Category Archives: Alternate History

American Bardo

A 19th-century stone carved angel in a cemeteryAs I read George Saun­ders’ dar­ing first nov­el Lin­coln in the Bar­do recent­ly, I was struck by its strange­ly close par­al­lels with anoth­er mem­o­rable and equal­ly risk-tak­ing debut nov­el, Chris Adrian’s Gob’s Grief (2000). Both nov­els use the Civ­il War as an entry point into crazed and orig­i­nal med­i­ta­tions on the real­i­ty of death.

In Lin­coln in the Bar­do, Saun­ders reimag­ines the Bud­dhist con­cept of the Bar­do, a thresh­old state of the soul that is thought to last a few days after death. His Amer­i­can Bar­do is a ceme­tery in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., filled with a mot­ley group of dead folks too short-sight­ed to real­ize they’re dead. At the heart of the book is a new arrival, eleven-year-old Willie Lin­coln, who’s suc­cumbed to typhoid fever, and his griev­ing father, the Pres­i­dent, who is a year into the blood­i­est war of the country’s his­to­ry. His­to­ry has left the tan­ta­liz­ing sug­ges­tion that Lin­coln vis­it­ed Willie’s crypt sev­er­al times after the boy’s funer­al.

Gob’s Grief takes place dur­ing and after the Civ­il War. The sto­ry repur­pos­es such real fig­ures as Walt Whit­man, who vol­un­teered as a nurse to injured sol­diers dur­ing the war, and the remark­able Vic­to­ria Wood­hull, a fem­i­nist, a medi­um, and the first female can­di­date for pres­i­dent, in 1872. The emo­tion­al crux of this sto­ry is the rela­tion­ship between Woodhull’s fic­tion­al twin sons, Gob and Tomo. Tomo runs off to be a bugler with the Union Army at the age of eleven, and is soon killed in bat­tle.

Gob is sick­ened by his mother’s insis­tence that his broth­er is alive and well in the Sum­mer­land, the Spir­i­tu­al­ist equiv­a­lent of Heav­en. Years lat­er, a grown-up Gob builds a mas­sive, Steam­punk-like engine meant to bring back to life not only Tomo, but all the sol­diers who died in the war. The engine com­bines “glass tubes and iron gears… bun­dles of cop­per wire,” human bones, and an array of glass neg­a­tives of fall­en sol­diers, float­ing above a set of ceme­tery gates.

Both books are wild­ly non-for­mu­la­ic and genre-bust­ing. Lin­coln in the Bar­do is told in a mul­ti-voiced cho­rus, shift­ing from the dead ceme­tery-dwellers to the living—the ceme­tery guard and the President—along with excerpt­ed his­tor­i­cal descrip­tions of Willie’s ill­ness and death. Gob’s Grief leaps around in time and inside many points of view. But it also alter­nates between nat­u­ral­is­tic depic­tions of events like the bat­tle of Chicka­mau­ga, and oth­er­world­ly hap­pen­ings and char­ac­ters includ­ing the mem­o­rably creepy child Pick­ie Beech­er, born out of Gob’s infer­nal machine. Angels appear in both books, hec­tor­ing the liv­ing and the dead.

Both nov­els are heat­ed into over­drive by the ten­sion between denial and accep­tance of death, two land­marks on the con­tin­u­um of grief. The ghosts sur­round­ing Willie Lin­coln suf­fer from major cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance as they strug­gle to explain their sit­u­a­tion, cling­ing to sad euphemisms: “sick-box” for cof­fin, and “stone home” for their tombs. Their lib­er­a­tion, and Willie’s, hinges on rec­og­niz­ing the real­i­ty of their deaths in this false stage-set they’ve cre­at­ed. An unlike­ly com­mu­nion with the dead helps Willie’s griev­ing father come through a sim­i­lar emo­tion­al pas­sage.

Gob’s Grief is infused with the crazi­ness of grief. Sev­er­al main char­ac­ters, includ­ing Walt Whit­man, are each haunt­ed by a broth­er or loved one lost in the war. Gob’s death-defy­ing engine some­how feels like the believ­able response of some­one who’s ready to change the rules of real­i­ty to bring back their loved one. Adrian’s lat­er nov­els, The Children’s Hos­pi­tal and The Great Night, show a sim­i­lar will­ing­ness to dive head­long into the deep­est waters where death and life, fan­ta­sy and real­i­ty mix.

The idea of the Bar­do came to the West from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the 14th-cen­tu­ry Tibetan Bud­dhist text writ­ten as a guide for the new­ly dead, to help them move through the illu­sions of the Bar­do toward clar­i­ty and rebirth. In fact, Bar­do can refer to any tran­si­tion­al state, even our wak­ing expe­ri­ence. Is there some­thing dis­tinct­ly Amer­i­can in the intran­si­gence of Saun­ders’ ghosts, and Gob’s obses­sive quest to undo his brother’s death? Their stub­born­ness may reflect our cul­tur­al prej­u­dice toward hap­pi­ness, toward hold­ing on to a more pleas­ant ver­sion of things, whether it’s one that exist­ed in the past, or some promised future. In what­ev­er Bar­do we find our­selves, only doing the hard work of acknowl­edg­ing what we’ve lost can lib­er­ate us to move ahead.



An Alternate History reading list for this moment Or, Did Philip K. Dick foresee our current predicament? 

