Alternate Presidents

A continuation of yesterday’s posting. The theme, tied in with a future posting, will not be alternate U.S. presidents but some more Mike Resnick edited anthologies from the 1990s.

This anthology is actually much better than Alternate Kennedys. The premise is simple: alternate victors in U.S. presidential elections.

Raw Feed (1993): Alternate Presidents, Mike Resnick, 1992.alternate-presidents-2

“Introduction: Playing the Game of What If?”, Mike Resnick — Standard introduction on how book was put together.

The Father of His Country”, Jody Lynn Nye — Not so great alternate history that has Benjamin Franklin as the first president and sort of an eighteenth century media whiz, due to his experience as author and printer, who appeals to the people frequently, making the presidency a more democratic, more modern (in the sense of being like us) institution much to the chagrin of vice president John Adams who likes the more aristocratic, more elite, less populist way of doing things.

The War of ‘07”, Jayge Carr — Tale of how the ambitious Aaron Burr became second president, maneuvers the British into a war in 1807, gives an impetus to David Bushnell’s proto-submarine technology to be developed into a weapon, and successfully founds a dynastic presidency (he marries Napoleon Bonaparte’s daughters and holds on to the presidency long enough to pass it to his beloved grandson, Aaron Burr Alston). While it’s arguable whether pushing submarine technology ahead of the speed it developed in our world is a good thing, other Burr actions seem definitely dangerous – a dynastic presidency – or failures (as compared to our time). In the latter case, it may only cost Thomas Jefferson three million dollars in our world to get the Louisiana Purchase. Burr spends two million on just West Florida and New Orleans. And there are the unexplored consequences of Napleon not being defeated (Wellington dies fighting Americans in Canada). Still, it’s an interesting notion and exploration of easily things could have went very differently in the first 50 years of American history.

Black Earth and Destiny”, Thomas A. Easton — Easton takes an uncommon tack in this story in two ways. First, the turning point of this alternate history is that Andrew Jackson is elected president in 1824. Not embittered by loosing to John Quincy Adams (after striking a deal with Henry Clay even though Jackson beat both in electoral and popular votes) as he did in our history, Jackson thinks of the future. Under the influence of a rumor (I have no idea if this really was a rumor of the time. I’ve only heard reference to it in the song “The Battle of New Orleans”) that the British fired cannonballs from alligators’ mouths in the Battle of New Orleans, he invests in Mendelian engineering which seems to be genetic engineering affected by bacteria “juices”. I liked this alternate scientific history postulated by biologist Easton. The second unusual thing is that in this world, as he did in ours, Carver goes off to Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee University – just as he did in ours (the destiny of the title). Although, in this world, he will presumably do more than just think up new uses for non-cotton crops (as he did in our world) since he has “Mendelian engineering” to work with.

How the South Preserved the Union”, Ralph Roberts — An intriguing alternate Civil War story. First, Roberts postulates that the Northern states seceded from the Union in disgust at the accession of President Pro Tem of the Senate David R. Atchison to the Presidency after President Zachary Taylor and Vice President Millard Fillmore are killed in a carriage accident. (There is precedent for this in some Northern States threatening to secede during the War of 1812.) The Northern forces (with Colonel John Brown) threaten to crush the Southern (here the Union) states with, as in our timeline, a naval blockade and superior industrial might. Roberts postulates that the motive for this, besides abolitionism, was Northern industrialists’ fear that the South and West would economically outcompete them with slave labor manning their factories. The South responds to superior Northern military might by giving them what the abolitionists want (and an earlier state of equality for blacks in America): freedom for all slaves that work in Southern factories or serve in the Union army. This makes the South more powerful than the North. (Roberts reducing, in this story, the Civil War to seemingly just an economic struggle on the part of both North and South.) I don’t think President Atchison’s ideas would have been so easily accepted by the Transcendental pro-slavery forces (though Roberts postulates a Civil War earlier than ours so the Transcendentals may not have much sway) though the South did, very belatedly and with little success, try to field black troops. The Union is saved by this action. The other good element in this story is its humor. Roberts introduces two ploys used more and more frequently by alternate history writers to provide their readers with amusing ironies. First, he has the narrator reading an alternate history which describes our timeline. In disgust at what he regards as its preposterousness, he tells the real story of the Civil War. Roberts is making a valid point when stating that historical accidents and chance occurrences might produce a history we would think freakishly improbable. His narrator regards the possibility of Lincoln, a “vulgar, incompetent man who amounted to little and accomplished less” in the words of narrator, as absurd, and concludes with (and Roberts tongue is firmly in cheek) “hard to believe people get really paid for writing such foolishness”. Second, Roberts uses the technique of bringing together people who, in our timeline, had significant encounters and brings them improbably together in his alternate history, specifically Lincoln is killed in 1865 by John Wilkes Both in an argument over theater tickets. It’s hard to rationalize the plausibility of this throw away event. It’s just there for amusement. It works due to Roberts’ skill here but doesn’t always work in other stories.

