Science Fiction and Politics


Paul Kantner and Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane released an album titled Blows Against the Empire in 1970.  Besides the fact that it had an incredible lineup of San Francisco area musicians, it was also interesting because of its science fiction theme.  Loosely based on Robert Heinlein’s novel Methuselah’s Children, the album was about a spaceship that had been hijacked by a group of revolutionaries determined to create a new world.  If one considers the political milieu of the time the album was created, this desire for revolutionary escape had a certain poetic sense.  The antiwar movement had failed to stop the US war on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and the black liberation movement was being murderously destroyed by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.  Richard Nixon and his henchmen were enhancing an already existing police state apparatus and, to put it bluntly, it looked like the revolution the Airplane had cheered on in their 1969 album titled Volunteers was nothing more than a failed dream.

Kantner, like many members of his generation (including Jimi Hendrix), was an avid reader of science fiction.  So, since it didn’t look like the revolution was going to happen on Planet Earth, why not write a science fiction story where it occurred in the heavens?  The album is a blend of musical styles, from a sweet rendition of the Rosalie Sorrels song “The Baby Tree” to the hard rock anthem “Mau Mau (We are the Amerikon) that begins the disc.  However, the strength of the work lies in its story about the hijacked starship, the struggles within the crew after the hijacking and the eventual decision to begin anew and leave the old world of war and greed behind.

This past October was the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  The failure of that raid and the subsequent trial and hanging of Brown and most of his troops were some of the first salvos of the US Civil War.  Brown’s famous statement at the gallows that the “crimes of this guilty land purged away but with blood” were some of the most prescient words ever written in US history.  They were also a revolutionary call to arms that would propel that struggle against the stain of slavery out of the meeting houses and into the cities,  fields, mountains and valleys of the United States.

As we approach the December 2nd anniversary of Brown’s hanging, try to imagine an alternate scenario.  John Brown and his troops did not get captured that autumn day in 1859.  Instead, they made their way back into the hills surrounding Harper’s Ferry and set up a camp.  While militias and eventually US troops gathered in the towns around the mountain where Brown and his men were camped, a fire burned on the mountain like a beacon to all those men-white and black–who desired an end to slavery and a free nation of all men and women together.  Instead of an insurrection fought by slavers and their allies designed to create a nation where the plantation and slave economy would continue to exist, there was an insurrection led by those wanting a nation where neither slavery or wage slavery existed.  Now imagine this latter insurrection succeeding and creating a new nation based on these principles and calling itself Nova Africa.

This is exactly the scenario science fiction author Terry Bisson has created in his novel Fire On the Mountain. Bisson dedicates the book to the Black Liberation Army, among others.  This edition includes a forward by Mumia Abu Jamal.  Bisson was a member of the John Brown Anti-Klan Committees during their campaign in the 1970s and 1980s against racism, apartheid, and the Klan and other racist groups in the United States.  He is also the author of numerous science fiction works, including Voyage to the Red Planet, the sequel to the sci-fi class A Canticle for Leibowitz, and comic adaptations of Robert Zelazny’s  The Guns of  Avalon and Nine Princes of Amber.

Recently re-released by PM Press of Oakland, CA., this novel takes place in 1959 although with more technological advances.  Many of those advances are directly related to the fact that Nova Africa is a socialist nation that has applied its technology to helping people instead of creating profits.  There have been at least two wars with the nation formerly known as the United States and an uneasy truce exists between the current incarnation of that nation and Nova Africa.  The protagonists include a Nova African anthropologist and her family, a historian at Harper’s Ferry, and an adolescent slave boy that lived in Harper’s Ferry during the period of Brown’s time there who makes his appearance in the novel through a collection of papers he collected and wrote down as an old man.

The story takes place over a few days.  The anthropologist, names Yasmin Abraham Martin Odinga, is delivering the aforementioned narrative to a museum at Harper’s Ferry.  It was the author’s wish–her great grandfather–to have the narrative delivered and read on the July 4th centennial of the attack on Harper’s Ferry which, for Bisson’s book occurred on July 4th, 1859.  She is late with the delivery due to an unexpected longer stay at a dig site she was working on in Africa.  She is also pregnant and is picking up her teen daughter whose father dies in a failed space mission a few years earlier.  Bisson weaves this story in between the excerpts from Yasmin’s great-grandfather’s papers that describes both his adventures and observations during the time of Brown’s raid and the subsequent success of the raiders in their struggle against the United States.  The story moves rapidly and never stumbles.  It is not only an interesting experiment in alternative history, but makes this reader wish it were true.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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