Sunday, February 28, 2010

DBTL 68: We Shall Overcome

This is the latest installment of the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth, and where World War II never took place. In the United States, the appointment of the first negro to the Supreme Court in 1941 and the desegregation of the armed forces by President Taft the following year are highlights of the slow but steady retreat of institutionalized racialism . . .

Montgomery, Alabama
17 May 1956

In the course of a relatively short but eventful life, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., had seen a lot of strange things. But the thin, plain woman who stood before him pretty much took the cake.

"Excuse me, ma'am," he said. "Could you please repeat that?"

"I said that I am here to offer my services in your struggle against the racial-collectivist hooligans of this city," said the woman.

King glanced over at Ralph Abernathy, but his friend and colleague only gave a helpless shrug. You're on your own, Abernathy's expression said.

"I certainly appreciate the offer, Mrs. . . . "

"Miss. Rand. Ayn Rand."

"I appreciate the offer, Miss Rand," King said carefully, "but at this point we're concentrating on organizing alternatives to the bus system. Would you like to assist with the car pool?"

Rand seemed momentarily taken aback. "If you need someone to drive a car, I'm sure my husband will be happy to assist you. Won't you, Frank?"

"Of course, dear," said the vaguely amiable man who had arrived with Rand.

"But there must be other, more creative tasks to be done," Rand continued. "I am a world-renowned playwright, author and philosopher. I have come to publicize the great work that you have undertaken here. For too long have the racial-collectivists in this part of the country imposed their degenerate dogma upon the creative minority. It is time to show them up for the parasitical second-handers they are!"

King took a discreet step back from the manically declaiming woman. Whatever her actual ideology, there was no mistaking the air of the fire-and-brimstone preacher about her.

"Now is the time for the true source of genius and creativity to stand forth and demonstrate the vital role it plays! Let the racial-collectivist regime suffer the consequences of its degenerate dependence upon the initiative of its creative superiors!"

"Miss Rand," said King, "we're just trying to desegregate the buses."

"No," Rand declared emphatically. "You are fighting for the rights of the individual against a collectivist tyranny. My good friend Eric Blair drew my attention to your struggle, and I am here to lend my talents to your enterprise. Tell me what must be done."

The mention of Blair's name brought understanding to King. He was familiar with the Anglo-Polish writer's achievements, as who was not? Blair had attracted a considerable following among leftists who admired his stand against totalitarianism in general and among rightists who admired his attacks on Stalinism in particular. This Rand woman sounded like one of the latter, as best as King could determine from her peculiar rhetoric.

A right-wing desegregationist?

"Well, Miss Rand," King said, "naturally I'm happy to welcome any friend of General Blair's. His support for the cause of negro rights in America is well known in this country. And now that I come to think of it, there is something you can do to help us against the, ah, racial-collectivists."

"There is?" said Rand in excitement.

"There is?" said Abernathy in puzzlement.

"Of course there is," King insisted as he gently elbowed Abernathy in the ribs. "You must understand, Miss Rand, that there are a number of influential people in this country who, staunch defenders of individualism though they be, do not understand the anti-collectivist nature of the struggle for negro rights the way you do. It seems to me that you are uniquely qualified to explain to these people how the basic issue of individualism is involved."

Rand was nodding in agreement. "Yes, I see what you mean, Dr. King. Who better to make the case for the individualistic nature of the struggle than myself? An excellent suggestion. Who in your opinion should I direct my attention to?"

"I think perhaps Senator William Knowland might be a good man to start with," said King, ignoring the contortions that Abernathy's face was undergoing. "His family's newspaper, the Oakland Tribune, has been persistently critical of our efforts to, ah, oppose the racial-collectivist regime here in Montgomery."

"Has it indeed?" said Rand. "Rest assured, Dr. King, that I will bring this sorry misinterpretation of the struggle against collectivism to Senator Knowland's attention in the strongest possible terms! Do you have a typewriter available? I'm afraid I left mine back at the motel."

"My secretary can show you to our typewriter," said King, and Rand allowed herself and her husband to be led away to his office.

Ralph Abernathy was shaking his head in astonished disbelief. "Mike," he said, "you're going straight to Hell for that one."

With a small smile, King said, "The Lord moves in mysterious ways."

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The lure of the stacks

Over at her blog, von Cookie writes:

Being here in the library is calming. I can sink myself into the academic world here — a world that appears not to want me so much, at the moment — and enjoy the fact that there is so much scholarship going on.

I've noticed this myself, which is why spending time in a library has always been one of my favorite pastimes. Not, as von Cookie says, because you need to look something up, but simply to enjoy the atmosphere of the place, the libraryness of it. The books are ranged on their shelves, each one its own little world of knowledge, waiting patiently for the day when you decide to explore it. You walk among them, glancing at the titles, and suddenly one grabs at you. Assembling California by John McPhee. What is this, you ask? How does one assemble California?

So you take it down and open it up. You stand on the threshold of a new world. You read the material on the inside flap, and it's a book about geology. California, it turns out, was literally assembled over a period of millions of years, as plate tectonics brought a series of land masses out of the Pacific to dock (as the terminology has it) with the west coast of North America.

You sit down in a nearby chair and start reading, about the geology of California and about a California geologist named Eldridge Moores. McPhee jumps back and forth between Moores' life at the University of California at Davis, the 1849 gold rush, and the arrival of an island arc 165 million years ago whose collision with North America created the gold fields. An hour goes by, and you get up from the chair and walk over to the circulation desk to check out the book. You've decided to let John McPhee tell you about how California came to be.

This is why you like being in libraries, because there's no telling what piece of knowledge will show up and insist on being learned.

DBTL 67: And I Think It's Gonna Be a Long Long Time

The Times, London
8 August 1955

Lublin, Poland -- Today a new chapter in human history was written when the Joint Anglo-Polish Space Programme announced the successful completion of the first manned flight into outer space.

Piloting 'Alpha,' the ground-to-orbit rocketplane, was Royal Aerospace Force Rocketman Enoch Powell. Piloting 'Beta,' the orbital spaceship, was Polish Spacewoman Hanna Reitsch.

The compound spacecraft remained in orbit for seven hours and forty-four minutes, during which time Spacewoman Reitsch separated 'Beta' and flew it a distance of 500 meters before returning and successfully redocking with 'Alpha.' The spacecraft made a total of five complete orbits of the Earth before Rocketman Powell successfully brought the reunited spacecraft back to the landing field north of Lublin.

Polish President Edward Raczyński and Prime Minister Walter Citrine were both on hand in Lublin to welcome back the returning pilots. Mr. Citrine called the flight 'a triumph for Britain, Poland and the world' and Count Raczyński praised the courage of the pilots and the ingenuity of the scientists and engineers of the Project.

Project Director Werner von Braun confirmed that a second test flight is scheduled for October. Plans call for a series of flights next year to begin construction of a space station which will serve as a base for an eventual expedition to the moon.

Friday, February 26, 2010

The Drowned Baby Timeline

As an aid to those who may be unfamiliar with the Drowned Baby Timeline, I present a brief synopsis and a list of blog posts.

The Point-of-Departure, which is what alternate history buffs call the event that changes the alternate timeline from our own history, occurs on 20 April 1889, when a newly-born Adolf Hitler is accidentally drowned. With no Hitler to unite Germany's radical right during the Great Depression, it remains fragmented. Instead of being converted into a legal dictatorship, the Weimar Republic falls to a right-wing coup led by Ernst Röhm in October 1932. With his popularity dropping, Röhm launches an invasion of Poland in May 1936. The Poles are able to halt Röhm's poorly-equipped Brown Army, and by November 1936 the two armies are stalemated.

(Showing the furthest extent of the German advance.)

The stalemate ends on Christmas Day 1936 with a Polish offensive. The Brown Army is driven back, and in June 1937 Germany is defeated by the Poles and their British and French allies.

