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??? COMVAKATIST THE LAST BOMB: HISTORICIZING HISTORY IN TERRY BISSON'S FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN AND GIBSON AND STERLING'S THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE Phillip E. Wegner The last bomb, the one no one speaks about, is the bomb that is not content to strew things in space but would strew them in time. The temporal bomb. Where it explodes, everything is suddenly blown into the past; and the greater the bomb's capacity, thefurther into the past theygo. Look around: this explosion has already occurred. In an amnesic world like ours, everything living is projected into the past as though things Md been over-hastilyplunged into a dimension in which the only meaning they acquire is that wrestedfrom time by afinal revolution. That is the real bomb, the bomb that immobilizes things in eerie retrogression. Baudrillard, "The Anorexic Ruins" (34-35) In his essay "Progress Versus Utopia; or, Can We Imagine the Future?," Fredric Jameson—in turn drawing on the important generic criticism of Georg Lukács—argues that the genre of science fiction is a structural analogue and heir to the historical novel. The originality of both forms lies in their capacity "for apprehending the present as history" (246). The historical novel highlights the originality ofwhat in the early nineteenth century is the recent achievement of the imagined community of the modern nation-state by marking off its radical difference from those modes of social life that had preceded it; however, these earlier social forms are now understood to be the part ofthe new nation's determinate past, stages that must be passed through on the way to its inevitable realization. Science fiction, then, reverses all of this, and now imagines the present as "the determinate past of something yet to come" (245). Both forms thus bring into view for their readers the modern sense of a present which is itself swirling in the flows and eddies ofhistorical time; and, in both cases, this historicity takes on all the force of necessity. It is exactly this sense of historical determinism projected by both genres that is called into question in the unique hybrid form of the "alternative history."1 Long a vital subgenre ofUS science fiction, and including such classics as Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (1955) and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), this genre, through its register ofthe "what if" (what ifthe Confederacy had won the Civil War? what if the United States had lost World War II?), views the present as the product of sheer contingency: when it is most successful, the alternative history confronts us with the dizzying prospect that "what is" is nothing more than the result of chance, of coincidence, or even of accident . And indeed, as is the case in Moore's novel, the alternative history often suggests that the most seemingly incidental events can have potentially monumental consequences. Moore's novel maintains that there is Vol. 23 (1999): 141 ALTERNATIVE HISTORIES IN POST-COLD WAR FICTION a certain hill at the Battle of Gettysburg that might easily have been captured by the Confederate troops: it is their failure to do so that then shapes all subsequent history. Similarly, in one of two recent examples of the genre that I will examine more closely, Terry Bisson's marvelous Fire on the Mountain (1988), one character exclaims, "Ridiculous! . . . The author would have all ofhistory hanging on one strand of rope with poor old Captain Brown" (154-155). However, this too points toward one of the great paradoxes of the alternative history form: for while it restores a sense of significance to the actions of individuals and minor events, it simultaneously presents a vision ofhistory as independent ofhuman intention and, hence, control— a paradox strikingly similar to that found in Joseph Conrad's disturbing narrative about the historical process, Nostromo. Precisely because there is no hierarchy of determination at work in history, we have no way of predicting the consequences of any action or decision. Thus, when the alternative is viewed as an undesirable one, as in numerous expressions ofthe form (although there is in fact a deep ambivalence about the alternative world presented in both Moore's and...


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