Are we liv­ing in an alter­nate branch of his­to­ry? I’ve been ask­ing myself that ques­tion since wak­ing up the morn­ing of Novem­ber 9, with the feel­ing that real­i­ty had turned side­ways. Since then, many of us have shared the stages of shock, denial, anger and sad­ness that come after a great loss. But when so many peo­ple share these feel­ings at the same time, that sense of things being pro­found­ly wrenched out of place, of being exiled from the world you know, takes on a dif­fer­ent weight.

Elec­tions can be turn­ing points. Mil­lions of peo­ple weighed in on the country’s direction—leaving aside the issues of how their opin­ions were influenced—and this time the jok­er came out on top, con­found­ing the expec­ta­tions of many. A shift hap­pened, which we’re just begin­ning to live through, and which has the pow­er to affect the world. Try­ing to make sense of this, I keep com­ing back to the imag­i­na­tive prece­dents offered by alter­nate his­to­ry.

The impulse to imag­ine alter­nate his­to­ries has long roots. Two thou­sand years ago, the Roman his­to­ri­an Livy spec­u­lat­ed on whether Alexan­der the Great could have defeat­ed Rome. Mod­ern alter­nate his­to­ry emerged along with sci­ence fiction—in L. Sprague de Camp’s 1939 clas­sic Lest Dark­ness Fall, an arche­ol­o­gist finds him­self thrown back in time to a slight­ly dif­fer­ent Rome in the sixth cen­tu­ry CE, where he man­ages to insert enough tech­nol­o­gy and knowl­edge to pre­vent the com­ing of the Dark Ages.


The imag­i­na­tion of dark­er alter­nate timelines—with the Nazis and oth­er Axis pow­ers win­ning World War II, for example—has become an endur­ing strand in the genre. There’s Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Cas­tle, which takes place in a post-war Amer­i­ca carved up into pro­tec­torates of the Nazis and the Japan­ese. Jo Walton’s Small Change tril­o­gy plays out a time­line in which Britain has become a fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship fol­low­ing a peace made with Nazi Ger­many, thanks to the influ­ence of the appease­ment fac­tion and Amer­i­can iso­la­tion­ism. Simon Zelitch’s Juden­staat offers anoth­er pos­si­ble World War II out­come, with a Jew­ish state aris­ing not in Pales­tine but in the area that for us became part of East Ger­many, and falling inside the oppres­sive polit­i­cal orbit of the USSR.

Then there are nov­els that give us a vision of a home­grown Fas­cism tak­ing pow­er in the Unit­ed States. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against Amer­i­ca traces an alter­nate his­tor­i­cal path in the 1930s, fol­low­ing the elec­tion of Charles Lind­bergh as Pres­i­dent (in our time, he was a Nazi sym­pa­thiz­er). This leads to state-spon­sored anti-Semi­tism that includes a Jew­ish relo­ca­tion pro­gram. Sin­clair Lewis’s It Can’t Hap­pen Here fol­lows a Huey Long-like dem­a­gogue who, soon after his elec­tion to the pres­i­den­cy, uses mil­i­tary force to estab­lish a total­i­tar­i­an state. Tech­ni­cal­ly It Can’t Hap­pen Here may not qual­i­fy as alter­nate his­to­ry, since Lewis was writ­ing in 1935 about an upcom­ing elec­tion, not about a diver­gent event in the past. [LINK]

I’ve seen many of these nov­els cit­ed as par­al­lels to the moment we find our­selves in now. But I haven’t heard any­one bring up a more obscure nov­el by Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albe­muth, which was posthu­mous­ly pub­lished in 1985. Dick also adapt­ed the plot as a sto­ry-with­in-a-sto­ry, appear­ing as a film watched by the char­ac­ters in his great late work, VALIS.

Set in the late 1960s, Radio Free Albe­muth hinges on the elec­tion of Fer­ris F. Fre­mont, a cor­rupt politi­cian asso­ci­at­ed with a right-wing pop­ulist move­ment. As it turns out, Fre­mont is also a covert Russ­ian agent. Fre­mont was part­ly inspired by Richard Nixon, whose appeal to “Mid­dle Amer­i­ca” nom­i­nal­ly qual­i­fied him as a pop­ulist. But as a par­al­lel to our Pres­i­dent Elect, Dick’s Fre­mont hits the tri­fec­ta: cor­rupt deal­ings, right-wing pop­ulism, and Russ­ian influ­ence.

It was Dick’s swirling mix of para­noia and real­i­ty-con­fu­sion that I thought of the morn­ing after the elec­tion. The Man in the High Cas­tle, for exam­ple, sets up not just one alter­nate strand but sev­er­al: there’s a book-with­in-a-book by an author who imag­ines a dif­fer­ent end­ing to the war, with the U.S. and Britain becom­ing the post­war super­pow­ers, and this serves to sab­o­tage the novel’s dom­i­nant real­i­ty. (John Gray delves into this aspect of the nov­el in an insight­ful piece com­par­ing it to the cur­rent TV adaptation.)LINK BELOW

Philip K. Dick is not the author I would pre­fer to choose as the prophet of our com­ing polit­i­cal time. But the creep­ing ambi­gu­i­ty of his fic­tion­al mul­ti­vers­es feel like a match for the fear and uncer­tain­ty per­vad­ing the world we find our­selves in now.