(Postwar Germany, showing the British, French, and Polish zones of occupation)

Poland annexes eastern Germany, and by 1940 Poland has been transformed into a federal republic, with half a dozen Devolved Areas, or devos, established among the country's various ethnic minorities.

(The Polish Commonwealth, following the establishment of the first six devos at the end of 1940)

A Soviet-backed coup attempt in Lithuania in October 1944 leads to war between the USSR and Poland. Poland is joined by several other Eastern European states, and eventually by Japan, and for six months the Red Army retreats across the Byelorussian and Ukrainian SSRs. Both sides agree to an armistice in March 1945, with the USSR ultimately ceding the Byelorussian and Ukrainian SSRs to the Poles, and the Karelian ASSR and the Kola Peninsula to the Finns. The Japanese, having lost Manchuria to the Soviets, do not take part in the armistice, and war between the USSR and the Japanese Empire continues.

(Lithuania independent 1945 - 1947)

As the newly-established Ukrainian Devo is integrated into the Polish Commonwealth, and the damage of war is repaired, the multi-ethnic country begins to experience a cultural renaissance, exemplified by the rise of a fast-paced mix of Jewish klezmer music and American jazz known as klezmerol. Meanwhile, an attempt by Benito Mussolini to use his newly-acquired atomic bomb to gain control over Yugoslavia is thwarted by the equally-new atomic arsenals of Great Britain, France, and Poland, leading to the creation of the League of Nations Atomic Control Commission . . .

Blog posts:

1. Drowned Baby Timeline, part 1 (20 April 1889 - 30 June 1937)
2. Passing the Torch (22 September 1937)
3. 1939: Where Are They Now? (1 September 1939)
4. The Armored Dream (1 September 1939)
5. St. Elsewhere (17 March 1921 - 1 September 1941)
6. Eagle and Chrysanthemum (25 May 1940)
7. Going Home (19 January 1940)
8. Where Do We Go From Here? (5 February 1940)
8A. The Fire Next Time (6 February 1940)
9. Are We Not Poles? We Are Devo (31 May 1940)
10. In Between (20 June 1940)
8B. Laugh While You Can (27 July 1940)
8C. Marriage of Inconvenience (21 October 1941)
8D. The Guide (13 May 1942)
11. Love and Rockets (8 - 10 June 1943)
12A. Białystok - Reel One (22 April 1944)
12B. Białystok - Reel Two (23 April 1944)
12C. Białystok - Reel Three (23 April 1944)
13. Octopus's Garden (17 July 1944)
14. The Wild Wild East (12 August 1944)
15. The Speer Squad (6 October 1944)
16. Of Course You Know This Means War (7 - 8 October 1944)
16A. The Helsinki Syndrome by Jussi Jalonen (9 October 1944)
16B. Tora! Tora! Tora! by Jussi Jalonen (10 October 1944)
17. Counterattack (22 October 1944)
18. I'll Say They Are! (3 March 1945)
19. The Darkness and the Light (16 March 1945)
19A. Testvér a Testvérért by Jussi Jalonen (16 March 1945)
20. 1945: Where Are They Now? (7 May 1945)
21. A Post About Nothing (7 - 25 June 1945)
22. Meet the Vontzim (17 July 1945)
23. Show and Tell (16 August 1945)
24. Equal and Opposite (4 - 5 September 1945)
25. Enemies of the People (28 May 1945)
26. Four-Step Program (17 November 1945)
22A. Ticket to Ride (22 January 1946)
27. Sejm As It Ever Was (8 February 1946)
28. Everyone Avoids Me Like a Cyclone Ranger (18 March 1946)
29. Deutchland Unter Alles (20 April 1946)
30. Ruling Coalition (5 May 1946)
31. And the Banned Played On (30 May 1946)
32. The Ideal Man (4 June 1946)
33. And We're Living Here in Speerburg (11 June 1946)
33 1/3. You Spin Me Right Round (23 June 1946)
34. Anniversary (30 June 1946)
35. Money Changes Everything (10 July 1946)
36. Meet the New Boss (18 July 1946)
37. Bad to the Bône (24 August 1946)
37A. Indochina (1937 - 1947)
38. The Artist (9 September 1946)
39. As Sweet As Any Harmony (18 September 1946)
40. Every Breath You Take (4 November 1946)
41. The Decider (19 March 1947)
42. Priest and a Rabbi Walk into a Bar . . . (6 May 1947)
43. Book Review - The Voyage of Eärendil (2 June 1947)
44A. The Long Auf Wiederseh'n - Book One (4 - 5 September 1947)
44B. The Long Auf Wiederseh'n - Book Two (6 September 1947)
44C. The Long Auf Wiederseh'n - Book Three (7 September 1947)
45. Brain Drain (5 March 1948)
46A. Three Days in October - Prologue (4 October 1949)
46B. Three Days in October - Ultimatum (14 October 1949)
46C. Three Days in October - Vigil (15 October 1949)
46D. Three Days in October - Proposition (16 October 1949)
46E. Three Days in October - Epilogue (24 October 1949)
DBTL Extra: Kelly, Jack, and Eddie visit Białystok by Dan McDonald (8 March 1950)
47: Like Shattered Jewels (16 September 1950)
α: Greeks Bearing Gifts by Demetrios Rammos (5 March 1933 - 1 June 1936)
A Drowned Baby Christmas (25 December 1936)
48: With Enemies Like These (27 May 1936)
49: Operation Sea Lion (12 April 1937)
50A: Where Beer Does Flow and Men Chunder (13 May 1936)
50B: Who Can It Be Now? (26 April 1937)
51A: City of Shadows - Interview (8 June 1937)
51B: City of Shadows - Intervention (10 June 1937)
51C: City of Shadows - Interest (18 June 1937)
51D: City of Shadows - Interlude (24 June 1937)
51E. City of Shadows - Interruption (28 - 30 June 1937)
52. Wedge (27 June 1941)
53. Salt & Pepper (30 June 1941)
54. A Man, a Plan, a Canal (9 May 1944)
55. Palestine (8 October 1932 - 1 May 1945)
56. I Feel Safest Of All (16 April 1945)
57. Some Men You Just Can't Reach (17 January 1951)
58. The Carrot and the Stick (28 January 1951)
59. The Chips Stay Up (17 February 1951)
60. The Double Helix (18 January 1952)
61. Homeward Bound (2 March 1953)
62. Road Trip (3 March 1953)
63. My Hometown (4 March 1953)
64. Everybody Wang Ch'ung Tonight (9 March 1954)
65. State of Emergency (22 June 1954)
66. The Party's Over (1 July 1954)
67. And I Think It's Gonna Be a Long Long Time (8 August 1955)
68. We Shall Overcome (17 May 1956)
69. The Ground Floor (10 January 1942)
70. Bojowy! (5 December 1961)
71. Conflict of Interest (22 November 1963)
72A. The Six Million Złoty Man, Act I (16 September 1966)
72B. The Six Million Złoty Man, Act II (16 September 1966)
72C. The Six Million Złoty Man, Act III (16 September 1966)
72D. The Six Million Złoty Man, Act IV (17 September 1966)
73. Today's Tom Sawyer (24 - 25 June 1968)
74. Enter the Dragon (10 July 1972)
75. Respect (14 September 1974)
76. Must Give Us Pause (17 February 1975)
77. The Little Finish (21 January 2001)
Afterword: Jeepers Creepers, Where'd You Get That Commonwealth?

DBTL 66: The Party's Over

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The death of Josef Stalin in 1946 while the Soviet Union is at war with the Japanese Empire results in the rise to power of General Vasili Gordov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, with the Politburo and the rest of the Communist apparatchiks relegated to a junior role -- something the members of the Politburo are not happy about, and which they take steps to correct . . .