Now Falls the Cold, Cold Night”, Jack L. Chalker — This story is interesting less for its alternate history than its fascinating and seemingly plausible and realistic portrayal of the fanatical John Brown. The alternate history has Milard Fillmore is elected president in 1856. He is vehemently Pro-Union, Pro-Slavery and supports anti-immigration acts – in our world he ran as the Know-Nothing presidential candidate of 1856 so the latter is realistic, and John Brown successfully plots to precipitate the Civil War earlier than it happened in our timeline. He is still hung at Harpers Ferry, though, after carrying out an early war raid there. Given the way the story is structured – Brown’s alias and his real name only given about three-fourths of the way through the story – Chalker seems to strangely think he was fooling us. But Brown’s identity is clear from the moment we first see him early on and are given his physical description. Chalker ends the story on kind of an annoying note after Brown’s execution: “The rest, of course, is history”. This just points out, more baldly than most short stories, the problem of most alternate history short stories. The prime fascination of the sub-genre is exploring the many long term consequences of altering history’s flow, not character studies or stories that merely detail “the sharp agate point” history turns on (to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill’s venture into the sub-genre).

Lincoln’s Charge”, Bill Fawcett — Another alternate history that features an historical personage who seems destined to serve the same function as in our timeline. Here the alternate General Abraham Lincoln saves the Union by giving his life in a successful charge in an important, Gettysburg-like battle.

We Are Not Amused”, Laura Resnick — A story I found annoying, and, after reading it, I’m heartily thankful Victoria Woodhull was never president. I suspect the reader is supposed to have a different reaction, that we’re supposed to find her ideas appropriately and approvingly modern, an avatar of modern sensitivity with her plan to restore land to Indians, eliminate the Departments of Navy and War and replace them with the Departments of Love and Reproductive Freedom, her environmental concerns, support of free love and legalized prostitution, and dalliance with communists (who want to hold children and property in common). I suspect we’re to find Queen Victoria’s (Resnick takes an interesting tack with this story – we never meet Woodhull – the entire story is Victoria’s letters to Woodhull) tongue-clucking and disapproving silly, stodgily conservative and well, Victorian. I found most of her disapproval justified.

Patriot’s Dream”, Tappan King — Alternate history where presidential candidate Samuel Tilden wins the 1876 election. In our timeline, he lost the election to Rutherford B. Hayes due to some extremely shady back room deals which transferred all 20 contested electoral votes to Hayes. Here he wins due to his strong-willed, clever wife Leila Morse (daughter of Samuel Morse) who, in this timeline, accepts his marriage proposal unlike in our time. Tilden, who in our reality was a reformer who broke up several rings of political corruption, becomes the leader of several different reforms under the impetus of a terrifying nightmare. I think this story works better as a nice character study of Tilden and Morse than as alternate history.

