Originally in ‘Other Earths’ ed by Nick Gevers.
I didn’t get to read this in its original anthology appearance. I’m not the biggest fan of alternate history, as most stories in that genre don’t come under my definition of science fiction. And I’m not the biggest fan of themed anthologies, as the essence of science fiction is explorations of different possibilities, and of course, stories on a single theme are inherently going to suffer from not being different enough.
Having said that, I’m pleased that Hartwell and Cramer chose this story and gave me the opportunity to read it. It rescued a potential piss poor start to the weekend when waking up much earlier than I needed to, and unable to get back to sleep. Deprived of my lie-in, a very early morning cycle ride was one option, but staying in bed and reading a story won out. And it was the first time I’ve read a story in bed for about five years by my reckoning, as I generally have always found much better things to do in bed – sadly, these days, it’s primarily sleeping!
To give the story it’s full title ‘This Peaceable Land; or The Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe’, could have tipped off a lot of readers for whom Harriet Beecher Stowe’s name meant something. If you weren’t tipped off by that, the editorial introduction tells you the nature of the alternate history were reading, which rather spoils the author’s opportunity to let you into the conceit in their own time.
And I’m going to talk about the story now, so, you’re going to get a lot of spoilers now, but in advance of that I’m going to tell you it is a story well worth seeking out.
I read Wilson’s ‘Julian Comstock’ novella a year or two back, which is in a similar vein to this story, and enjoyed that, and he’s produced some excellent stories recently, his ‘Utriusque Cosmi’ would be a strong contender for my Decade’s Best SF. Here the alternate history is that the U.S. Civil War never took place, that the parties pulled back at the brink, and that rather than slavery being abolished, it withered – rapidly proving an uneconomic proposition. Wilson introduces this over several pages, cleverly revealing facts in an order that his impact : so that with the opening pages following the white protagonist, staying in a hotel overnight and leaving his black travelling companion to sleep outside, we of course assume what roles they are playing. In fact, the black man is the employer, but the pair have to follow the expected respective roles in society.
And the story led me to pull up short, as the central conceit is subtly revealed. The pair of on a trip to take photographs to record the bygone days of slavery, but it only when we find out that black man is writing a book ‘What happened to the 3 million?’ and arriving at a deserted camp, with a sign swinging over the entrance, and serried ranks of sheds left to ruin, that the appalling implications of the alternate route history took are revealed.
Reflecting on this story, I’m now wondering whether the story should have ended at that point. The impact of that revelation was a strong one for me – being someone on this side of the Atlantic, and of a certain age, with full awareness of the horrors in the Second World War, the much more recent ethnic cleansing only a few hundred miles away in the former Yugoslavia that we allowed to happen, and the continuing traumas in Africa.
‘John Kincaid Tom Abel Fortune Bob Swift Pompey Atticus Joseph Wilson Elijah Elijah Jim Jim’s Son Rufus Moses Deerborn Moses Rafferty’
But perhaps mindful of a younger audience, and perhaps one with less knowledge of such matters, Wilson continues the story, explaining in detail what had happened in that camp. He does two things in this final part that work well. One is to provide an unsettling image to stick in the mind : the names of the dead from the camp written around the inside walls of one shed, written by one person; and Wilson’s repetition of ‘written in the space between a man’s reach and the floor’ differentiates that from a memorial wall created after the event, with the names of the dead carved after the event by someone who did now know the peopel, with the names of those about to die, carved during the event. And Wilson’s simple listing of the names has impact as well, establishing those who died as real people. Yes, they are fictional characters, but they are also a testament to those who did die as slaves, and not as free men.
And Wilson also asks the reader to consider the evils what he describes in the story, or the evil of the war and the consequences of the war. He doesn’t preach, he writes intelligently and powerfully, and it’s a story I’m glad I read.