Alternate history is a fairly common element of today’s science fiction scene. It’s not unusual to read about a novel or encounter a short story that takes some key aspect of history as we know it and flips it on its head. From the lack of the Black Plague in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt to Michael Chabon’s Jewish habitation of Alaska in The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s exploration of a 21-st century Ottoman empire in the Arabesk trilogy to Adam Roberts’ wild, lilliputian Swiftly, the past decade or so has seen a significant number of such stories. But there was a vanguard—at least if the scattering of stories over several decades can be described as such. (‘First wave’ sounds just as equivocal…) One of the key, initial forays into history through an imaginary lens is Ward Moore’s 1953 Bring the Jubilee, which is being released in ebook form by Open Road Media in 2017.
Its Jonbar point the American Civil War, Bring the Jubilee looks into the idea ‘what if the South won’? The story of Hodge Backmaker, son of a poor farmer in what’s left of the United States of America (essentially the Union), the young man breaks free of his rural home at an early age and heads to New York City—an impoverished metro compared to the grand, lavish cities of the Confederate States of America. Getting lucky and finding work with a book printer, Hodge spends the next few years of his life learning the trade. And he learns much more. The book printer’s essentially a front, namely that of printing propaganda and counterfeiting money, Hodge learns of ongoing secret operations to build a Grand Army and restore the United States to its former glory.
While many readers might expect such an early effort of alternate history to go the black and white route of vilifying the South by portraying them as tyrannical victors while glorifying the North as honorable victims, instead, the South is not portrayed as a slave-loving region which stamps the poor further into the ground, rather simply an economically and politically aggressive government bent on empire. In other words, Moore spins the tables… to look something like the North. This is all a convoluted manner of saying Bring the Jubilee is more interested in finding common ground between reality and the alternate reality, than it is putting the 8 millionth nail in the coffin of ‘slavery is bad’.
One method Moore uses to illustrate the point is to take a portion of Backmaker’s story into what some might decry a mundane love triangle. On one hand, indeed, Backmaker’s woes are the stuff of standard romance. But on the other, it illustrates that regardless the winners or losers in war, there are aspects common to all humanity that make us rebel based on principle, not geography . Thankfully, the triangle occupies a minor section, as along beside it are the book printer’s agenda and the other sectors of society the young man encounters. (Interestingly enough, Moore also adds a time travel element which, thankfully, is used for illustrative, thematic purposes rather than a dog and pony show.
It’s possible in today’s age to write a grocery list of novels and short stories wherein the Nazis won WWII or some variation thereof. It’s able possible to write a list, though much shorter, of stories which have the South winning the Civil War, from Maureen McHugh’s simple-minded “The Lincoln’s Train” to Ben Winter’s likewise simple-minded Underground Airlines to the more ambitious Fire on the Mountain by Terry Bisson or “Custer’s Last Jump” by Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop. In this context, Bring the Jubilee must be considered one of, if not the most significant contribution to alternate history stories, as well as the broader spectrum of humanity’s relationship to rebellion and war. Eschewing the standard fireworks of rehashing grand battles or portraying the South as irrational, slave-owning tyrants, Moore puts a spin on the alternate scenario that shows, in the end, the distance between the North and the South might indeed just be a thin red line. In short, an intriguing novel worth going back for a read.