In times of trouble and austerity we often become cautious about hoping for too much. It's easy to forget that audacious dreams are potent and effective. I've been trying to counter this impulse in my own mind lately, and in the minds of the people I meet. We're afraid to say aloud that the world can be better than it is; fatalism seems like the only true thing. "The world is burning. All politicians are corrupt and Trump is going to win again because America is racist." We say these things aloud even though we ought to know that saying them makes them MORE likely to happen, not LESS, because we're afraid of the heartbreak of hoping and then losing. Pain makes us cowards.
This book is the opposite of that. In writing this (in 1988 no less!), Bisson strangled that fear with his bare hands, and honestly, reading it made me feel like I too could choose to smother fatalism and nihilism, like I could truly believe in a world in which we--you and me and everyone we love--could survive.
It isn't easy, of course. I had to read this book over the course of several weeks because I kept having feelings about it. The glory and breathless joy of the image of Harriet Tubman and John Brown keeping the bonfire lit on the ridge of the mountain so the enslaved would hope and the slavers would fear--it was so powerful that I had to put the book down and process it for a few days before picking it up again.
The brutality and strength of the first battle after Harper's Ferry, which resulted in a lot of dead young men, was hopeful in a different way. I am a pacifist, for practical if not philosophical reasons. I don't WANT a future in which my side slits the throats of the naïve sons of my enemies. But I also don't want a future in which my side lines up without resistance to get our throats slit, either. It's the John Brown quandary.
I quite liked the epistolary sections from the past, and thought they interwove well with the story's present tense, which happens in 1959, a hundred years after the attack on Harper's Ferry. An archeologist from Nova Africa, the country ruled by former slaves that emerged from the ruins of the American South, takes her daughter on a short trip to Harper's Ferry to deliver the letters her grandfather wrote during the war for the centennial of the first attack. The utopian world, in which socialism has defeated Manifest Destiny and is putting black astronauts on Mars, hit me just as hard as the revolutionary violence.
A better world is possible. We get to decide what the future looks like, and it can look like anti-racist luxury space communism. Like, literally: we can have that. We can imagine it into being.
I have loved this book, and believed in it, for a long time, and was pleased to have a chance to re-read it this winter after stumbling across a PM Press edition at the Seattle Anarchist Book Fair. I don't remember when I first had a chance to read it, but it's been at least a decade, maybe longer, which would make this book part of my hard left turn into revolutionary socialism. And now, still, it makes me cry with the hugeness of its ideas. It's like standing on the top of a mountain--fire behind you lighting up the dark.