The Madonna and the Starship

The Madonna and the Starship

Being a voracious reader, I have read many strange books. Sometimes that weirdness is in a poor way, ruining the experience. Sometimes it’s in a fun way, making the book stand out long after you’ve read it. James Morrow’s 2014 novella The Madonna and the Starship is the latter. It is one of the strangest science-fiction novels I have ever read, and one of the most memorable.

It’s 1950s in New York. Television is the hip new medium, its conventions still being worked out. A beleaguered science-fiction writer hosts a children’s adventure show, giving science experiments at the end of each episode. Used to displaying aliens on the silver screen, he is surprised to learn that actual aliens love his show, and they come down to give him an award. Unfortunately, during the ceremony, they learn that his network also broadcasts a Christian show every Sunday. Being unabashed logical positivists and atheists, they find the idea abhorrent and announce they will inject death rays into the broadcast, killing two million believers in North America.

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The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures

When we think about the Eastern Bloc, large Brutalist apartment buildings loom from Erfurt to Anadyr. The collapse of the seemingly powerful Soviet empire was a shock to essentially everyone, not in least the people who lived in it. A mistaken turn of phrase by an Eastern German official opened the Berlin Wall, and the winds of change blew across half of a continent. The Soviet jackboot was lifted.

It is this time in East Germany that Jennifer Hofman portrays vividly in her novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, released in 2020.

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My Way

My Way

Even in a world of bomber fleets and atomic weapons, legends have their way of enthralling us. In South Korea, there is the mythical survivor Yang Kyoungjong, a hero in an ancient sense, whose main achievement is simply surviving World War II in service to three different armies. The story is that he started in the Imperial Japanese Army, was captured and pressed into service by the Red Army, then captured and pressed into service once again by the Wehrmacht, until finally being captured by the Americans at D-Day in Normandy. It’s a story that begs for a film.

In 2011, Kang Je-gyu made that film: My Way. Kang changed a number of things about the myth, but in doing so created a story that is perhaps even more potent. It starts in Japanese-occupied Korea, about rivals in running Kim Jun-sik (Jang Dong-gun) and Tetsuo Hanegawa (Joe Odagiri), who are both drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army to fight in China. The broad strokes of their journey mirror the original story.

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What If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived?

Matthew Yglesias is worth reading for his political commentary but occasionally dabbles in (alternate) history as well. This week, he has a neat little alternate history in which Franz Ferdinand survives an assassination attempt in Sarajevo in 1914 and turns the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a liberal democracy.

Franz Ferdinand was a liberal who wanted to transform his empire into something of a federation. The Compromise of 1867 had given the Hungarians autonomy, but not the Croats, Czechs and other peoples of the Dual Monarchy.

Franz Ferdinand had less sympathy for the Hungarians, which actually works out in favor of the liberal outcome Yglesias envisages. Too strong a Hungary could have dominated a federation. What it needs to survive is balance.

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The Day the Klan Came to Town

The Day the Klan Came to Town

The hooded robes of the Ku Klux Klan are perhaps the most visible symbol of white supremacist terror in the United States. They are rivaled only by the same organization’s tradition of burning wooden crosses.

In the 1920s, the Klan were a scarily powerful organization, with chapters all over the country. They hated many, many groups: African Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Catholics, Jews, and others. They were vicious, violent and had no qualms about killing, or being provocative. Once such time was when they marched on Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a mostly Catholic suburb of Pittsburgh in 1923.

That clash, which left at least one Klansman dead, is dramatized in The Day the Klan Came to Town, a graphic novel from PM Press written by Bill Campbell and drawn by Bizhan Khodabandeh. Befitting the publisher’s political inclinations, it is a very clearly political work, with a number of deliberate parallels to the present day.

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Confederacy of Fenians

Confederacy of Fenians

Americans have a love, perhaps an obsession, with the Irish that sometimes goes to the point of irritating the actual Irish (the term “plastic paddy” exists for a reason). Some of it is that Irish revolutionary writing, especially their songs, are in a language Americans can understand. More is due to the influence of Irish migrants who traveled across the Atlantic, some fleeing the Great Famine, to escape British oppression.

It is that history, of the Irish in America, that James D. Nealon, former American ambassador to Honduras, plays with in his novel Confederacy of Fenians. It involves an old and honored alternate-history scenario, of the British intervening in the American Civil War, and adds an Irish twist to it. His point of divergence is that the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish revolutionary group among immigrants in America, has Irish troops in the Union Army defect to the British in hopes that doing so will encourage the British to grant Ireland home rule.

The historically informed reader will notice a number of issues here.

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Weird World War III

Weird World War III

From the moment Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Americans, humanity has feared the possibility of a third world war. The first gave us trenches, machines guns and poison gas, and broke three empires. The second gave us the nightmares of Auschwitz and Nanjing and Berlin and Hiroshima. It would be insane to fight a third war like it. Yet speculative literature of all kinds has tackled the theme, from contemporary thrillers like Red Army and Red Storm Rising (review here) to John Hackett’s The Third World War to more openly futuristic tales like P. W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet.

There are many ways to write the story of Word War III. In 2020, Baen Books published an anthology dedicated to the notion. Weird World War III, edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett, boasts many luminaries of fantasy and science fiction, foremost among them David Drake and Mike Resnick.

It is a collection that runs the gamut in terms of what it does with the premise. Temporally, it is divided roughly equally between those set in a version of the Cold War that went hot and those set in the near future, predicting a maelstrom yet to come.

You can also put the stories on a spectrum between the completely fantastical and the hard science fictional. The result is a candy bowl of speculative literature that is a joy to read.

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The Bridge over the River Kwai

The Bridge over the River Kwai

One of Alec Guinness’s greatest roles was as Colonel Nicholson in the 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai. The World War II movie is rightly remembered as one of the greatest ever made. But few remember it was based on a novel: Pierre Boulle’s 1952 The Bridge over the River Kwai, translated in 1954 by Xan Fielding (who also translated Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, reviewed here).

Boulle served in the French armed forces in Indochina during World War II, and it seeps into the narrative. There’s a grottiness, a putridness, in the novel that could only come from first-hand experience.

If you’ve seen the film, you know the story: British soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Malaya are made to work on the Burma Railway. You will recognize many characters, Saito and Nicholson in particular, as portrayed by the actors who are now immortal.

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What If Poland Stopped the Blitz?

I’ve always been one to root for the underdog, and underdogs don’t come much more quixotic than the Poles at the start of World War II. I’ve always thought about doing a scenario where the Poles survive the German Blitz. I finally decided to do one.

Usually I restrict myself to one change. I tried that with this scenario and couldn’t make it credible. It takes at least three changes to give the Poles a fighting chance. (None of those changes are particularly unlikely, but I’ll admit that I prefer one-change scenarios.)

  1. A Polish secret weapon. Bazooka-type anti-tank weapons are invented in Poland in early 1937, about six years early and secretly, but widely deployed by 1939.
  2. A brilliant Polish aircraft designer does not die in a plane crash in the mid-1930s.
  3. Due to some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the German army is unable to completely reequip itself with a new version of its Enigma coding machines by September 1939.

Ironically, Polish survival might lead to Germany being first with the atomic bomb, and possibly to German world dominance.

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