Saturday, December 31, 2016

John Christopher's FIREBALL: Rome Endures, but at What Cost?

In my youth I rarely encountered the idea or practice of alternate history. The alt-history storytelling tradition remained an obscure subset of science fiction, with only a few prominent novels and stories to its credit. Many, in the 1980s, had gone out of print: I didn't find Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee until I was 20, didn't read Keith Roberts's Pavane until grad school. The first volume of John Christopher's Fireball trilogy, which came out in America while I was in junior high, thus struck me with the force of revelation. Here was one of my favorite writers, experimenting with an obscure (to me) concept that bridged my growing interests in speculative fiction and history. How exciting!

The title of the trilogy, and of its first volume, referred to a fiery portal that flung the series' main characters, Brad and Simon, from 20th-century Britain to another world. Initially Brad (the viewpoint character) believed they had become lost in Britain's past, in the primitive and cruel Roman era of two millennia past. Separated from his cousin Simon, Brad was abducted by soldiers and sold into slavery as a gladiator. He failed at that bloody trade, was purchased and freed by a Christian patrician, and reunited with his companion from the twentieth century. Simon explained, he and Brad were still IN the twentieth century, just on an alternate timeline, an "If world," where a series of fourth-century reforms had prevented the Roman Empire from Christianizing or falling. Edward Gibbon would have been pleased.

Brad, however, didn't care for the new world; he considered it barbarous. Hyper-intelligent and very well-read - traits Simon found nearly insufferable - Brad decided to give technical aid to a Christian revolt against Rome, like an inverse Martin Padway from Lest Darkness Fall (or a strange alternate version of Martin from Christopher's Sword of the Spirits). In a nice twist, the Christian insurgents decide they only want Brad to teach them medieval military technology. This proves more than adequate to defeat Rome's ossified legions. Then, as an experienced reader of Christopher's novels could have predicted, the Christians begin building a new regime as cruel as the Romans'. Brad and Simon and some of their Roman friends decide to get out of Dodge, and with a small sailing ship they head for Brad's homeland: North America.

The second and third novels of the series, unfortunately, lack the creativity of the first, and fail to develop the main characters and their motives. What drives them in New Found Land is not personal interest but necessity. In this second volume, Brad and Simon find that much of America lies in a pre-Columbian slumber. The Algonquian (and, eventually, Californian) Indians they encounter seem friendly, but turn sullen and suspicious once the newcomers wear out their welcome. A Norse refugee community on Nantucket later offers to take the travelers in but turns out to have nefarious plans. The Aztecs, whose empire has expanded geographically but ossified culturally, show the companions a more benign indifference. In another nice twist, Brad and Simon and their friends become pelote players, which at the cost of many bruises and scrapes lets them put together enough wealth to resume their journey, ultimately (in the cousins' case) as far as the Pacific. Then they lose their momentum. Brad had hoped to find some sort of home in California (his home state in the "real world"), but found only strange Indians and wilderness. Christopher seemed on the verge of letting his characters fall into existential despair.

Then he recalled that he was writing young-adult fiction, and sent in some Chinese slavers to kidnap them across the Pacific. So begins volume three, Dragon Dance, the weakest part of the trilogy. Brad and Simon discover that the Chinese Empire is alive and well, albeit with a few technical changes, namely ocean-going junks and gunpowder weapons. More significantly, some high-ranking Han appear to have acquired magical, or rather psionic, powers: control of their biorhythms, longevity, mental suggestion and illusion, even a limited kind of weather control. (Okay, maybe some of this is just magic.) None of these new powers have altered the structure of Chinese society, which remains stuck in the real-world equivalent of the fifteenth century. Peasants and slaves support monks and nobles, and barbarians periodically knock at the northern gates. Brad and Simon do take part in a rebellion against the emperor, supplying the opposing sides (don't ask - an unconvincing romantic rivalry is involved) with primitive tanks and aircraft. In the end, though, the new tech cancels itself out, the revolt fails, and the boys track down the mysterious head of China's Mind-Control Monks, who offers to send them home. One closes the book with a bit of relief, if also regret that Christopher didn't have many more novels left in him.

By the time I reread the trilogy in college, I had learned a bit more about history, and realized that Christopher held a rather deterministic view of it. If an important event were to happen differently (e.g. Rome fails to fall), history itself would not change but grind to a halt. Empires and human societies change very little in the Fireball trilogy, despite five to fifteen centuries of divergent history. Even China, with its trans-Pacific connections and psi powers, not to mention civil wars and Otherworld interventions, tends toward a medieval steady-state. Compare this with the dynamic continuum of a tale like Bring the Jubilee, where a Union defeat in the Civil War produces a stripped and impoverished North, a rich and expansionist South, a slowdown in technological innovation, and even changes in Latin American and European history. In Ward Moore's view, changing one important historical event has ripple effects throughout the world, divergences that build with each passing decade. In Christopher's continuum, changing a major event causes the rest of the historical machine to break down. Brad and Simon's comparative listlessness in books two and three becomes easier to understand within this authorial theory of history. If no human institution can ever really change again, why should individuals pursue any lofty or selfless goal? The castaway cousins would perhaps have found more to motivate them in the milieu of Christopher's Tripods series.

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