Recent Reads

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
Lawrence N. Powell
Harvard University Press, March 2012 (Amazon | B&N)

I spend so much time dinging academic historians and their usually constipated prose that I’m obligated to call out an exception when it hits the shelves. This isn’t a definitive history of the city — it stops soon after the Louisiana Purchase, with the Battle of New Orleans as an epilogue — but, frankly, a complete recitation of NOLA during the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War, would fill a thick volume all its own. Instead Powell focuses on the 1700s, deftly explaining the events leading up to New Orleans’s improbable siting, followed by the convoluted real-estate scheming that shaped it (I like a writer who drops the word “autarky” into an economic discussion without feeling the need to explain it). Powell conducts his chorus so smartly that we can hear the echoes of those 18th-century voices today: the rise of nepotism (from a time when everybody in town really did know everybody else), corruption and disregard of the law (a reaction to mercantilism and a centralized state completely unresponsive to the city’s needs), lavish parties and displays of wealth (to create hierarchies in a world where everyone was sloughing off previous failures or humble origins to reinvent themselves), a rich African tradition (whites have always been a minority), and strong Francophile identity (a reflex against nearly 40 years of Spanish rule). Powell doesn’t overemphasize events either, which is always a peril for authors tempted to make A Point. The Accidental City is an accessible history of New Orleans’s haphazard beginnings.


The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, May 2007 (Amazon | B&N)

There are bad books, which I’ve decided aren’t worth talking about anymore. There are mediocre books — ditto. There are good books, which are worth promoting, and then there are books that provoke me as a writer to say to myself, What the hell am I doing with my life? I’m a complete fuck-up. I’ll never be able to make something like this.

Michael Chabon and I started off on the wrong foot. The first book I read — or tried to read — of his was Manhood for Amateurs, which included a ridiculous chapter on Lego, followed by an equally obnoxious interview. Lack of enough synonyms for “awful” prevented me from scribbling a full review of the book; suffice to say Chabon is a better fiction writer than public intellectual. This experience scared me off his work. Then recently I read his alt-history “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” in the VanderMeers’ Steampunk anthology, which was wonderful enough for me to seek out The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I’m so glad I did.

Only after the last page did I learn the novel, a police procedural set in an alternate history wherein Israel was defeated in 1948, won a slew of awards, including the 2007 Sidewise. The first 11 chapters are very slow — he could’ve used a better hook — and Chabon’s cynicism runs more to the grotesque (people are defined by their deformities, by their fatness or dandruff or “larval white fingers”) than toward Chandler-esque wit. Still, Chabon has his moments:

The outer room holds a sleeper couch, a wet bar and mini-fridge, an armchair, and seven young men in dark suits and bad haircuts. The bed is folded away, but you can smell that the room has been slept in by young men, maybe as many as seven.


One is a black man and one a Latino, and the others are fluid pink giants with haircuts that occupy the neat interval between astronaut and pedophile scoutmaster.

For me, Union hit every right note: a brilliant noir in which a detective doggedly pursues a lone murder, only to uncover a greater conspiracy. There’s a very sweet love story too. But most of all, Chabon gets alternate history. It’s a setting. It’s not an atmosphere or a corseted costume or even a genre — it’s a time-space geography the characters inhabit and interact with. Can you tell I really liked this book?

Does Alternate History Have Value?

Civil War historian Keith Harris posted a review (I know — over a year old, but he just tweeted it Monday) of Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South. He liked the book. But alternate history itself? Not so much:

Acording [sic] to historian Mark Grimsley, there are roughly two kinds of counteractual history. First – for the basest of simpletons I suppose – we have the “beer and peanuts” counterfactual. These “what ifs,” such as “what if Stonewall Jackson had lived to fight at Gettysburg” generally make their appearance at various “buff” gatherings. Second, we have “counterfactual theory.” This theory, the brainchild (I believe) of Grimsley himself, couches counterfactuals in the high-toned language of academics. The objective: to derive an element of truth from what did happen by laboriously theorizing about what…ummmm….didn’t.

Frankly, I find both varieties equally absurd. I have always suggested to my students that counterfactual history has limited utility (apart from a few laughs) and analysis of the infinite “what ifs” of history bears little or no fruit. Why, I ask, should we dwell on what might have happened (something that we could never, ever, ever really know – ever…no matter what) when we still have trouble determining what actually did? Ughh.

His reaction is noteworthy as it’s the first time I’ve read a PhD’s opinion on the genre (well, not exactly — Turtledove himself has a PhD in Byzantine history). Overlook for a moment Keith’s conflation of alternate-history fiction such as The Guns of the South with counterfactual history — those scholarly presentations of what-if scenarios that have all the appeal and impact of a green Lunesta moth. And let’s set aside the obvious primary goal of fiction — to entertain — for a utilitarian argument.

