This essay from a doctoral thesis, “Alternative History: The Development of a Literary Genre,” is the best and most politically savvy exegesis of my “John Brown” novel, FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN. What’s not to like?! Thanks to Ed McKnight for letting me post it here.

Copyright 1994,

Dr. Ed McKnight John A. Logan College (now of Anderson University, South Carolina)


Ever since The Sound of His Horn alternative history has been dominated by the dystopia. The idiosyncratic utopias of Geoffroy-Chateau and Charles Renouvier have yielded in the twentieth century to the more somber speculations of such authors as Philip Dick and Kingsley Amis. While these negative versions of history are often touched with ambivalence, they primarily show how much worse our world might have been than it actually is, and thus implicitly support the status quo. Of the modern authors who have attempted utopian revisions of history, most have chosen to write them in a comic mode, softening their critiques of our history and muting their utopianism for a more cynical era. The most significant exception to the tendency for alternative histories to be either dystopias or comedies is Terry Bisson’s 1988 novel Fire on the Mountain.

Unlike its comic predecessors, Fire on the Mountain is not a lighthearted romp through a merrily skewed version of our own world, but a realistically—depicted alternative to the present that embodies our highest aspirations rather than our darkest fears. It is premised upon the success of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, an event that prompts a widespread slave rebellion resulting in the founding of Nova Africa, an independent republic roughly congruent with what would have been the Confederacy. This nation grows into a twentieth—century utopia characterized by racial and economic equality, cultural diversity, technological progress, collective responsibility and personal freedom.

Fire on the Mountain opens in the autumn of 1959, as Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga crosses the Appalachian border between Nova Africa and the recently—socialized U.S.S.A:

She patted the ancient black leather doctor’s bag beside her on the seat. In it were her great-grandfather’s papers, which she was taking to Harper’s Ferry to be read on the hundredth anniversary of John Brown’s Attack, fifty years after they were written, according to the old doctor’s very precise instructions. Except that it was October and she was three months late. She had been asked to stay an extra month in Africa to finish the Olduvai Project; a month had turned into three, and she had missed the Fourth of July Centennial.

As the novel’s brief prologue makes clear, Brown’s raid was originally planned for Independence Day, but was delayed until October due to the illness of his chief strategist, Harriet Tubman. In Bisson’s revision of history, however, it is the fictional Yasmin who is delayed for three months, and Brown and Tubman together who changed history.

It is an emotional time for Yasmin; an international team of cosmonauts is about to land on Mars, reviving memories of her husband, Leon, who died five years earlier on the first Mars mission. In addition, she must tell her daughter, Harriet, as well as her “ring- mother,” Pearl, that she is expecting another child, that of her African lover, Ntoli. In the shadow of these two events, Yasmin and Harriet visit the Harper’s Ferry museum. The museum’s director is Scott Grissom, a one-legged veteran of the “Second Revolutionary War” that brought socialism to the United States in 1948; he acts as their guide and allows them to read the letters of Thomas Hunter, the abolitionist doctor who gave Yasmin’s great-grandfather Abraham his medical training.

Yasmin’s story is interspersed with excerpts from both her great- grandfather’s memoirs and Dr. Hunter’s letters, describing Brown’s raid and its aftermath from two very different perspectives. Hunter’s letters reveal the effect of the uprising upon his conservative Virginia family and his more radical friends, Emily Pern and Thomas Levasseur, whom he inadvertently thrusts together. One letter includes a speech made by Frederick Douglass on behalf of the uprising; another mentions that “the poet Whitman has gone South to join Brown” while “Emerson and Thoreau are not speaking, having ignited their own Civil War to match the one raging through the Abolitionist movement in general.” Hunter initially opposes Brown, writing that he feels “only sadness at the crimes that now stain the cause of Abolition.” Forced into a duel with his sister’s fiance over a comment about Frederick Douglass, however, Hunter realizes that the cause must be defended with more than words, and he joins the rebellion.

Abraham’s memoirs depict the turmoil brought on by Brown’s raid from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy, who also happens to be a slave. Working in his master’s stable, Abraham witnesses the futile attempts of federal troops, led by Robert E. Lee, to defeat Brown’s guerilla army. Eventually he and his cousin, Cricket, become conductors on an underground railroad leading runaway slaves not to the North, but to join the rebellion. After Cricket is killed Abraham learns that he was not his cousin after all, but his brother; he himself had been sent as a baby to live with his aunt, whose master, Deihl, had agreed to the charade to protect him from his real mother’s abusive owner. Abraham’s life and narrative intersect with those of Thomas Hunter when he decides to join the rebellion, hitching a ride on a cartful of medical supplies being delivered to Brown’s army by Dr. Hunter.