Moscow, USSR
1 July 1954

Werner Heisenberg stood behind a metal barricade on the edge of Red Square and watched as the Kremlin burned in the night. Beside him stood Defense Commissar Vasili Gordov and Foreign Commissar Andrei Gromyko. The field guns on their left had fallen silent, their work done. Gordov was, as usual, angry.

"My God! What the hell did those fools think they were doing?" he bellowed.

The question didn't really call for an answer, but Gromyko provided one anyway. "They were trying to save their jobs."

"And destroy the country while they were at it!" Gordov fumed. "Now what are we going to do?"

"You were planning to purge the Politburo," Gromyko pointed out. "This simply advances your timetable."

"But who can I replace them with?" said Gordov. "They lured thousands of apparatchiks into joining their treason. Were it not for the valiant stand made by the Comrade Director here at Nizhnevartovsk, they might have succeeded. The Politburo is gone, the Central Committee has been compromised, and the whole Party has been tainted by their actions. Now the Soviet Union is in an uproar, and it is all my troops can do to hold things together!"

"There is always the Supreme Soviet," Heisenberg suggested.

Gordov burst out laughing. "Those dummies?"

"With the Party organization in shreds," Heisenberg said, "those dummies are all you have left."

"But they're utterly worthless," Gordov insisted. "That's why they're on the Supreme Soviet to begin with."

"Then you'll have to replace them," said Heisenberg.


"Hold elections," Heisenberg suggested. "You were planning to make the Central Committee elective. Theoretically, the Supreme Soviet already is. Just announce new elections for the Soviet, and you'll have a new government ready to assume control in place of the Central Committee and the Politburo."

"Impossible," Gordov declared. "The Central Committee I was ready for, but it would take too long to choose the proper men for the Supreme Soviet."

"So don't choose them," said Heisenberg. "Let the people choose them."

Gordov stared at Heisenberg for a long time before he said, "You really mean that, don't you?"

"Comrade Commissar, I do."

"But they could elect anyone!" Gordov exclaimed. "Nationalists, monarchists, mimes, anyone! How could I be expected to maintain control of such a mob?"

"The way the leaders of other countries do," said Heisenberg. "Bribery, persuasion, and arm-twisting."

"Impossible," Gordov repeated.

"Comrade Commissar, we have to do something," said Gromyko.

"Andrei Andreievich, not you too!"

"We cannot rely on the Party," Gromyko insisted, "and your soldiers are trained to fight, not to govern. Who else is there?"

Gordov shook his head. "Things have reached a pretty pass when we're reduced to letting the government run the country!" He sighed. "It is true, there is no one else. But you mark my words, Andrei Andreievich, once the Supreme Soviet starts to run things, there'll be no controlling them!" After brooding in silence for a time, he added, "And I sure as hell won't be leaving those atom bombs in their hands. Comrade Director, I want men from your Commission running the plant at Nizhnevartovsk within the week. Them, at least, I don't have to worry about."

"Yes, Comrade Commissar."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

DBTL 65: Green Hectares

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The largest state in Central Europe is the Polish Commonwealth, which includes the historical Second Polish Republic, eastern Germany, and following the Second Polish Soviet War of 1944 - 45, the former Soviet republics of Byelorussia and Ukraine.

Huterowo, Belarus Devo, Polish Commonwealth
22 June 1954

"Lavi!" exclaimed Eva Gabor Romanov in her Hungarian-accented Polish. "How long are you going to be up there? Your hotcakes are getting cold!"

Lavrenti Romanov, hanging precariously from the telephone pole, called down, "The operator says I have to deposit another zloty for the next three minutes!"

On second thought, lets leave the Romanovs to their rural idyll and turn our attention elsewhere. For instance, there's Werner Heisenberg, Director of the League of Nations Atomic Control Commission, and also, through a complicated set of circumstances, the head of the Soviet Union's atomic bomb project . . .

DBTL 65: State of Emergency

Nizhnevartovsk, USSR
22 June 1954

Werner Heisenberg reflected, not for the first time, on what a sad thing it was that the Soviets had succeeded in copying the Polish atom bomb project so closely. Whether through coincidence or design, they had managed to establish their own atomic weapons project in a place that was just like the Pripet Marshes, only worse.

There were the same dismal vistas of unhealthy-looking plant life, the same sense of total isolation from civilization. The only difference was with Siberia's insects, who outclassed their Polish counterparts in size, persistence, and unavoidability. He found himself sympathizing with the Soviet scientists and engineers who wanted to test their weapons on as much of the surrounding landscape as possible.

"If we set them all off here in Siberia, we won't have any left to use against anyone else," he told his Deputy Director, Andrei Sakharov. "Marshal Gordov would not be pleased."

"Not that you would mind using up all our bombs in tests," Sakharov said with a chuckle.

"I neither confirm nor deny," said Heisenberg. It had been three years since Gordov had put him in charge of the Soviet atomic weapons project, and Heisenberg had spent every day since then wondering if the mercurial Marshal would decide to have him taken out and shot. So far he had managed to convince Gordov that his direction of the Nizhnevartovsk Project was providing the Soviet Union with the most advanced atomic weaponry in the world. One day, he knew, Gordov would decide that Heisenberg was trying to sabotage the Project. Heisenberg would be arrested and executed, and Gordov would go to war with the League of Nations to insure the continued existence of his independent atomic arsenal. And the worst thing was, the longer Heisenberg managed to delay that war, the worse it would be when it finally came.

Heisenberg's office was on the top floor of the Main Administration Building. The windows provided a panoramic view of the cluster of workshops, laboratories, offices and other buildings of the Project, and of the endless hectares of sickly green vegatation beyond. Being six stories up, Heisenberg could see for quite a ways off. Thus, it was he who first saw the dust trail as the column of vehicles made its way up the lonely road that connected the Project to the actual town of Nizhnevartovsk.

Puzzled, he picked up his phone and rang Sakharov. "Comrade Sakharov, do you know of any supply convoys scheduled to arrive today?"

"We aren't expecting any," his deputy said. "Why?"

"Because there are a number of vehicles coming up the road, and I wasn't expecting any."

Sakharov said, "Perhaps General Malinovsky is rotating some of his troops."

Heisenberg sighed. "I suppose I'd better call and ask him."

General Rodion Malinovsky was Director of Security for the Project. Like Heisenberg, Malinovsky reported directly to Marshal Gordov. Heisenberg was well aware of the fact that Malinovsky's primary concern as Director of Security was Heisenberg himself. If Gordov ever did decide to eliminate Heisenberg, Malinovsky would be the man to order his execution. He might even pull the trigger himself.

Heisenberg, who was as human as the next man, tried as much as possible to avoid contact with the man who would eventually kill him. Besides, Heisenberg's Russian was not terribly fluent, and that was the only language Malinovsky spoke.

He punched up the General's private line, and the familiar voice said, "Da?"

"It is I, Comrade General," said Heisenberg. "I can see vehicles approaching the compound. Are you expecting them?"

"I am expecting no vehicles," Malinovsky answered. "What kind of vehicles?"

"They are too far away to see well," Heisenberg said.

"I will look into it," Malinovsky said, and hung up. Heisenberg's displeasure at being so abruptly cut off was tempered with relief that the conversation was over.

His relief ended quickly as Malinovsky entered his office accompanied by his chief aide, Major Dmitri Yazov. "Show me these vehicles," he said to Heisenberg.

Heisenberg pointed out his window at the line of vehicles slowly approaching. Malinovsky pulled a set of binoculars out of a case on his belt and deftly focused them. "My God," he exploded, "it's an invasion!"

"What are they?" Heisenberg asked.

"Armored cars and trucks," Malinovsky answered. "And some artillery." Still looking through the binoculars, Malinovsky said, "Major, have the troops take up a defensive position by the fence. I'm going out to investigate." Putting the binoculars away again, the General strode out of Heisenberg's office. The physicist followed him.

