Politics and Science Fiction

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 (would not be) 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 classic A Canticle for Leibowitz, and comic book 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, named 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 died 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 The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. kalidas said on November 28th, 2009 at 10:01am #

    “Just ask the Axis.
    He knows everything.”

  2. Annie Ladysmith said on November 29th, 2009 at 12:17am #

    I”M FREAKING TIRED OF PEOPLES “POETIC SENSE”. Every “poetic sense” in the entire universe has been beat to a pulp, and guess what, IT HASN’T CHANGED A THING. Get over your stupid 1) Poetic sense, and 2) your nauseating nostalgia for the crack-pot 60’s, YEAH! That’s right, get over it, nothing happened, THEY won.

  3. Don Hawkins said on November 29th, 2009 at 4:11am #

    On the end of the human race 101. Why can’t we all just get along? Could it be that the system is set up to keep just a few people at the top of the top of the heap king of the hill probably. Of course it trickles down to all of us and makes for a mad mad mad World sometimes called the rat race. It looks like to keep this going we need to believe this is just the way it is can never change. The old system is now in control even for the people at the top of the heap the biggest slaves of all hence the strangeness. Do the top of the heaper’s use ignorance is strength when talking to the bottom of the heap but of course. Now just on the off chance climate change is real remember those thousand year events we keep seeing should we try? Here’s where why can’t we all just get along that part comes in. Let’s see tax carbon and return 100% of the money back to the people the bottom of the heap. Who just might have a problem with that well the Texas GOP the GOP in general the Democratic party the Bilderberg Group, Bilderberg conference, or Bilderberg Club, CNN, NBC, Fox New’s, my cousin, my grandmother if she was still with us, if your so damn smart how come your not rich a quote, most people in any city and town who make say $300,000 a year less of those now day’s, and of course tea party people who have found there place under the Sun on the third planet from the Sun. Again just on the off chance it will bring an end to life as we know it as a start this cap and trade bill what does it do well nothing but keep the top of the heaper’s on top sort of at least for a few more years you know Wall Street Goldman and a few more of the beautiful people. So far it looks like we are down the drain in not such slow motion while listening to the beautiful people top of the heaper’s as we are told ignorance is strength and call call now hence the strangeness. I know we could all go back to school and learn how to embrace the system and all become rich no that’s illogical with what we now know. Heck who want’s to be the first to step up see the light come on people now smile on your brother. Ok I’ll grow soy beans but can I keep my jet or the flat screen TV way to much energy cell phone, I-pod and on and on at least for a little while longer as if climate change is real and moving a little faster than first thought back to the garden with some rather tuff day’s ahead are you awake in Africa yet today time to find water and food still making heavy metal in Iran are we how’s everybody doing in Pakistan today and over there in China do you still think you want to be like America sort of today, Dubai bye bye and those islands was brilliant, hay over there in Saudi Arabia know where I can get a good used rolex watch, kiss the Wall and leave a note for the big cheese God’s work is it. Well Tiger be ok soy beans old man soy beans listen to your so called leaders and watch your parking meters on a mote of dust yes by all means keep doing that.

  4. Rehmat said on November 29th, 2009 at 6:35am #

    Hey – let us not forget another great western ‘science fiction’ – that’s the ‘religious freedom’….

    In September 2009 – Eleven Jewish groups sent a petition to US Attorney General Eric Holder (JTA, September 17, 2009) – “urging him to drop religious hiring excemption” for the churches to hire homosexuals and lesbians in all non-spiritual positions including church administration, busness and education. The signatory of the petition included ADL, AJC, B’nai B’rith International, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hadassah, JCPA, National Council of Jewish Women, Na’amat USA, Rabbinical Assembly, Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism and Women of Reformed Judaism.

    Religious freedom less Holocaust

  5. ron said on November 29th, 2009 at 7:42am #

    Ms. Ladysmith,
    You need to do some freakin’ yoga or something. If you don’t like something, don’t read it. As for the sixties–they didn’t win the war, just the battle. If you know your history, things were considerably worse before that decade you seem to hate so much. The other side only wins when their opponent accepts defeat.

  6. Force Factor said on November 29th, 2009 at 11:20pm #

    what his imagination on progress of science really takes place. I mean to say the effect of science on the society of the future is brilliantly put forward by him. As far as politics is concerned i am not sure……but social view i dare say isaac is a pioneer

    Force Factor

  7. Larry Peterson said on December 4th, 2009 at 5:32am #

    Blows Against the Empire is one of the most underrated and great albums of the 70’s because of the brilliance of the perfomers and the ideas. I met Mr. Kantner a few years back and am proud to have his signature on the album. He doesn’t take the ideas too seriously though and we shouldn’t either! Great article.

  8. b99 said on December 4th, 2009 at 7:02am #

    The Sixties was an exciting decade – after the torpor of the Fifities, the Sixties was a godsend. Basically, the youth of America and much of the world understood society was at best moribund, and at worst, going precisely in the wrong direction. So the kids had all the right questions – they just didn’t have the answers – or at least not the answers that would survivet he blowback by the Reactionary Right.

    BTW, a really great song by the Jefferson Airplane, a B-side song that got no attention is: “She Has Funny Cars.” Great tune. It must be out there on some music service, or maybe youtube.

  9. ron said on December 4th, 2009 at 7:52am #

    She Has Funny Cars is on the Surralistic Pillow CD