These two narratives unfold within the context of Yasmin and Harriet’s reading of them during their stay in Harper’s Ferry. While there they also witness such sights as False Fire, an inspiring but deliberately misleading beacon that blazed atop the Virginia mountains for weeks after Brown’s raid, and Iron Bridge, where a regiment of cadets was brutally slaughtered by Brown’s rebels. On their second night in Harper’s Ferry Yasmin tells Harriet about her pregnancy, but Harriet’s ambiguous response to the news does little to relieve Yasmin’s apprehensions.

The next day Grissom introduces Yasmin to Dr. Hunter’s elderly niece, Laura May, an unreconstructed racist who gives Yasmin a copy of John Brown’s Body, a novel from the 1920s depicting our own history, which Grissom describes as “a white nationalist fantasy, and somewhat overdone.” This depiction of the reader’s own history as a work of fiction within the larger narrative frame recalls previous examples of the same technique, such as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Galliard in Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration, as well as Geoffroy-Chateau’s rejection of the historical Napoleon’s fate as a despicable fiction, contemptible as much for its implausibility as for its falsehood.

The novel closes with the convergence of Hunter’s and Abraham’s narratives, the successful landing of the Mars expedition, and the departure of an emotionally reunited Yasmin and Harriet from Harper’s Ferry aboard an airship bound for their collective in Charleston.

The author of Fire on the Mountain is a native of Kentucky now residing in Brooklyn.* His fiction includes the novels Wyrldmaker, Talking Man, and Voyage to the Red Planet as well as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning short story “Bears Discover Fire.” His ongoing concern with the issue of racism is reflected in works ranging from a biography of Nat Turner to the short fable “The Coon Suit,” as well as in Fire on the Mountain. Bisson’s primary influences are revealed in the dedication to Fire on the Mountain, which reads: “Most of the good things in this book are from Cheikh Anta Diop, W. E. B. Dubois, Leonard Ehrlich, R. A. Lafferty, Truman Nelson, Mark Twain, and Malcolm X. The bad things are, without exception, the author’s own.” While Dubois, Mark Twain and Malcolm X are familiar to most readers, many may be unaware that Diop is a noted anthropologist, Lafferty a science fiction writer, and Ehrlich and Nelson the authors of two novels about John Brown, God’s Angry Man (1932) and The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (1973).

Bisson’s narrative style in Fire on the Mountain is similar to Dick’s in The Man in the High Castle in that different voices are allowed to alternate with one another to create a polyphonic text. While Dick’s narratives are related to one another by their simultaneity (a significant factor in light of the importance to the text of the I Ching and its theory of synchronicity), Abraham’s memoirs and Hunter’s letters are presented as historical documents within a later narrative frame. These compelling first-person narratives are intricately interwoven with the frame story, however, to produce a single narrative through which the reader learns simultaneously about the nature of Yasmin’s world and how it emerged from our own history.

Of the three principal characters in Fire on the Mountain, the most fully developed is Dr. Abraham. As John Clute describes her in Book World, Yasmin is “just slightly too sweet to digest,” while Dr. Hunter is limited by the epistolary form of his narrative, as well as by his role as fictional stand-in for the guilt-ridden white liberal reader. Abraham, on the other hand, has the advantage of relating a ten-year-old’s experiences within the first- person narrative of a sixty-year-old man. Faced with the possibility of being forced to steal horses, the former stable-boy can write without losing credibility, “I froze in my tracks, terrified, a living illustration of Marx’s insight that our livelihood conditions our consciousness.” The revelation after Cricket’s death that Abraham was the brother Cricket believed to have died in infancy, and upon whose grave he often left toys and pebbles, stirs an emotional response that is admittedly rare in the alternative history genre.

