Book Review: A Scifi Lens on the Civil War

void(0);Book Review: Fire On The Mountain by Terry Bisson (PM Press, 2009)

“Meanwhile, every night the fire on the mountain burned, and the question burned in folks’ heads: If they’re going to free the slaves, when are they going to do it? Then one night something happened that struck fire to my soul and settled forever all my questions about ‘freedom.’” (A young Dr. Abraham; p.60)

“Lincoln was a Whig, backed by the 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 back the land…In Nova Africa the whites who embraced (or made their peace with) socialism were called ‘comebacks’ even if they had never left – And Lincoln was no hero to them; but before his body had even been cut down in 1871, he had become a legend among the border whites in Kentucky, Virginia, and parts of Missouri.” (p.66)

Lines like those above cut through Terry Bission’s 1988 novel Fire On The Mountain, elegantly weaving three narratives from a speculative historical trajectory premised on a successful abolitionist war led by John Brown and Harriet Tubman. One thread, set in the year 1959, follows the travels of Yasmin, a young scientist hailing from the independent Black nation of Nova Africa (set in the territory we now call the southern United States), and her precocious daughter Harriet. The other two are set one hundred years earlier in the thick of war and conflict, and trace the experiences of Thomas a Northeastern Doctor working in support of the abolitionist cause and Abraham, a teenage ex-slave narrating his experiences fighting slavery from within.

Long out of print in the United States, this recently re-released book was well-circulated in France under the name Nova Africa (published in 2001 by Editions Sans Frontières) and I am sorry it has taken me this long to read it. This book should be of interest to lovers of speculative fiction and those readers concerned with the unresolved and amnesiac relationship that the United States has with the history of slavery. Bisson has the historical knowledge and political sophistication of a serious activist and the literary craft of a seasoned and well-rounded author and both dimensions of his background shine through in this book.

Happy MLK Jr. Day!

– Daniel Tucker

[For further reading about this book, see Dr. Ed McKnight’s thesis from John A. Logan College (now of Anderson University, South Carolina) The New (E)uchronia: Fire On The Mountain. See reviews of the French edition here and the recently reissued English edition here.]


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