An hour later, Malinovsky's men had dug themselves in behind the compound's barbed wire fence. A roadblock had been set up two hundred meters beyond the gate. The lead unit of the "invasion force" as Malinovsky called it, an armored car with machine guns mounted, had come to a halt in front of the roadblock.

From his command post in the guardhouse, Malinovsky had established radio contact with someone in the invasion force. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" Heisenberg heard him say in his usual direct way.

A voice on the radio squawked back, "We've been sent by the State Committe for the State of Emergency to reinforce the Nizhnevartovsk Project."

"State Committee for the what?" demanded Malinovsky. "What the hell is that supposed to mean? Why haven't I heard about this from Marshal Gordov?"

"Marshal Gordov was taken ill yesterday. General Secretary Mikoyan has established the State Committee for the State of Emergency to administer the government until he recovers."

Heisenberg motioned to Malinovsky, and the General cut off the radio. "It's a coup," said Heisenberg, "it must be. Mikoyan and the Politburo are trying to depose Gordov."

Malinovsky's brows drew together as he pondered Heisenberg's statement. At last he said, "You may be right, Comrade Director. What do you suggest we do?"

Heisenberg was momentarily taken aback. It was the first time in three years that the General had sought his advice. It was a moment before Heisenberg figured out why. Malinovsky wasn't sure which side he should be on. If Gordov had already been ousted there would be no point in opposing Mikoyan and the Politburo. On the other hand, if Gordov managed to put down the coup, anyone who had come out in support of the Politburo would be in for a hard time. Heisenberg remembered a phrase he had heard Oppenheimer use during a meeting in Warsaw: passing the buck. Malinovsky was letting Heisenberg make the decision so he could disclaim responsibility if it should turn out to be the wrong one.

Very well then, Heisenberg told himself. What should they do?

Given Gordov's control of the Soviet military, Mikoyan's Committee probably had relatively little firepower at its disposal. They would need something to counter the might of the Red Army, and Heisenberg felt unpleasantly certain that the Nizhnevartovsk Project was that something. They would use Heisenberg's atomic weapons to blackmail their way to absolute power. And if Gordov refused to let himself be blackmailed?

The result was obvious: an atomic-powered coup d'etat. Rebellious military units and cities instantly obliterated. An empire bludgeoned into submission with an atomic club.

"We fight," Heisenberg said finally. "Let Mikoyan build his own atom bombs, because he's not getting any of mine."

Malinovsky switched the radio back on. He said, "Director Heisenberg denies the authority of the State Committee." Resetting the radio frequency, Malinovsky continued, "All units, prepare to resist attack."

"Carry on, General," Heisenberg said. Malinovsky saluted him -- another first -- and turned back to the radio.

Heisenberg left the guardhouse as a brisk walk, making for the Main Administration Building. He'd have to get Sakharov to round up some of the engineers. Just in case Malinovsky failed to hold off the attackers, he wanted to be ready to destroy as many of the production facilities, and as many of the existing bombs, as possible.

And if all else failed, he could always set off one of the bombs himself.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DBTL 64: Everybody Wang Ch'ung Tonight

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The death of Josef Stalin in 1946 while the Soviet Union is at war with the Japanese Empire results in the rise to power of General Vasili Gordov, the Commander-in-Chief of the Red Army, with the Politburo and the rest of the Communist apparatchiks relegated to a junior role -- something the members of the Politburo are not happy about . . .

Nanking, China
9 March 1954

"So who is this Wang Ch'ung whose life you choose to celebrate today?" wondered Lazar Kaganovich.

Chiang Kai-shek answered him in fluent Russian. "Ah. Wang Ch'ung was a Confucian reformer who lived nineteen centuries ago. Confucianism was then entering a period of decline, when the original doctrines were being contaminated with a superstitious belief in omens and portents. Wang insisted that natural things occured spontaneously, and that any theory must be supported by concrete evidence and experimental proof. He thus represents an early harbinger of our modern scientific rationalist age."

Nanking was brightly decked out with banners and posters, celebrating both Wang's publication of his Disquisitions and the visit of the chief of state of China's friend and ally the Soviet Union. The blue-and-white sun of China alternated everywhere with the yellow-and-red sickle-and-hammer of the USSR. Quotes from Wang hung side by side with quotes from Marx, Lenin, and Stalin.

The evening's lavish dinner was over, and the Soviet delegation were busy drinking themselves insensible. Kaganovich, although not a practising Jew, still retained the abstemious habits that caused his people to be regarded with such suspicion by their no-longer-Christian countrymen. It was the perfect opportunity for Chiang to have a quiet discussion with his erstwhile counterpart.

"Wang Ch'ung was not highly regarded for most of our history," Chiang continued. "However, with the advent of the Republic, with its commitment to the principles of science and rationalism, we have found Wang to be a fitting symbol of our nation's aspirations in the new age. We wish to be a modern, technological state like your own."

Kaganovich said, "There are some aspects of the Soviet Union which, alas, you may not wish to emulate."

"Do you perchance speak of the reforms which Marshal Gordov has recently begun to implement?" Chiang asked slyly.

"Mind you," Kaganovich cautioned, "I say nothing against our illustrious and victorious leader. Nevertheless, certain of his advisors have suggested policies which may not be in the best interests of our Union, and the Marshal, burdened as he is with the responsibilities of his position, may not be aware of the popular discontent to which they are giving rise."

Chiang knew that Kaganovich was referring to Gordov's recent policy of making membership in the Central Committee elective. Each Committee member would now be chosen by the Party members of a particular regional or economic sector by way of a secret ballot. Personally, Chiang was filled with admiration for Gordov's ploy. By making the Committee an elective body, Gordov had removed it from the control of the Party leadership. Chiang wasn't quite certain how Gordov intended to establish his own control over the election process, and hence over the Central Committee, but he was sure that Gordov had already worked out a way to do so. Were he in the Marshal's place, he would have.

Nevertheless, he did not let his admiration distract him from the important work of turning the situation to his own advantage. The Red Army had been instrumental in driving the Japanese from China, and in bringing the remaining warlords under his control. Now Red Army "advisors" remained in key positions throughout Chiang's military organization. Marshal Gordov showed no sign of withdrawing his advisors from China, despite Chiang's repeated requests. Chiang was currently making use of his erstwhile enemies among the outlawed Chinese Communists to pick them off one by one. Eliminating them all would be costly, though, and might well leave China facing the wrath of the small but growing Soviet atomic arsenal.

The only other plausible course of action would be for China to appeal for protection from the League of Nations. This would almost certainly gain him immunity from Soviet counterattacks, but it would mean publicly renouncing his claims to Tibet and Formosa, both now League members, and in practical terms would also involve giving up all hope of recovering the Manchurian Soviet Socialist Republic, as it was now styled.

If the members of the Politburo could be persuaded to overthrow Gordov, though, and resume their own uncontested control over the USSR, Chiang would be in a position to take advantage of the resulting chaos and regain China's full independence, and perhaps even detach the USSR's newly-conquered eastern Republics into the bargain.

To Kaganovich he said, "I agree, the current policies being promulgated by the Marshal's subordinates are ill-advised, and will almost certainly lead to great harm for your country. If it were in my power to persuade the Marshal to reverse these policies, I would gladly do so. Unfortunately, I fear the Marshal does not count me among his closest advisors."

"Do not worry yourself on that account, my friend," Kaganovich assured him. "There are already many on the Politburo who feel as I do. Simply knowing that you stand beside us will do much good, and persuade many who now waver of the strength of our position."

"President Kaganovich," said Chiang, his features composed in a confident smile, "you may count on me to the bitter end."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

End credits: Who are these people?

Isaac Asimov was born on or about January 2, 1920 in the Russian shtetl of Petrovichi. When he was three his family emigrated to Brooklyn, and he grew up there, spending much of his childhood and teens working behind the counter of their candy store. He later applied the discipline of that experience to his writing, publishing over 500 books. For the last fifteen years of his life, he was editorial director of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. In 1983 he contracted AIDS from tainted blood during a heart-bypass operation, and died of complications nine years later, on April 6, 1992.