I Shall Have a Flight to Glory”, Michael P. Kube-McDowell — Many alternate history writers like to throw people who had significant interactions in our timeline together in a different context in alternate histories to provide amusing ironies for their readers. Thus we have stories with John Wilkes Booth killing Abraham Lincoln in an argument over theater tickets or Lee Harvey Oswald serving as a Kennedy aide. Most of these feel contrived, implausible, but this story is an exception. Here James Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau meet again in an alternate history. Samuel Tilden, who had the 1876 stolen from him by Rutherford B. Hayes, is an embittered candidate in the 1880 election, a former reformer who has now embraced corrupt machine politics. He is joined by Roscoe Conkling, former Republican supporter of Garfield, who is angered by Garfield’s refusal to consider his choice of patronage appointments. (In our timeline, Garfield and Conkling had their falling out over the same thing but after Garfield’s election.). The election is stolen for Tilden. When he reveals an utter contempt for the political will of the common man, Garfield, at Charles Guiteau’s urging (in our timeline, Guiteau was affiliated with Conkling) decides to assassinate Tilden. Kube-McDowell makes the whole thing seem very plausible and realistic. There’s an interesting bit of scientific history (or alternate history or pseudo-history) here that I wonder about. A man called John Gamgee proposes a “zeromotor”, a steam engine that uses ammonia instead of water because of ammonia’s lower boiling point, thus less fuel is needed: in fact, when in a ship, the heat from the water could power the engine.

Love Our Lockwood”, Janet Kagan — Another story about the reforms of a nineteenth century female president. This one revolves around an election day protest to get women the vote. President Lockwood, leader of the demonstration, is successful in her aim though Garfield wins the election.

Plowshare”, Martha Soukup — Tale about what William Jennings Bryan does after actually winning the 1896 election. He is involved in peace causes. His successful fight to get the American presence out of the Philippines leads to them being occupied by the Japanese in the early part of this century, so this story can not be seen to be a ringing endorsement of sincere “anti-imperialist” appeals by Bryan. (Hawaii, an independent republic here, worries about being occupied by Japan.)

The Bull Moose at Bay”, Mike Resnick — As usual, Resnick does a good job recreating the vigorous personality of Theodore Roosevelt. However, the story itself is lackluster. Like several of the stories in this anthology, it’s about women’s suffrage. Roosevelt is about to loose the 1916 election (he won the 1912 in this timeline) because of his support for women’s suffrage.

A Fireside Chat”, Jack Nimersheim — An alternate history where, by a fluke series of events, Franklin Delano Roosevelt becomes president in 1920. He strikes a devil’s bargain with Adolf Hitler (whose Beer Hall Putsch worked here) to ensure stability in Europe.

Fighting Bob”, Kristine Kathryn Rusch — I liked the moody, bitter quality of this tale about a man sponsoring a senatorial opponent against the son of President Robert La Follette, Sr at a club full of his supporters. This story outlines the good and bad points of Follette: his anti-Klan position and his destruction of the economy. Unfortunately, I got the feeling that we’re supposed to excuse the economic havoc he wrecks because “building a world in which equality and freedom existed in business as well as politics was a slow, but worthy task.”

Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, Lawrence Watt-Evans — A story that suffers from a lot of exposition boldly and unconvincingly presented in dialogue — the conversing characters should know this stuff without talking about it. Basically, the plot is about where, in 1953, a Jewish supporter of the President should be given a job. The U. S. fought a war with Japan in 1934 but didn’t press it it to the home islands. Nazism is still a slow infection in the world though Hitler was assassinated in 1938. Though Germany never undertook her conquests, the Nazi party remains, and Fascism infects Japan, parts of Europe and South America. Communism has vanished from the world (only Russia ever tried it.), but Russia has resumed its anti-Jewish pogroms. Even in America Jews are despised and politicians muse solemnly about Jewish-Communist conspiracies.

No Other Choice”, Barbara Delaplace — A nice story for a couple of reasons. It’s a sympathetic portrait of Thomas Dewey, political opponent of the usually loved Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. It also takes a new approach to the old debate about whether Truman should have dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Here President Dewey must make the decision, and he opts for a solution that many said Truman should have used – inviting Japanese officials to view the dropping of an A-bomb on an uninhabited area. Unfortunately, that doesn’t convince the Japanese to surrender, so Dewey, very reluctantly, orders the A-bombing of Tokyo.

