austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

But your heart need not be sighing; if I'm not among the dying

It's hard guessing what moment in an alternate-history novel will make me want to throw it against the wall, but those moments come so reliably I wonder if the problem is I don't actually like the alternate-history genre, despite my belief that I like alternate history. (My inability to get into the social circles of soc.history.what-if supports this possibility.) Usually it's one where the author decides to wink a little too heavily at the camera, often accompanied by the strange Law of Conservation of Events where events --- rather than themes --- from our history somehow work their way into the alternate one regardless of whether that makes sense.

In this case, Robert Conroy's 1901, the point-of-departure is supposing that Germany attempts a punitive raid against the United States, hoping to claim the colonies which the United States had just won from Spain. It would be a dumb thing for Kaiser Wilhelm II to attempt, but I can accept the Kaiser making choices not ultimately to his benefit. And I can accept the conflict as being one where the Germans land on Long Island in June 1901, win easily the initial battles because the United States Army, as typical for peacetime before the Korean War nearly rivaling Oz's in size and general competence, is tied down in the Philippine Insurrection anyway; and how the Germans cannot understand why the United States doesn't just negotiate for peace terms already. (I can also accept the mention of baseball being played in Hartford, presumably either the Brooklyn or New York teams in exile while Washington Park II and Polo Grounds III were unavailable, not being further explained.)

But then we get to swiping events from Real History: a bombing of German ships in New York harbor that creates something suspiciously like the Black Tom explosion (in effect, if not in detail). Britain being officially neutral but giving the United States all aid short of war ... I remember something like that happening the other way around, somewhere. It's all getting me a little edgy. Oh, the attack wasn't meant to be a surprise but the ambassador who got the telegram announcing the state of war didn't realize it was anything important and delivered it a half-hour after the war started? Hmmm. The closing pages of the post-war German chapter are really ominously swiped. And then in the midst of all this there's talk of how the world is changing and have you heard about this Henry Ford fellow who wants to make cheap cars everyone can afford?

Now. In June 1901, Henry Ford certainly had ambitions to make a brazillian cars really inexpensively. But he was also just one of many, many would-be inventors and entrepreneurs in the field; the only thing he'd done about it was be chief engineer for the failed Detroit Automobile Company, which had staggered into and out of existence without making anything except a loss for the investors, just like dozens of other companies. He hadn't even started the Henry Ford Company (today's General Motors/Cadillac division). Any of the presented characters even hearing of him would be taking a really wild bet on an obscurity, kind of like the head of the Department of Commerce talking about Bill Gates's potential in 1973.

Conroy could have preserved the scene and presented someone with ambitions of making a mass-produced automobile if he'd instead had the characters talk about the ambitions of Ransom Olds, who at least had a struggling but existing company and some product that anyone outside southern Michigan might have heard of. (In June 1901 his company was reeling from a massive warehouse fire that spoiled plans to move into high-quantity production, but at least he'd be in the realm of possibility.) It might even add some period flavor to the story, which really needed it. The scenes, utterly dispensable to the story, don't just throw me out of the book's already straining plausibility but forces me to wonder, why can't alternate-history writers bother to avoid the stupid mistakes? Does the market demand this sort of winking and implausibility and I'm the one who's out of touch? There's got to be a books for me beyond Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, doesn't there?

Trivia: When the keel was laid for the USS Maine in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1888, its plans called for over seven thousand yards of square sails and topgallants; in the six years of construction it was redesigned into a coal-powered steam-driven battleship. Source: The Spanish War: An American Epic 1898, G J A O'Toole.

Currently Reading: 1901, Robert Conroy.


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