So for Christmas one of the gifts I received was Terry Bisson’s progressive alt-history Fire on the Mountain, the premise of which is “What if John Brown had won at Harper’s [sic] Ferry?” In the novel, the success of Brown’s raid leads to the creation of an independent Black republic named “Nova Africa” in the South, socialist revolution and construction throughout the world, and by 1959 a world where the Pan-African Space Authority is carrying out the Second International Mars Mission while futuristic technology abounds and cars must stop for passing herds of buffalo. All in all a pretty nice utopia. With it being a fairly short book (155 pages), I finished it in one or two days. Since I enjoyed it immensely, I thought I might write a little book review for it.
First of, let me say that Fire on the Mountain a perfect combination of artistic skill and progressive politics. Extremely well written, and filled with the best ideology.
John Brown had originally planned to conduct his raid on the Fourth of July with the assistance of Harriet Tubman. However, Harriet Tubman fell ill, key supplies were delayed, and the raid didn’t occur until October 16 without the aid of Tubman. The novel’s point of divergence is that Tubman doesn’t fall ill and the raid occurs on schedule. Thanks to Tubman, key errors that Brown actually made don’t happen and the raiders successfully seize arms and retreat into the mountains. From there, the raiders elude the Virginia militia and the Army, raid plantations, gain support, and then march south. Christened the “Army of the North Star” by Frederick Douglass, Brown and Tubman’s army gains the support of Haiti, Garibaldi, Mexico, the Molly Maguires, and several Native American nations. They win the war, the slaves win their freedom, Nova Africa is established, and by 1959 there is world socialism.
Fire on the Mountain contains three narrative threads: the story of a woman who is the great-granddaughter of a boy who served in Brown’s army and her relationship with her daughter, the tale of that boy as he observes Brown’s raid and its aftermath before joining the “Army of the North Star,” and the story of a white southern abolitionist doctor who moves from pacifism to militancy and ultimately joins the “Army of the North Star.” These three threads are well incorporated into each other and the story flows naturally from one thread to the next.
Some flaws are that the shortness of the novel results in some characters being undeveloped, and a subplot that seems entirely unnecessary. However, neither of these flaws detract from the sheer joy of reading good writing that brings a utopia to life, filled with brief references to things like “dialectics class.”
All in all Fire on the Mountain is excellent and y’all should get a copy!