Juliusz Żuławski was born on October 10, 1910 in the Polish city of Zakopane. Son of the poet, novelist, translator, and literary critic Jerzy Żuławski, he followed in his father's footsteps, publishing lyric poetry, psychological prose, biographical stories, and translations of English poetry. He died in Warsaw on January 10, 1999.

Chava Rosenfarb was born on February 9, 1923 in the Polish city of Łódź. She began writing poetry during the Nazi occupation of Poland. After surviving four years in the Łódź ghetto, and stays in Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, she crossed illegally into Belgium, where she met and married fellow Holocaust survivor Henry Morgentaler. After emigrating to Canada in 1950, she began writing poetry, plays, and finally a trilogy of novels called Der boim fun lebn (The Tree of Life). She currently lives in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Simcha Simchovitch was born in 1921 in Otwock, a suburb of Warsaw. He fled the city in 1939, during the Nazi invasion of Poland, taking refuge in the Soviet Union. He returned after the war, only to discover that the Nazis had murdered the entire Jewish population, including his family and friends, in 1942. In 1949 he moved to Canada, where he has published fifteen books in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English, including a novel, seven poetry collections, and the memoir Stepchild on the Vistula. He currently lives in Toronto.

Samuel Asimov was the younger brother of Isaac Asimov's father, Judah Asimov. He was born around the turn of the 20th century in Petrovichi, and served as an officer in the Soviet Army during World War II. His daughter Serafina Asimov corresponded with her cousin Isaac in the 1980s.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Jeepers Creepers, Where'd You Get That Commonwealth?

The Bastard of Yonkers asks an interesting question: is the Polish Commonwealth from the Drowned Baby Timeline based on the Kingdom of Poland in Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy stories?

Short answer:

Long answer:
A hundred years ago, there was no Poland. The old Kingdom of Poland-Lithuania had been divided up among its neighbors at the end of the 18th century, and the Poles were nothing more than a trio of minority groups within three empires. But the memory of the lost Polish state lived on, and many Poles dreamed of a reborn Poland in the future. In fact, there came to be two dreams, mutually incompatible, and two men appeared who embodied those dreams.

Józef Klemens Piłsudski was a scion of an old Polish family in Lithuania. He drew inspiration from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 16th century, a vast entity that included the modern nations of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Piłsudski envisioned a modern incarnation that encompassed all the old territories united in a federation. Being Polish would not be based on language or religion, but on loyalty to to an idea -- the idea of the Commonwealth.

Roman Stanisław Dmowski was a Pole of Poland. He drew inspiration from the Kingdom of Poland of the 11th century, a compact realm that consisted largely of Polish-speaking Catholics. Dmowski envisioned a modern incarnation that excluded Germans, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and especially Jews. To be a Pole was to be a Polish-speaking Catholic.

After the three empires came crashing down at the end of World War I, Poland was indeed reborn. However, circumstances produced neither Piłsudski's vast multiethnic federation nor Dmowski's compact, homogeneous unitary state, but something in between -- too large and diverse to be Dmowski's Poland, but too small and Polonocentric to be Piłsudski's. In the end, it was left to Poland's enemies Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin to choose between the two competing visions, and for reasons of their own, they chose Dmowski's. The Drowned Baby Timeline can be seen as a glimpse of the other choice -- Piłsudski's Poland.

Not that I meant it to be. When my wife learned about my alternate history hobby, she suggested that I write about a timeline where Hitler drowned at birth, and so I wrote one -- a few hundred words that I posted to the soc.history.what-if newsgroup on January 22, 2001. With no Hitler around, I figured the various groups that made up Germany's radical right -- the blood-and-soil populists, the proto-skinheads, the run-of-the-mill anti-Semites -- would remain disunited. The situation in Germany in the early 1930s was so chaotic that pretty much anything could happen, so I had the proto-skinheads -- in our history they became the S.A., Hitler's army of street fighters -- seize power in a coup d'etat led by Ernst Röhm. I figured Röhm would suck at running the country, and that he would try to head off popular unrest through the old trick of ginning up a war with another country -- Poland, of course. But in this timeline, instead of facing Hitler's Wehrmacht, the Poles would be facing Röhm's undiscipled thugs, and the Poles would beat them. I ended the post with Piłsudski striding through the bombed-out ruins of the Reichstag building.

My one-off post proved sufficiently popular that several commenters urged me to continue the timeline, so I sat down and tried to work out what came next. Let's say that the British, French, and Poles divide defeated Germany up into zones of occupation, like the Allies did in our timeline after World War II. And let's say that Piłsudski's political opponents on the right start clamoring for him to annex the Polish zone of occupation. And Piłsudski does, because, clever old guy that he is, he knows that this will make the Poles a minority in their own country -- now they'll have to agree to his old federation plan. And since his stomach cancer is acting up, he chooses a successor -- the war's most popular military hero -- and convinces him to carry out his plan. That gave me Part 2 of the timeline, "Passing the Torch".

From there, everything followed more or less logically: an anti-Soviet alliance with the Finns and the Japanese, war with the USSR over Lithuania, early victories over a Red Army still reeling from Stalin's purges, and an armistice that ends with Poland annexing Belarus and the Ukraine. So now we have a timeline where Piłsudski's Poland comes into being -- the Polish Commonwealth.

And all it took was getting rid of Adolf Hitler.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

DBTL 63: My Hometown

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe.

In Europe, scientific research and industrial expansion surge ahead, while the United States lags behind. As a result, there is a steady flow of American talent to Europe, including chemist and science fiction writer
Isaac Asimov. While attending a book publication party in Warsaw, Asimov finds himself shanghaied by two Jewish writers into traveling to Petrovichi, the Russian village where he was born . . .

Somewhere in Belarus Devo, Polish Commonwealth
4 March 1953

"Have I ever mentioned how much I hate to travel?" observed Isaac Asimov conversationally in Yiddish.

"I believe this makes the five hundred thousandth time you've mentioned it," said Chava Rosenfarb in the same language.

"Six hundred thousand," Simcha Simchovitch corrected her. "I've been counting."

The three were in Simchovitch's Porschewagen, on the road between Minsk and Smolensk. Asimov had immediately vetoed Rosenfarb's suggestion of a side trip north to the mass graves at Kurapaty. "If I want to be depressed," Asimov insisted, "I'll just contemplate the idea of Tom Dewey in the White House."

American politics was a mystery to the two Poles, and Asimov didn't feel like explaining, so he added, "The sooner I'm back in Wales behind my typewriter, the happier I'll be."

"How do you expect to be a writer," Rosenfarb had asked, "if all you do is sit behind a typewriter? You need to get out and experience life if you want something to write about."

"Sure," said Asimov, "I'll just jump in a rocketship and spend some time gossiping with the Martians. I'm sure I'll get plenty of story ideas that way."

Perhaps sensing an argument brewing, Simchovitch intervened. "So how do you decide what to write about, Isaac?"

"I get my ideas from anywhere and everywhere," Asimov answered grandeloquently. "The Foundation series came from an illustration in a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan operas. 'Nightfall' came from a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I wrote The Caves of Steel to prove that it was possible to combine the science fiction and mystery genres."

A translation of The Caves of Steel had come out three years before, and Simchovitch had read it, and he wondered aloud what inspired Asimov to create the nightmarish environment of his claustrophobic future New York City.

"What nightmarish environment?" Asimov wondered.

"People living underground," Simchovitch said with horror in his voice. "Never seeing the sun, or the outside world."

Asimov shrugged. "I like enclosed places. When I was a boy, my dream life was to live in a newsstand in a subway station. Moving to Delaware was a shock. All that open space, and nothing within walking distance. That's where the Spacers' suburbanized planets came from, and as far as I was concerned, that was a nightmarish environment."