Quoth William Faulkner, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” Or history. Now, I’m more fully in the truth is stranger than fiction camp but Faulkner precisely diagnoses how alt history can underscore and engage fact in a way that should interest historians, academic or otherwise. Today there are people who insist, contrary to every scrap of paper written by anybody from the period or even the Confederate Constitution itself, slavery would have peacefully extinguished in an independent CSA. (The motivational poster at right, with its LOL and justice is served punchline, is actually a sincere expression swiped from an apologist’s blog). In my story “Glorieta Pass,” I not only call bullshit on the idea but further speculate that a peacetime Confederacy would have known little internal peace. If I can’t convince apologists of their stupidity outright, then I can mock them while entertaining everyone else. Through fiction.

But alt history further implies a question very relevant to historians, which is: Is history deterministic? Could it have unfolded any other way or is it — like perhaps the fabric of the universe itself — the summation of the only possible series of events? Why didn’t events happen differently? Think about it the next time someone at a dinner party suggests that without Hitler, another dictator would have still come to power in 1930s Germany.

(PS: You might not guess it from this post, but I actually like Keith — he’s a runner! — and I recommend his blog, Cosmic America.)

Everybody’s a Critic

io9 posted a list of the 10 Worst Mistakes That Authors of Alternate History Make and as you can imagine, I have some notes.

Like everything at io9, the article is confused and garbled: we’re informed of mistake No. 8 — Ignoring historical factors that were important at the time, even if they aren’t important to your story — in which Cherie Priest is marched to the woodshed because she forbears detailing the minutiae of 19th-century railroad rights in Utah — but then we’re told about mistake No. 2 — Explaining too much. Interviewing a wide swath of alt-hist writers is a great concept and certainly boosts exposure of the genre, but I wish Anders had allowed each author a hundred words or so to summarize his or her approach rather than jam the interviews into the cheesy square hole of a Late Nite Top 10 cliché. Still, the article’s own Worst Mistake is including the advice of war pornographer SM Stirling, who by all means should be completely ignored, if not pushed off a bridge.

A few bread crumbs of wisdom are sprinkled in the actual author quotes by underscoring what not to not do. I most seriously take exception to No. 10: Failing to bring it up to the present:

This is an “uncommon but grievous rookie mistake,” says Terry Bisson, whose alternate history of 1968, Any Day Now, comes out March 1. If you don’t bring your alternate history up to the reader’s present, then you leave out half the fun.

So any alternate history that isn’t set in the 21st century is a “grievous rookie mistake?” Thanks Mr. Bears-Discover-Fire, but you go ahead and stick to your naked book promotion while the rest of us do that voodoo we do.

Alas, when Alt Hist editor Mark Lord tweeted the article, he wrote, “I have to agree with #10.” Guess that’s one market I’ll never crack.

Wild Wild Alt-West

This past May, with the manuscript and revisions for Samuel Smedley, Connecticut Privateer delivered and my eyes burning from months of reading the faded handwriting of countless 18th-century letters and receipts, I went on a fiction binge. Reading fiction — Jeffrey Barlough’s Anchorwick, Tim Powers’s On Stranger Tides, Brian McNaughton’s absolutely incredible The Throne of Bones — but also writing it.

I scribbled a lot of short fiction back in the 90s before abandoning it for nonfiction, which truly is the stranger of the two. Yet recently I’ve returned to it as a counterpoise to features and inverted pyramids, as an approach to those questions and issues raised but elided by factual accounts. Ever try to discuss the existence of God or the meaning of life on the Internet? Good luck with that. Fiction, meanwhile, allows a metaphorical dialogue that is otherwise culturally inexpressible.

And so — because after writing a book, I like to unwind with a little writing — this summer I banged out a series of stories in a genre I love but had never before attempted myself: alternate history. Specifically, alternate-history Westerns.

Now you’re probably thinking, Jackson! Are there really enough publications out there willing to buy short stories set in an ahistorical North America west of the Mississippi River between the years of 1850 and 1900? Isn’t that a fairly niche audience?

You’d be surprised. Some of the market abundance is due, I think, to the general mainstreaming of science fiction — even though there is nothing scientific about history or historical speculation. Writing history, like journalism, is more of a work ethic, a way of doing things.

I suppose alt-hist is lumped into science fiction because it is the inverse of traditional sci-fi: an imagining of what could have happened rather than what could happen. Yet more specifically the growing acceptance of weird Westerns owes a lot to the popularity of steampunk. The number of markets open to speculative Westerns, if not dedicated to an explicit Western theme, is an American co-opting of steampunk, of moving it from English Victorianism into a uniquely American embrace.

Oddly enough I’m not a fan of the literary Western beyond the shorts and novels of Elmore Leonard. I am, however, a huge fan of the cinematic Western, particularly those of Sergio Leone and other spaghetti directors. Geography is such a vital part of the genre that the analogy is perhaps more strongly communicated visually than it can be on paper — existence is a wilderness and a man or a woman is alone in it — but regardless it’s precisely that loneliness and uncertainty I attempt to bring to the page.

“Glorieta Pass” appears in Science Fiction Trails 7, available in hardcopy or for Kindle.

“Galveston” appears in Another Wild West, out now for Kindle and Nook, and available in paperback December 2011 from Amazon and B&N.

“Quivira” will appear in Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations, spring 2012.

This is just the first batch I sold. More to come, let’s hope, behind the setting sun. Happy Thanksgiving!