At the conclusion of his review of the novel for the New York Times Book Review Gerald Jonas writes: “As much as I enjoyed Mr. Bisson’s playful speculations, I came away wondering what, if anything, he was trying to say about human nature by suggesting that we would all be living in utopia but for one small setback in the War Between Good and Evil nearly 130 years ago.” Jonas unconsciously echoes the skepticism of Yasmin’s outraged exclamation that the author of John Brown’s Body “would have all of history hanging on one strand of rope with poor old Captain Brown.” The idea that a single event can profoundly affect all subsequent history is sometimes difficult to accept, especially if it conflicts with a view of history as an inevitable progression toward a particular end. The conviction and appeal of Fire on the Mountain are both so great, however, that when the reader’s own history appears in the form of John Brown’s Body it seems to be not only a racist fantasy, but an implausible one as well. The reader’s desire for resistance is so effectively quelled by the novel that when it finally materializes in the figure of Laura Sue Hunter it is both difficult and dismaying to recognize oneself in her.

If Bisson is saying anything about human nature by tying his utopia to a specific historical event, however, it is that given the opportunity human beings will create the world they desire. Fire on the Mountain gives African-Americans what Livy’s digression on Alexander gave Rome and Noel Coward’s Peace in Our Time gave England: the chance denied by history to demonstrate their potential. This theme is most clearly articulated when Abraham argues that the flaw in Lee’s military campaign against Brown was his belief in the myth of slavery:

“As the Federals saw it, the heavily populated eastern valleys were less hospitable to Brown even though there were more black people there, because they were slaves and afraid of the “abs”—unlike the free blacks of the Harper’s Ferry area, whom Lee suspected of supporting Brown. This illusion (that slaves fear freedom) cost Lee plenty; it cost him the Shenandoah Valley campaign; it cost him, in fact, Brown.”

Fire on the Mountain changes history, but illustrates human nature, allowing African Americans to win their own freedom rather than receiving it as a “gift” of the white man.

Fire on the Mountain’s alteration of history reveals motives and desires that are obscured by history itself. Instead of freeing the slaves, for example, Abraham Lincoln leads an attempted invasion of Nova Africa:

“Lincoln was a Whig, backed by U.S. capital, who had organized a fifth column of Southern whites to support an invasion of Nova Africa in 1870, right after the Independence War. If the whites couldn’t keep the slaves, they at least wanted the land back. Though the invaders had been routed at the Battle of Shoat’s Bend without crossing the Cumberland River, “One nation indivisible” had become a rallying cry for white nationalists on both sides of the border.”

Ironically, the “Great Emancipator” becomes an enemy of the slaves for the very reason that he fought to free them: to preserve the Union.

One might argue that Bisson merely substitutes Brown for Lincoln as the white man who freed the slaves. If Bisson’s argument is to maintain its validity, however, the cause of the historical divergence must lie outside the slaves’ control. If Frederick Douglass or an anonymous slave were the crucial element in Bisson’s alternative history, the reader might well assume that it was their weakness that had prevented our own history from following the same pattern. By attributing the failure of Brown’s attack to Tubman’s illness, however, Bisson casts an African American in a crucial role without finding blame with her historical counterpart. Rather than manipulating an otherwise passive slave population, or somehow changing their essential nature, Brown provides them with the opportunity to assume control of their own destinies.

Fire on the Mountain is a response not only to actual history, but to the alternative history genre as well. The offstage Mars landing recalls the one in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, for example. While Dick’s Mars misson, manned entirely by “stolid, grumpy Germans,” is merely a background motif, used primarily as a source of humor, Bisson’s is a truly heroic international effort, made more poignant by the memory of Leon’s death.

Africa’s prominent role in the mission is another important difference between the two novels. In The Man in the High Castle the Mars landing is linked in Frank Frink’s consciousness to the African holocaust:

“By the time the Japs got their first spaceship off the ground the Germans would have the entire solar system sewed up tight. Back in the quaint old history- book days, the Germans had missed out while the rest of Europe put the final touches on their colonial empires. However, Frink reflected, they were not going to be last this time; they had learned. And then he thought about Africa, and the Nazi experiment there. And his blood stopped in his veins, hesitated, at last went on. “

Dick is not the only alternative history writer to depict Africa as the victim of world history; in S. M. Stirling’s Marching Through Georgia (1988) the entire continent is subdued by the white racist overlords of South Africa, while in Brad Linaweaver’s Moon of Ice (1988) the development of its African territories becomes an economic boondoggle for a triumphant Third Reich.

Bisson’s Africa is, by contrast, a dynamic technological superpower. The discoveries of the Olduvai excavation for the extension of the Great Rift Expressway are reported in Scientific African, as are the results of zerogravity research aboard the Kilimanjaro orbital station. Upon her return from Africa, Yasmin finds even Nova Africa “provincial and a little shabby after the grand plains, sweeping highways, and soaring cities of Zimbabwe and Azania.” While The Man in the High Castle takes Africa’s historical role as the passive victim of European imperialism to its ultimate, tragic conclusion, Fire on the Mountain places Africa in a position of world power.