The More Things Change”, Glen E. Cox — A rather worthless story that tells how Thomas Dewey becomes president due to a whistle-stop campaign (Truman is delayed in his because of laryngitis.) and a program of anti-Communism. The story simply ends with his election. How he is elected isn’t terribly interesting, and no consequences of his election are given.

The Impeachment of Adlai Stevenson”, David Gerrold — A well told, at times humorous, story even though it is far too worshipful of Adlai Stevenson. He wasn’t nearly as intellectual or smart as many liberals claim and his opponent Dwight D. Eisenhower was smarter and more of a intellectual than acknowledged (though less so with various biographies). This is another figure of the past portrayed in approvingly modern terms – he wants, for instance, Detroit to make smaller, more fuel efficient cars (despite the market not demanding them). He appears (I have no idea if this is true to the man.) soft on Communism. (He commutes the Rosenberg’s death sentences, does not support the French in Vietnam, is accussed by “the founder of the John Birch Society” – evidently Gerrold didn’t think we’d know who Robert Welch was – of being a communist, does not intervene in Korea. Oddly, he supports Batista against Castro.). Still, it’s a mixed portrait of Stevenson. He doesn’t appear to support Hubert Humphrey’s civil rights proposals; he causes both inflation and recession. His vice-President, John F. Kennedy, is derided for marrying Marilyn Monroe (Jokes are made about the new Monroe Doctrine: “Ooh, aaaahhhhh”) and too inexperienced for the job. It is Dwight D. Eisenhower’s choice of vice-President, Joe McCarthy, which plausibly costs him the election. Gerrold throws in some of the numerous ironies (they work pretty well here) common to alternate histories. Walter Cronkite is regarded as untrustworthy, and the speechwriter-narrator, embittered at Stevenson’s quitting the presidency and weakening the office, decides to work for Richard Nixon, a man he thinks will do neither. Of course, he very well may not here but it is an ironical reference to events in our timeline.

Heavy Metal”, Barry N. Malzberg — I think Malzberg has a true knack for alternate histories involving political affairs though I don’t like his more usual sf. This story is told by some unspecified Jack Kennedy campaign aide (with the Malzberg quirk of no quotation marks for dialogue) and creates a strong sense of character (though a bit too noble, a bit too smart – though still sexually obsessed to the detriment of his campaign – to be a believable portrait of the real JFK) in a compelling narrative. However, the main fault of this story is that it’s another story dealing with how history changes (Here because an insulted Richard Daley doesn’t throw the election for JFK.) and not the effects.

Fellow Americans”, Eileen Gunn — Pointless story about a richer but more toxic and polluted America in a world where tactical nuke usage is common due to President Goldwater’s use of them in Vietnam. I did like the idea of Tricky Dick being a popular television celebrity on a show which invites contestants to guess if he’s lying (about LSD use for one thing), a strange fate for a man who became synonymous with not dealing well with tv. Although, it has a strange plausibility for a man who gave the Checkers speech.

Dispatches From the Revolution”, Pat Cadigan — An absolutely wretched story whose applause by some reviewers says much about their political leanings and reverence for the Dark Ages of the Sixties. To be sure, any story in an anthology on alternate presidential history is almost certain to be influenced by the author’s perception of the horror or promise of a real-life loser becoming president in an alternate history. Actually, this story sidesteps the whole anthology’s premise. After the improbable death of Hubert Humphrey, President Johnson, and Robert Kennedy (he survives Sirhan Sirhan’s assassination attempt) in a bomb blast at the Democratic Chicago Convention, martial law is declared. This lurid, liberal paranoid fantasy continues with (I will grant Cadigan’s style is smooth and engaging – whether quoting from letters or being a mock history) libraries being audited for objectionable material, psychological tests for voting eligibility, “conditional” citizenship, segregation, illegal software labs, and the Third South American War (fought by invading Americans of course). Two typical example of moral blindness and sixties wishful thinking appear. One is the radical’s (now on the run) contention that Annie Phillips didn’t mean her bomb to kill anyone. (Then why put it in a crowded hotel?) The second is the story’s end, a teeth-grating example of sixties pretension and delusions of martyrdom: one of the characters is musing how history could have been different, how the battle (the Chicago convention) could have been lost and the war (for freedom and the New Left way presumably) won instead of winning the battle and losing the war. Oh, how tragic! Sixties doomed by its success, whining Boomers only making things worse by their struggles! How vain!

