“What if John Brown had won at Harper’s Ferry? The classic SF novel of a Black utopia in the American South.”
It was suggested to me that I buy Fire on the Mountain by one of the booksellers at the Houston Anarchist Bookfair. I had a really good chat with the folks from Solidarity Houston, and when I asked what book I should read, Fire on the Mountain was put in my hands. I didn’t ask too many questions. I had never heard of Terry Bisson, nor about Mumia Abu-Jamal, who wrote the introduction to this second edition.
The story is grounded in a socialist and futuristic 1959. A researcher has just come back from a months-long trip to Africa that was delayed. Her daughter is living with her mother in law. The researcher is carrying a doctor’s leather case from last century with the journals of her great-grandfather who was a young boy at the time of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. His wish was that his great-grandson take those papers and read them publicly on Harper’s Ferry on the 100th anniversary of the successful raid. He wrote his journal in 1909. She missed the date, because of her research back in Africa, and is taking the papers to the museum dedicated to the raid, to donate them. We discover her story, the story of her great-grandfather and his relation to John Brown through his journals, and a larger aspect of the narrative through letters written by a white doctor who joined the rebellion and wrote numerous letters to two women: his sister and his would-be lover; those letters are loaned to the main narrator by the museum director where she’s dropping off her great-grandfather’s journal.
It’s a short read, and it is beautifully written. The premise, and the gimmicks used to narrate the main narratives, are well presented, possibly not always believable–though to be fair I only questioned them after watching a couple of reviews on YouTube. To me, while reading the novel, the discrepancies didn’t matter. What mattered was the world Bisson created. The stories of the main characters: Yasmin, her daughter, her great-grandfather, the white doctor, and the museum director. Those were all completely believable within the context of the world Bisson built and narrated.
One of the things Abu-Jamal says in his introduction is: “Have you noticed how much of sci-fi is not so much futuristic, as it is a projection of a future where whites are many and people of color are few? Have you ever watched a movie such as Logan’s Run, and spent the first two-thirds of the movie wondering where all the black folks are?”
I enjoyed this book, I’ll be reading it again soon. The characters, most of them black, are scientists, doctors, a teenage daughter who doesn’t understand her middle-aged mother, and so on. Three of the four main characters are black. All of them normal folks who have a story to tell, and how refreshing is that?
Highly suggested. Go read this book.
Peace & Love
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