Fire on the Mountain is not simply an inversion of our own society, in which Africans and African-Americans have assumed the role of white imperialists, however. It is, instead, one in which economic resources are distributed equitably and technological resources developed and utilized with concern for the natural world. While the rural areas of the U.S.S.A. are “more peaceful now, but still not prosperous” (38), it is clear that the long-term benefits of the historical changes described in the novel apply to everyone. Yasmin’s ring-mother, Pearl, shares her house with “a white lady, deaf as a post but a church member.” While the devastation caused by the Second American Revolution is still visible, “socialist reconstruction, having patched up the ruined cities of the U.S.S.A., was finally coming to the little county seats.”

In contrast to our own society’s growing ambivalence toward technology, Fire on the Mountain describes a world of what John Clute somewhat disparagingly calls “seamless super-science.” The massive plasma- driven airships that link the cities of Nova Africa and the U.S.S.A. are a delight not only to travelers but to spectators as well:

“Harriet heard a high, joyful singing in her head; she looked over without sitting up and saw the blue and silver Tom Paine passing just a few hundred feet away. There was silence like the eye of a storm as the ship passed, the plasma motors sounding farther away the closer they were. Harriet loved airships, and seeing the ship pass so closely, actually looking slightly down on it, made her feel lucky, like walking up on a deer. “

Airships are a familiar allohistorical icon, appearing in all of Moorcock’s Bastable novels as well as A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! and The Alteration. In most of these novels airships are used to evoke a sense of history postponed or delayed. The “lovingly detailed airships” of most alternative histories are, according to historian Gordon Chamberlain, “matched by classes and values equally archaic.” In some cases, however, the airship symbolizes a path not taken, perhaps one less demanding of the rapid progress that is literally required by the airplane. Fritz Leiber’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story, “Catch that Zeppelin” (1975) is suggestive of a utopian alternative to twentieth- century history, and The Probability Broach notes that, despite the advanced technology of its libertarian utopia, “dirigibles remained important.” In Fire on the Mountain the silent grace of the airship symbolizes an advanced technology at peace with the natural world.

Many of the technological innovations in Bisson’s world are associated with children as well as with nature. They have names like “growstone” and “living shoes,” suggesting an organic quality, and are frequently shown from Harriet’s point of view:

“Like all kids, Harriet loved to peel growstone: softer than balsa wood but stronger than concrete, it flaked off satisfyingly in thumbnail- shaped moons. She amused herself with the bridge rail (which would, of course, grow back smooth again) while the grown-ups argued. “

In contrast to our own crumbling infrastructure, the organically-based technology of Fire on the Mountain imitates the resilience of children, lending itself to their amusement. Harriet’s “living shoes,” a product of African aerospace technology, seem genuinely alive:

“The rain seemed to have brought the blues and grays to a swirling shimmer, like oil on water. The tops were higher and lighter, almost a moon color, and when Harriet touched them, they opened and fell into a little pool around her ankle. ‘Look, they’ve learned to undo themselves.’” 

Harriet’s shoes display lifelike qualities, and, like children, they learn. By presenting technological innovations through organic imagery seen from a child’s point of view, Bisson successfully incorporates the concept of technological progress into an ecological and humanistic utopia.

Finally, Bisson creates a believable allohistorical utopia by emphasizing the difficulty of its attainment. In his review of the novel Tom Easton writes “perhaps we weep for what our history has denied us,” but “Bisson makes it very clear that this America has paid enough of a price for war and rebellion.” Monuments to Nova Africa’s long war for independence dot the countryside, and the U.S.S.A. is still rebuilding after its recent socialist revolution. Grissom’s missing leg attests to the sacrifices made by the veterans of both of these wars, and a final letter tells of Thomas Hunter’s death at the Second Battle of Roanoke.

The stain of violence gives Bisson’s utopia a believability for the modern reader that is lacking in such classic utopias as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, in which utopia is gradually achieved through the natural course of social evolution. Whether or not we find it an acceptable price to pay for utopia, the struggle for its attainment serves to ennoble those whose sacrifices bring it about and the values in which they so passionately believe, thereby deepening the critique of our own culture implicit in Fire on the Mountain.


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