Martin Berman-Gorvine is the author of four science fiction novels: Save the Dragons! (Wildside Press, 2013), Seven Against Mars (Wildside Press, 2013; it has been nominated for next year’s Prometheus Award for Best Novel), 36 (Livingston Press, 2012), and, as Martin Gidron, of The Severed Wing (Livingston Press, 2002), which received the 2002 Sidewise Award for Alternate History (Long Form) at the International Science Fiction Convention in Toronto in 2003. His short story “Palestina,” set in an alternate history in which Israel lost its war of independence, was published in Interzone magazine’s May/June 2006 issue, and was a finalist for the Sidewise Award (Short Form), and his short story “The Tallis” appeared in Jewish Currents magazine, May 2002. He is a professional journalist, currently serving as a reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs newsletter Human Resources Report. He lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with his wife, three orange tabby cats, two shy, overgrown kittens, and a sort of Muppet dog. Two sons from a previous marriage live with their mother near Chicago.
by Martin Berman-Gorvine
What good is alternate history? Serious historians have traditionally viewed “counterfactual” scenarios as little more than an amusing parlor game. On this view, it may be fun to speculate how American history would have played out differently if President John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated, but it is ultimately fruitless, a game best left to the conspiracy-mongers and other special-pleading partisans (JFK was ready to end American involvement in Vietnam! No, he was even more eager to plunge waist-deep into the Big Muddy than LBJ!)
Some of this resistance, it seems to me, is due to an unacknowledged sensitivity over the role the imagination plays in the writing of sober, “real” history, which is always a reconstruction of motives and actions and so at times involves more art than empirical science. But for a growing number of amateur and professional historians, counterfactuals have become too useful to ignore. After all, history rarely appears predetermined to people living through it. When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in the early summer of 1776, the participants did not “know” they were gathered to proclaim a new nation; this was the subject of intense debate, its outcome unknown. When Napoleon pondered an invasion of the British Isles, he did not “know” this to be an impossible undertaking. It was one strategic option in an array of choices he confronted.
Satisfying alternate histories explore fictionally the worlds that might have been if the actors at such historical junctures had opted for courses of action other than those they did choose, roads that were not taken but that appeared quite plausible at the time. The world of my new novel Save the Dragons! sets off down the rejected fork at both of the crossroads mentioned above. Thus, when Napoleon’s forces cross the English Channel and occupy the British Isles, His Majesty’s Government seeks refuge among its loyal subjects in the American colonies, setting up a capital in exile at the second largest city in the English-speaking world, Philadelphia. Two hundred years later, in the present day, France continues to rule over a mighty empire that includes the British Isles, most of Europe and the Middle East, and is in a Cold War-style conflict with a British empire centering around North America east of the Mississippi River. Florida, Alaska and the Louisiana Territory are all independent nations, the latter a freewheeling, French Creole-speaking country, while Mexico is a much larger nation than the one we know because it still includes Texas and California.
Exploring this new world with us is our heroine Teresa D’Angelo, a high school senior from our world’s South Philadelphia. Growing up as the picked-on shy, nerdy girl and the only child of a single mother, she is delighted when she stumbles on a used bookstore run by Gloria, a dimension-crossing being who is sometimes a flame-haired, eccentrically dressed woman, sometimes a ginger cat, and always the possessor of a stock of impossible books recounting manned Mars missions and vinyl records such as the Beatles’ reunion album. When Gloria brings Teresa together with the alternate timeline’s Tom Purnell, a seventeen-year-old native of Chincoteague Island, they join forces to rescue Tom’s father, who has apparently been kidnapped by French agents alarmed at his work on “heavier-than-air flight.” At the same time, they must avert the extinction of the rare Draco americanus, a much-evolved descendant of the pterodactyl that breathes fire (or a biochemically plausible facsimile thereof) and communicates telepathically with gifted humans like Teresa and Tom’s annoying genius of a kid sister, Jo. There are touches of steampunk in the airships that populate the alternate timeline’s skies and the Babbage difference engine that serves His Majesty’s Government, and which ordinary British subjects can communicate with by means of Scrabble tiles.
Readers may detect ironic echoes of our own world. But what is the message of my tale? None, I hope. I am one of those who believes that message-mongering is the death of literature. In the immortal words Mark Twain invokes at the opening of Huckleberry Finn, “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”