the most expensive stereo equipment will miss. But it will be there; you know that. It is there: joy haunts the recording, every detail of it present in the waves, your half-naked laugh as you dive and your legs kick up and disappear, the cannibal ghosts of the river roaring in the natal surf that rocks against you. You paid for all of it.
She makes this record, or most of it, this record which will help people and be full of joy and change the world for others as Lana changed it for her, which will go further, do more, and then she plays it to the A&R man at her record label, Lana’s boyfriend. Things don’t go quite as she planned:
I’m not crazy, you say. —Also I’m not men.
B—, he warns.
It’s actually Diane, you say. —That’ll be the name on the back cover of the album, you know, as its composer. It’ll be a hit. There’ll be all kinds of publicity angles. Transsexual women—women who were men once, according to doctors—will be the hottest commodity going one day. No fooling, Harry.
At this point he exhales; the shoulder he’s been priming slouches to his side. He leans against the wall of the isolation booth, his neck, peeping from the sudden gap in his collar, dark in the shadow of the mic.
I’m going to tell you what will happen to you, he says.
I won’t describe exactly what does happen to her, but the record goes unfinished, unreleased, and Diane is forced back into the closet. The hope, engendered in the explosive moment of trans sociality, which her record came out of and represented, is destroyed. As with the flying cars, it seems, the moment of divergence from our history may happen, but it doesn’t change anything, Not really. Not here. America, despite all that energy that was released, is still America.
And yet. It is this superficially unchanged America that the narrator of the novel, Gala, inherits. A trans woman and putative witch living in the 2010s in a version of New Mexico where commercial spaceports are under construction, she is dealing with a whole life of her own problems, including many to do with a trans sociality that has become a little easier to find, but not any easier to negotiate. But she is also dedicated to a purpose: to find Diane, to uncover her work, to redeem or rescue an inheritance was lost, somewhere in the heart of American pop:
Remember when I said I wasn’t going to tell you anything about my life story? But I will tell you this: I’m an American. Exactly how much of my story can I realistically separate from yours, Diane, from the stories you make me listen to every time FM Radio has a retrospective weekend? From my memories of every car trip of my childhood, roller rink bound in a minivan with school friends, someone’s mom singing “Psychic Attraction” at the top of her lungs? Exactly why should I abstract myself out of the dream inheritance all of us drag around? Why is it classy or pure to do that?
Summer Fun (and I think this is to its credit) never for a moment tries to abstract itself from the inheritance of White American pop culture, in all its violence and ubiquity and obliviousness. But it does (like the record Diane makes) try to keep hope alive. The hope that somewhere in the belly of this beast there might be some small thing that can be salvaged, some little scrap of purity and joy, something that was destroyed and forbidden but which nevertheless survived. What if, it asks, something as pure as transness, as pure as this desire to be a girl that some of us who are told we are boys nevertheless inexplicably and unwarrantedly have, even though being a girl in America is clearly objectively worse, what if something that joyful and gratuitous and innocent were to be found, not on the edges, but actually in the middle of America, buried, lost, suppressed, but still there.
This is an interesting and distinctive counterfactual to posit, in that it has the opposite polarity to most alternative history. As I began by saying, the dominant modality of alternative history is to imagine the nazis/confederates/fascists won, that is to say, to imagine what might have happened if “evil triumphed.” What such a plot assumes is that we, in the real world, are in the good timeline, the one where “good triumphed,” and so that our actual America is, in the way of things, a good place, a good time. This is, to say the least, a questionable assumption. Thornton might seem to put forward a far more hopeful, optimistic, charming “alt-historical” vision of America than that found in Dick, or Roth, or even Turtledove. Instead of nazis or confederates it has kindness, and magic rituals, and flying cars, and spaceships, and hot springs. But it is important to recognise that Summer Fun’s vision of an America in which it is still possible to have hope is, explicitly, a counterfactual, a speculation, a “what if?”
Unlike the mainstream of apparently gritty, but really neoliberal, historical speculations, what Summer Fun, if not assumes, then certainly haunts, or shadows, is a hopeless America, one in which there is nothing redeemable, not even the art of desperate, lonely, beautiful, crazy transsexual women. This possibility (not counter-possibility), carried in its bosom, worked with and against, reckoned with, is what gives this extraordinary book its charge, its intensity, its ability to be at once, and in the highest degree, goofy and tragic, its (to put it in a word all trans women have learned to fear) bravery.