Saturday, 6 April 2013

Ward Moore - Bring The Jubilee (1953)

"Although I am writing this in the year 1877, I was not born until 1933. Neither the dates nor the tenses are error - let me explain:"


   Listen: Hodgins McCormick Backmaker has come unstuck in time. Well it's clear from that incredible opening sentence that time-travelling shenanigans must be involved, but it quickly becomes apparent that it's far from the whole story.
   'Bring The Jubilee' is an iconic and early example of Alternate History, a variant of SF in which instead of imagining the future the author imagines what would have happened if a crucial moment in the history of our world played out differently. Two of the most popular Jonbar points in Western SF, where the alternate world diverges from our own, are the American Civil War and World War II. Philip K Dick's 'The Man In The High Castle' is the go-to example of the latter, in which he vividly imagines a world where the Nazis won; 'Bring The Jubilee' is the most celebrated case of the former, with the South emerging victorious.
   In many ways, 'Bring The Jubilee' is a much purer example of the genre at its finest, and a stronger case for  what alternate history can bring to the table that perhaps straightforward SF can't. Excellent as it is, 'The Man In The High Castle' is very Dickian, with its multiple shifting realities and the final revelation that the alternate world within the book in which the Allies won is not the same as our world, and in fact neither may be 'real'. 'Bring The Jubilee' is much more focused on the historical details of its alternate world, with historical and cultural differences thought out in great detail. It's also a lot more character-based than the traditionally plot-based PKD.
   In a recent interview, Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Mars Trilogy, was asked about the differences between straightforward SF and alternative history, and had this to say:

"In a way, there's not much that alternate history can do. I think it's a weaker form than science fiction proper. In science fiction proper, you're saying, 'This is going to happen to all of us. It's not my dream, it's not surrealism, it's prophecy, this is coming for us,' and you read science fiction and go, 'Wow, this is going to happen for me or my children,' or whatever. Alternative history is saying that, well, this didn't happen, but if it had, it would have been a really interesting cool thing. That's a much weaker statement than, 'This is coming.' So, all you can do, I think, is make a new story space, which is nice, and you can also suggest that history is changeable." Kim Stanley Robinson, interviewed by io9

   This is certainly a valid stance, however, I think it also hits quite nicely at what can make alternate history done well so appealing. Works like 'Pavane' by Keith Roberts (Queen Elizabeth is assassinated on the eve of the Spanish armada) or Robinson's own 'The Years Of Rice And Salt' (the Black Death kills 99% of Europe's population) have a very individual texture and atmosphere, drawn from a setting at once instantly recognizable yet subtly alien. 'Bring The Jubilee' easily sits in such exalted company. The world-building here is truly exquisite; in its slim 240-odd pages, Moore packs a surprising amount of detail about the history and culture of this alternate timeline. Impressively, much of this is done by naturalistic dialogue and the attitudes and actions of the various characters.
   Alternate histories also allow us to reflect how fragile the strands of history are; we got where we are today by a combination of luck and happenstance, rather than by forethought, careful planning and great men choosing the correct choices at crucial moments.
 
Adapted from the extensive 'Bring The Jubilee' Wikipedia entry

   This is a theme that crops up a lot in 'Bring The Jubilee'. Our protagonist Hodge is constantly pulled between the two opposing concepts of fate and freewill. An inhabitant of the impoverished North, his great passion is history, and he wants nothing more than to be able to study it. However at every turn he is confronted with difficult moral quandaries. This is highlighted early on by the opposing views of his two mentors, one a cynic representing resigned fate, the other an idealist representing freewill. Despite the nagging of his conscience, Hodge repeatedly avoids doing what he believes is right by not taking any action. But, as a great Canadian progressive rock trio once said, 'If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.'
    When he finally becomes a historian, he gets the opportunity to travel back in time to witness the decisive Battle of Gettysburg first hand and jumps at the chance. Of course our protagonist would never be so bold as to intentionally alter the chain of events, but it turns out his mere presence there is enough to change history so that the Confederate forces don't occupy a crucial point in the battle, allowing the Union to win. Hodge winds up stranded in the past, as his actions have erased his timeline in which the time machine was built, and history unfolds as we know it.
   What I like about all this is how it emphasises the randomness of history, the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time. 'Bring The Jubilee' would have been a much less effective book if it had been about an actively heroic figure going back in time to set right what once went wrong. Hodge realises how badly his world turned out - companies are allowed to hold people in what amounts to virtual slavery, minorities are exploited and have little to no rights - but the key facet of his character is his lack of moral fibre in the face of conflict. He never intended to change anything, and does his best to avoid it happening, but it happens anyway. I also like how this leaves completely unresolved the conflict between fate and free will. How can Hodge have free will, when the pivotal action that he takes was done entirely by mistake and against  his will? How can there be such a thing as fate when our timeline only exists because Hodge's timeline existed beforehand and he went back in time and made a mistake?
   And while it's clear Moore feels our world turned out better than the world in 'Bring The Jubilee', he refreshingly keeps a clear head about the bad things that have happened in our reality. Hodge is writing his account before the turn of the century, and is not filled with hope and optimism for the future. We learn that World War I in the original timeline, fought from 1914 to 1916, was less bad than in our reality, and Hodge faces the new century with trepidation, fearing that human nature has not changed and that the emerging conflict will be unavoidable. And of course, we all know how that turned out, because this is the REAL timeline. Isn't it?
 

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