This last observation led to a long discussion between Rosenfarb, a big-city girl from Łódź, and Simchovitch, who had lived his entire life in the Warsaw suburb of Otwock, on the merits of city versus suburban life. Asimov was pleased to have Rosenfarb's barbs aimed at someone other than himself for a change.

The sky had been overcast all day, and in the absence of the sunshine that had helped heat the car the day before, the car's tiny heater was proving inadequate. The gray light also served to make the brown landscape they passed through even more depressing than it would have been otherwise. The missing sections of the autostrada grew more frequent, and the state of the back roads between them grew worse. It took them over three hours to make the 200 kilometers to the city of Orsha, and even though it was only ten o'clock, they stopped there for lunch. Once again, Simchovitch had no trouble finding a Jewish restaurant -- according to his guidebook, about half the people in Orsha were Jews.

Asimov knew that this was part of a pattern all across the eastern devos of the Polish Commonwealth, a relic from the days of the Old Commonwealth, as the original 16th century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was known. The Jews and merchants from the Hanseatic League gathered into the cities like Orsha, Minsk, and Brest-Litovsk, while in between would be the countryside inhabited by peasants ruled by Lithuanian or Polish nobles. It was highly segregated and socially stratified, but it worked. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries the Russians had moved in. The nobility, the szlachta, were gradually impoverished and dispossessed, and the Jews had to suffer periodic pogroms. Then had come the 20th century, war with the Germans, two wars with the Poles, and now everything was back the way it had been four hundred years earlier. And the Jews were still here, along and the peasants and the now-impoverished szlachta.

"Except with added autostradas and Porschewagens," said Simchovitch over a meal of corned beef sandwiches. He and Rosenfarb drank tea, while Asimov had coffee.

"And Donovs and volkshäuser," added Rosenfarb darkly.

"And cinema houses and televisions sets," said Simchovitch. "They're even bringing electricity out to the countryside. The commissars tried, with their usual mix of ineptitude and brutality, but they had barely started when the Second War came, and after that the Poles had to deal with the problem."

"After America joined the Pact," Rosenfarb went on, "the government in Minsk sent some officials there, to . . . T'nessi?"

"Tennessee," Asimov corrected.

"Thank you. Tennessee Valley, to see how it had been done there."

"And who do you think they ran into?" asked Simchovitch with a grin. "Some of Fermi's boys from Lublin, keeping an eye on the atomic scientists at Oak Ridge."

Orsha was their last taste of Commonwealth-style civilization. Fifty kilometers beyond the city was the Soviet border, with Smolensk another sixty beyond that. The A5 ended at Orsha, so they had to make do with a gravel road that ran parallel to a railroad track.

At the border there were the usual suspicious guards and officious officials. They gave the three travelers' bags a thorough going-over, while a man in a shabby suit quietly hit Simchovitch up for a bribe, which he quietly paid.

"That was unpleasant," said Asimov as they drove on into the Soviet Union. The gravel road had ended at the border; they were on dirt now.

"That was nothing," said Simchovitch. "Back in the old days, when the Boss was running the country, the NKVD had charge of the border guards. Believe me, those were some scary bastards."

"So, are things getting better here now that Gordov is in charge?" asked Asimov.

Simchovitch shrugged. "Different, yes. Better? Depends on who you ask. The thing to keep in mind about Gordov is that he's a soldier first, a Russian second, and a Communist a distant third. He pays lip service to the dogma, and he's careful to trot out the big banners with Marx, Lenin, and Stalin every May Day, but his first loyalty is to the state. He's got the upper hand over the Politburo and the Central Committee, but they're not fully under his control, and that's something he's not happy about."

It may have just been the lowering sky, but it seemed to Asimov that Smolensk was distinctly less appealing than Minsk, or even Orsha. There were a lot more soldiers around, and the streets weren't as well kept-up.

"Are those bullet holes?" he asked as they passed by one particularly dilapidated brick house.

"I wouldn't be surprised," said Simchovitch. "The Polish Army passed through here about a week before the fighting ended. Under the terms of the armistice they pulled back to the Byelorussian border, and I think about a third of the people in Smolensk packed up and left with them. If I'd lived here, I would have. The government was still busy fighting the Japanese, and they let a lot of stuff slide here in the west. Plenty of damage left over from the war that they haven't gotten around to fixing.

"The thing to keep in mind about the Russians is that they've always been of two minds about whether they want to be Europeans or Asians. Losing the two western republics to the Commonwealth, and then conquering Manchuria and Japan, seems to have given the country a big shove to the Asian side. I think that's why Gordov is still fooling around in China."

It wasn't long before the pothole-laden streets of Smolensk gave way to a rutted dirt road heading south. This, Asimov knew, was the final leg of their quixotic journey to his home village of Petrovichi. Sixty kilometers south of the city was a village called Pochinok, and now Asimov began to experience the tiniest bit of enthusiasm for the venture. Back in Brooklyn, his mother used to tell stories about their departure from Russia, and she mentioned that in Pochinok his sister Marcia had grown sick. The family had had to stay in an unheated room in December, and his mother had had to pay the owner to light a fire. As the wooden buildings of Pochinok went past, he found himself wondering which of them had the room where he had stayed thirty years before. However, he was not curious enough to ask Simchovitch to stop the car.

South of Pochinok they turned right onto a side-road that seemed to him to be little more than an ox-cart path. He hoped they didn't pass any cars going the other way, because there didn't seem to be room for two of them at once. The narrow road led them eventually to a crossroads village called Khislavichi, and once again Asimov felt a tug on his memory. His father had once come across a map of Russia, and had eagerly sought Petrovichi, but in vain. It wasn't there; worse, Khislavichi was, along with other villages called Mstislav and Krichev. His father had called his mother over and said, "Look, they have these hamlets and hick towns and Petrovichi they don't have."

Asimov had told him, "Maybe they're bigger than Petrovichi, Pappa."

Horrified, his father had replied, "They were smaller. They were nothings. I don't understand why they don't have it."

After Khislavichi there was Zabor'e, then Mikshino, and then . . .

It was a small Russian hamlet, no different from any of the others they had passed. Wooden buildings and dirt streets, with patches of old snow on the ground. A church steeple at one end, and a synagogue at the other. Simchovitch pulled up in front of the latter without being asked, and the three of them got out of the car.

It was a Wednesday afternoon, so there was no particular reason anyone would be at the synagogue, and no one was.

"Where should we go?" Rosenfarb asked him.

"The general store," Asimov decided. "My mother's family owned it, and she used to work there."

"I doubt if they own it now," Simchovitch said. "They frown on that sort of thing here."

"My father once told me he and my mother ran an agricultural cooperative after the Revolution. He was also friends with the local commissar."

"That was thirty years ago," Simchovitch pointed out.

Asimov shrugged. "It can't hurt to try."

"So where is it?" asked Rosenfarb.

"Search me. My parents' stories didn't include any maps."

The three of them finally decided to head down what seemed to be the village's main street. Two days on the road had already left Asimov feeling a sense of unreality, so when his father passed by on the street, he simply said, in English, "Pappa! What are you doing here?"

The man stopped and gave him a curious look. "Do I know you?" he said in Yiddish.

Asimov immediately realized that the man was not his father, though he looked and sounded an awful lot like him. With suspicion dawning in him, he asked the man, "Do you remember a man named Judah Asimov?"

"You mean my brother? The one who moved to America?"

"My name is Isaac. I'm his son."

If Asimov's companions were expecting a tearful reunion, they didn't get one. The man, who turned out to be his uncle Samuel, shared his father's reserved nature, to his relief. He simply shook Isaac's hand and asked him the names of his companions. After the introductions were made, Samuel invited them to come into his home and meet his family.