Suppose They Gave a Peace … “, Susan Schwartz — Winston Churchill said that alternate histories are about history swiveling on a “sharp agate point”. This one sort of rests on a dull granite block since it postulates that George McGovern, who lost in one of the biggest election landslides ever, becomes President. This story stands as a mild antidote to Pat Cadigan’s awful “Dispatches from the Revolution”. It sucks, almost in a Philip K. Dick way, but without an end sting as strong as his usually was the reader with its charmingly decent, if a little old-fashioned, narrator. He’s a vet but is sympathetic to getting out of Vietnam, may be a bit of a sexist but ain’t no racist, and, like almost all these stories, isn’t as “enlightened” as his wife and college age daughter. McGovern pulls the boys out of “Nam but the VC respect America even less now, overrun the country faster, kill lots of American soldiers – including the Ambassador and the narrator’s son, and the boat people flee even sooner than in our time. I don’t know if Schwartz is conservative and this is a skillful, though mild, retort to liberal rants about the evil of the Vietnam War, or if Schwartz is just making the pragmatic point that when they hold wars people often come because they need to and that when you give peace a chance the other guy might not be willing to.

Paper Trail”, Brian M. Thomsen — Thomsen has a knack for the nifty technique of telling a story mostly through fake documents, but this story didn’t need to be told. Essentially it’s a tale of how the Watergate breakin is exposed before the 1972 election. Again, the interest of the alternate history is how a change effected history, not the change.

Demarche to Iran”, Alexis A. Gilliland — A would-be humorous story about how President Gerald Ford gets the Iranian Embassy hostages free. I think a lot of the dialogue between the Iranians was supposed to be funny, but I don’t think so. I did think it funny that Ford gets political advice from his masseur (which he tends to take over Henry Kissinger’s), is a bit of a buffoon (Kissinger tells him, in response to Ford’s complaining about how much he has to read, “If crises were more fun, we have them more often, Mr. President.”), and that he threatens the Iranians with nukes by a slip of his tongue (and thus spontaneously makes foreign policy when he meant to say navy). The introduction to this story says Gilliland is a long time Washington bureaucrat. His professional experience may have led him to write an ending where Ford is criticized for threatening a “non-nuclear and friendly power” with nukes and alienating a friendly power. Gilliland knows a politician or bureaucrat can’t please everyone.

Huddled Masses”, Lawrence Person — One of the better stories in this book. It deals with the consequences of history being altered. Here, Walter Mondale wins in 1980. Central America is torn by communist backed revolutions, and America is flooded by illegal immigrants. Huddled masses yearning to be free implying they have become enslaved through Mondale’s policies. I have no idea if Person harbors conservative ideas or is just speculating.. The story, crisply told, uses the mode developed to its highest form in the fifties: a day in a man’s work. Usually, like here, they are pondering quitting their job. A good effort stylistically, politically, and conceptually.

Dukakis and the Aliens“, Robert Sheckley — Kind of a disappointing story. This story postulates Michael Dukakis elected president. He must deal with the fact the U.S. really does have aliens on an Air Force base. He must decide how to deal with a confusing army of aliens. I’m not sure that Sheckley tried to even make the relationships between the Earth and the universe’s other sentients clear. I think it’s deliberately confusing. Dukakis dies — revealing that he is a Teal Green alien, a race who now shows an interest in Earth. The story ends with a revision of Earth’s history to avoid a Teal Green takeover, a revision that will get George Bush elected.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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2 thoughts on “Alternate Presidents

  1. Pingback: Alternate Kennedys | MarzAat

  2. Pingback: The Write Off Post | MarzAat

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