Monday, September 6, 2010

The Fire Next Time -

"Fire on the Mountain" - by Terry Bisson, 1992, republished 2009

This rare and legendary science fiction book is about the triumph of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and how it sparked a slave uprising in the South to create the independent black nation of Nova-Africa. The nation started by Brown and Harriet Tubman, and joined by Frederick Douglass, eventually spreads to the north, where a revolution in the 1940s extends Nova Africa's socialism across north America – forming the USSA – the United Socialist States of America.

Against a background of visits to Mars, hydrogen and plasma-drive dirigible airships and cars, porcelain engines and a ‘living’ pair of shoes, Bisson tells a story of deep history – a what-if Brown had not been surrounded and hung. The story starts in the present as a black woman communist, Yasmin, comes north from Charleston to visit her dead husband’s mother, get her daughter Harriet, and deliver the journal of a long-dead relative who joined Brown. Bisson weaves a powerful story combining 3 sources. The first is a diary narrative of that relative, a black boy that becomes "Mr. Abraham," who eventually joins Brown and Tubman’s army “up the mountain.” The second are letters from a southern Tidewater doctor who turns against slavery, and meets the black boy, becoming one of the Army of the North Star’s doctors, and training Abraham to be a doctor himself. The third is the present-day story of the boy’s modern relatives, Yasmin and Harriet.

Of course this never happened. Bisson makes it seem real. The key here is that Tubman was not sick and instead joined Brown, and made the correct tactical decision to blow up the bridge that Lee’s troops would use to cross the river, and so evade capture in Harper’s Ferry. (Bisson points out that Brown was not so good at tactics.) The rebels instead escaped up the mountain next to town, along the present-day path of the Appalachian Trail, which Bisson here re-christens the “The North Star Trail.” At the top, they start the first “fire on the mountain’ for all the slaves to see – a sign of deliverance.

Brown, Tubman and Kagi eventually use the tactics of guerilla and political warfare up and down the Shenandoah Valley, the Cumberlands, the Smokies and other ranges to confuse and militarily defeat Robert E Lee, who resorts to terror and hanging of suspect blacks. Male slaves start to join the army in droves as it begins to evade capture and win battles. The war then becomes internationalized, sort of a Spain of the 1860s. Garibaldi’s Italian revolutionaries arrive through Mexico to fight the ‘Mericans who had seized it from Mexico, backed by Mexican republicans, then move north. A Haitian mule cavalry brigade from Toussaint L’Overture’s free Haiti land surreptitiously in the south. German volunteers from the 1948 Commune; a brigade from London organized by Marx; Molly Maquires from the Appalachian coal-fields and Cherokee Indian allies filter into the mountains to help the North Star Army fight Lee. Irish dockers lend a hand against English supply to the slave states. Independence for California is declared by Chinese and Irish railroad workers and an uprising in New Orleans against slavery succeeds. Philadelphia becomes the early Barcelona of the Americas; Whitman joins Brown in the mountains; Emerson and Thoreau argue about the ‘Cause.’ And the “Cause’ succeeds, through guts, blood and fire - not through speeches alone.

Bisson includes a hilarious aside about a book kept by an old white lady who lives near Harper’s Ferry, who gives it to Yasmin as an insult. It is called “John Brown’s Body.” It is a right-wing fantasy about Brown’s defeat at Harper’s Ferry, and his hanging. In this book, the war eventually starts, but it is not for an independent black nation, but to keep the South in the Union. After the war, the ex-slaves are treated like chattel and denied all their rights. The ex-slave owners keep all the land and political power. There is no socialist revolution in the North - the world continues to be run by the same ruling class of people. Yasmin is appalled by this white-supremacist fantasy. She eventually throws the book out the window of the car.

‘Fire on the Mountain’ can be seen as a counter-point to Newt Gingrich’s book on Gettysburg – a reactionary fantasy about Lee winning at Gettysburg. Instead, in ‘Fire’, Lincoln leads a failed Whig invasion of Nova-Africa, and is celebrated by Copperheads and slavery advocates, not the slaves. The Bible is described as being loved by ‘bloodthirsty crackers’ for being an ‘encyclopedia of torments’ - a phrase I love. Bisson, a former member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, specializes in progressive science-fiction. He has many other sci-fi novels to his credit, and this certainly augurs well for the others.

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog, 9/6/10, Labor Day (Because American Labor didn’t want to celebrate May Day.)

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