The Samuel Asimovs lived in a neat wooden house two streets over. Samuel's wife was out, but his teenage daughter Serafina, a pretty blue-eyed blonde, was home. She, it turned out, was a science fiction fan who had read pirated Russian editions of several of his books, and she was terribly scandalized that her father wasn't making more of a fuss over him.

"You're my cousin?" she exclaimed. "Pappa, you never said that Isaac Asimov was my cousin!" She was also excited to meet Rosenfarb and Simchovitch, though she admitted she had never heard of either of the Polish writers.

"They're the ones who talked me into coming here," Isaac told her, whereupon she showered the two of them with thanks, much to their amusement. Serafina then rushed to her room and brought back four books with his name spelled Исаак Озимов on the covers. She had to translate the titles into Yiddish for him to tell that they were Foundation, Mutant Enemy, Now You See It, and Against the Galaxy. He offered to autograph them, then did so in Yiddish and English: To my cousin Serafina, whose beauty is exceeded only by her taste in literature.

Samuel insisted that they stay for dinner, though Isaac suspected that his wife would not be pleased at the appearance of three unexpected guests. Isaac told him of the family's doings in America, and when he mentioned the candy store Samuel nodded and said, "Anna always did have a head for business."

Samuel's wife Olga came home an hour later, and it turned out that she was also a relative -- a younger half-sister of Isaac's mother. She also insisted that her nephew and his two friends stay over for dinner, and Isaac knew that he could not refuse.

Dinner with the Samuel Asimov household was much the same as dinner at the Judah Asimov household had been, and Isaac found that he enjoyed it enormously. The conversation covered his life growing up in Brooklyn, and Serafina's life growing up in Petrovichi. During the war, the Polish Army had bypassed the village, so there were no tales of rampaging Polish soldiers to tell of. There were rumors, though, Serafina reported, of Polish troops setting fire to synagogues in other villages.

"Nonsense," insisted Simchovitch. "I was in the army -- plenty of Polish Jews were -- and we would never have let anything like that happen. The way I heard it, though, was that Russian troops would set the synagogues on fire -- and loot the shops -- before pulling out of a town."

"Nonsense," Samuel Asimov responded in his turn.

The Asimov family offered to put them up for the night, but this time Isaac had to say no. "We have to be back in Smolensk by tonight," he told them. He got kisses from Olga and Serafina, and another handshake from Samuel, as he left -- as did Rosenfarb and Simchovitch.

"We don't have to be back in Smolensk," Rosenfarb scolded him as they made their way back to the car in the growing dusk.

"Chava, I like them, and we share some genes, but they're still strangers. I couldn't impose on them, and I really don't want to stay the night here. It looks like snow, and if we're going to be caught in a storm, I'd rather it be in Smolensk."

Rosenfarb was shaking her head as they piled into the Porschewagen."But they're your family!"

"My family is back in Aberystwyth," Asimov insisted. "And it's time I was getting back to them."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

DBTL 62: Road Trip

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe.

In Europe, scientific research and industrial expansion surge ahead, while the United States lags behind. As a result, there is a steady flow of American talent to Europe, including a certain science fiction writer . . .

Warsaw, Polish Devo, Polish Commonwealth
3 March 1953

Back in the summer of 1942, Isaac Asimov had taken time off from the rigors of his doctoral research to travel to Cincinnati to attend Cinvention, the 4th World Science Fiction Convention. He had found himself riding in a beat-up junker of a car with his fellow Futurians Fred Pohl, Doc Lowndes, Don Wollheim, and Jim Blish. The eight-hour trip had been like a tiny science fiction convention in itself, with the five young men (consisting of two published writers and three current or former magazine editors) talking, joking, singing, and frequently arguing among themselves. Eleven years later, when he found himself on the road to his birthplace of Petrovichi, he kept being reminded of that earlier journey.

A life spent working in his parents' candy store in Brooklyn had made an early riser of Asimov, and seven o'clock found him standing outside the lobby of the Bristol Hotel when a dark blue Porschewagen pulled up with a man and woman in the front seats. They were Simcha Simchovitch and Chava Rosenfarb, two Polish writers whom he had met the day before at a book-publication party in Warsaw. Rosenfarb immediately leaped out of the passenger seat, greeting Asimov in her voluble, Łódź-accented Yiddish while Simchovitch gave a helpless shrug from behind the steering wheel.

"Isaac! Ready to go, I see. Good, good. This will be a terrific experience for you. You'll love it, I promise! I'm afraid the trunk is already full of our bags, so you'll have to put yours in the back seat. Here, you put the seat down like this, that's it. No, no, no, you don't go in the back, you're here to see your ancestral homeland, you get in the front, riding rifle, or whatever it is you Americans say."

"Shotgun," Asimov managed to interject as he helped Rosenfarb into the back seat.

"That's it. English is such a violent language! I blame the Normans. You'd all be much better off speaking Yiddish, a nice peaceful language. You never heard of the Jews invading other countries."

"Sure we did," Asimov countered, "back when we had a country of our own. Look at how the Maccabees behaved."

"That was the only time," Rosenfarb insisted.

"It was our only chance," Asimov returned. "If those crazy Zionists had started up their own country in Palestine, you'd see just how aggressive Jews can be. Face it, Chava, the Jews are just like everybody else, no better and no worse. People are people."

"Is that why you like to write about robots, Isaac, because you find people such a disappointment? 'A cleaner, better breed' I believe is how you put it in that book."

"I disclaim responsibility for Susan Calvin's views on the relative merits of men and robots. A writer like you ought to know better than to assume that any character speaks for the author. I do know plenty of people who would agree with her, though. Be glad it's me you're dragging across Poland and not Cyril Kornbluth. Then you'd get some misanthropy."

"Kornbluth? What, are all Jews in America science fiction writers? Are all science fiction writers Jews?"

"Not all, but some, same as with everything else. I'm pretty sure Edmond Hamilton and Edward Elmer Smith aren't Jews, for instance. But there's me, and Cyril, and Horace Gold, and Nat Schachner, and Stanley G. Weinbaum, and others I'm sure. I don't know how it is here in Poland, but back in America being a Jew just isn't that big a deal. It didn't keep me from becoming a chemist, or a writer either. It's never kept me from doing anything I wanted to do."

"It's the same here, pretty much," Simchovitch interjected. "At least since the German War. I'll say this for Ernst Röhm, he certainly made it unfashionable to hate Jews."

As they made their way across the Vistula and through Warsaw's eastern suburbs, Simchovitch and Rosenfarb had a long disagreement about which way to go. Rosenfarb kept saying that they ought to take the back roads and "see the country" as she put it, but Simchovitch insisted that that would take them days, and that they ought to take the autostrada instead.

"Huh! The autostrada!" Rosenfarb grumbled. "Monotony made concrete. Made of concrete, too." Simchovitch was the driver, though, so the autostrada it was.

Like the rest of the Polish Commonwealth's autostrada network, the A5 had been built since the Second Soviet War, part of the government's ambitious plan to tie the newly-acquired ex-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus to the rest of the country. It reminded Asimov of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, only without the Allegheny Mountains to zigzag up, down and around. As far as he was concerned, taking the A5 was a lot better than the back roads Rosenfarb favored. Landscapes tended to leave him unmoved; besides, to someone who had, in his imagination, floated in space within Saturn's rings, the sight of winter-brown fields and forests dotted with the melting remains of a week-old snowstorm was nothing to write home about.

The A5 went more or less east for 200 kilometers from Warsaw to Brest-Litovsk, the former capital of the Belarus devo. From there it split into two, with one branch, still called the A5, going northeast to Minsk, the new capital, while the other, called the A15, went southeast to Kiev, the capital of the Ukrainian devo. It turned out that Rosenfarb needn't have worried about missing the back roads of the Polish Commonwealth; several sections of the A5 were still under construction, so they had to take occasional detours along rutted, narrow roads that barely deserved the name. Simchovitch remarked that the tsars hadn't been very interested in building roads, so the Poles had had to build theirs pretty much from scratch after 1918 -- and the Polish government had been terribly short of money before the German War.

What with the delays occasioned by the detours, it was nearly eleven o'clock by the time they got to Brest-Litovsk. The A5 traveled along the right bank of the Bug as it approached the city before becoming part of the city's grid of streets. Asimov noticed a set of red brick fortifications on their right as they entered the city, and he asked about it.

"Brest-Litovsk Fortress," said Simchovitch. "The Russians built it over a hundred years ago. These days the Federalists find it a little embarrassing, because their beloved Marshal Piłsudski had a bunch of his political opponents rounded up and shipped here for show trials twenty years back -- opponents who eventually became founding members of the Federalist Party."

They were all getting hungry, so the others agreed when Asimov suggested they stop for lunch. Rosenfarb grew agitated, though, when Simchovitch pulled into the parking lot of a new-looking white building flanked with large yellow triangles that Asimov recognized as the Cyrillic letter D.

"Oh, Simcha," she moaned, "not Donov's. What, you want to give Isaac food poisoning? And we're supposed to be showing him the real Commonwealth, not some plastic artifact."

Asimov was familiar with the Donov's restaurant chain, which had appeared in Odessa after the Second Soviet War and had spread across the Commonwealth, the rest of Europe, and lately, America as well. The chain was infamous for its assembly-line attitude to food preparation and microscopically small menu selection.

"We'll let Isaac decide," declared Simchovitch. "What do you say, Isaac? Eat here, or find someplace Chava likes better?"

"Chava has a point," said Asimov. "Eating at Donov's, I might as well be back home in Wales. I'd like to try something more Belarussian, or even something more Jewish."

"Fine with me," said Simchovitch. "And finding somewhere Jewish in Brisk," giving the city its Yiddish name, "is not going to be a problem."

And it wasn't. Within minutes of leaving the Donov's parking lot, Simchovitch had stopped in front of a two-story brick building with a square wooden sign that read Black Kettle in Yiddish.

"So who does the kettle call black?" Asimov joked, then found himself having to explain to his puzzled companions. "And don't bother pointing out that pots and kettles can't talk," he added. "I know they can't talk."

"I think the expression is quite charming," said Rosenfarb. "I may have to change my mind about English."

When he entered the Black Kettle, Asimov found it was like stepping back in time to his family's apartment back in Brooklyn. It smelled just the way the kitchen had smelled when his mother was making boiled chicken and smoked salmon and stuffed derma and . . .

"Ptchah!" Asimov exclaimed.

"Now I know you're a Jew," Rosenfarb grinned. "No gentile could ever get so excited at the thought of ptchah."

The toughest part about lunch was deciding what to have. Asimov wanted to sample everything on the menu, but in the end he ordered chopped liver with hard-boiled eggs and onions, with some challa bread on the side, and a cup of coffee. He devoured it with a steady determination that had the others grinning.

"You keep packing it away like that, Isaac," said Simchovitch, "and you're going to become a fat old man."

"And why shouldn't he be a fat old man?" Rosenfarb demanded. "Being fat is one of the prerogatives of old men. It's the sign of a life well lived."

After an amiable argument over which of them would pick up the check ("You're the guest, Isaac, you don't pay, and that's final!"), Asimov volunteered to spell Simchovitch behind the wheel.

"But you don't know the way," said Simchovitch.

"So tell me the way," said Isaac. "I insist. I like to drive. I love to drive."

"Just like an American," Rosenfarb sniffed. "You and your cars."

"Don't lump all Americans together, Chava," said Asimov. "I never drove when I lived in New York. New Yorkers always take the subway. It wasn't until I got a job teaching chemistry at the University of Delaware that I learned to drive. Hard as it may be to believe, they don't have subways in Delaware. It's either take the bus, or drive. So I drove."

"How were you able to afford a car on a college professor's salary?" Simchovitch wondered. "Or do they pay college professors better in America than they do in Europe?"

Mindful of his wife's position on the faculty of the University of Aberystwyth, Asimov said, "No, pretty much the same. But don't forget, I also had my writing income."

"Can you really make a living writing science fiction?" Rosenfarb wondered.

"Not in the old days, no," Asimov explained. "But after Hemingway's novel came out, all the big name publishers became interested. I had a fifty-thousand-word novel called "The Mule" serialized in Astounding Science Fiction around then, and someone from Scribners saw it and offered to publish it as a book if I'd expand it to seventy thousand, and from there things just took off."

"I don't remember hearing about any novel of yours called The Mule," said Rosenfarb.

"Oh, they made me change the title. Not science-fictiony enough. It came out as Mutant Enemy."

"Oh, one of those Foundation books," she said, nodding. Asimov had been told that if Mind and Iron did well, Wydawnictwo Rój would be publishing Polish translations of the Foundation series.

In the end, Asimov's insistence won out, and he took the wheel of Simchovitch's Porschewagen, resuming their journey on the A5. The afternoon passed much as the morning had, though there were longer sections of the autostrada that hadn't been completed. Then about 250 kilometers out of Brest-Litovsk, Asimov noticed an odd change in the landscape. The buildings they passed became shabbier, the countryside was unkempt, and the back roads they traveled between completed sections of the autostrada became, if possible, even worse. After one particularly bad stretch left them and the car in a state of disarray, Asimov said, "What happened? All of a sudden, it's like we're in the low-rent district."

He saw his two companions give each other significant looks. "You noticed, huh?" said Simchovitch. "What happened was, about twenty kilometers back, we crossed into the eastern lands." That, Asimov knew, was the common expression for the areas the Commonwealth had annexed from the USSR after the war: the former Byelorussian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. "The country we just left has been part of Poland since the First War, thirty years ago. This country here has only been part since the Second, and the commissars weren't any better at building roads than the tsars were. The government has been busy de-collectivizing the collective farms, and it hasn't been easy work."

The going was slower in the former Byelorussian SSR, and the sun was setting behind them by the time they entered Minsk. They booked a pair of rooms at a modest hotel near the autostrada, then went out to find something to eat. The day's travels had left them all exhausted, and even Rosenfarb didn't object when they stopped in at a Donov's for dinner.

Asimov's mind drifted as he lay in the hotel bed, listening to Simchovitch snoring. Tomorrow, he knew, they would reach Petrovichi. He still had no idea what they would do there.

At last, Isaac Asimov fell asleep.

Friday, February 19, 2010

DBTL 61: Homeward Bound

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe.

In Europe, scientific research and industrial expansion proceeds apace, while the United States lags behind. As a result, there is a steady flow of American talent to Europe, including a certain science fiction writer . . .

Warsaw, Polish Devo, Polish Commonwealth
2 March 1953

Despite his years as a published author, Isaac Asimov could count on the fingers of one hand the number of publication-day parties he had attended, so he could still enjoy the novelty of the experience. Wydawnictwo Rój (which apparently meant something like Swarm Publishing) had spared no expense to celebrate the Polish-language publication of Mind and Iron. There were only two things keeping him from thoroughly enjoying himself. First, Irene was busy with a presentation back in Aberystwyth and couldn’t travel to Warsaw with him; and second, since he didn’t speak Polish he could only understand about a third of the people in the room.

Still, he found he enjoyed the company of Juliusz Żuławski, who had done the Polish translation of Mind and Iron. It turned out that his father had written a trio of science fiction novels before the World War that Asimov had never heard of.

“And here I thought I knew about every science fiction novel ever written,” he said to Żuławski.

“I don’t think they have ever been translated into English,” Żuławski explained.

“So why don’t you do it? It seems like a natural idea to me.”

Żuławski shook his head. “They are too old-fashioned. The science is out of date.”

“So what?” countered Asimov. “The science is out of date in Wells’ War of the Worlds, but people still read it. In fact, didn’t that Hungarian director, what’s-his-name, just make a movie of it in Berlin?”

“György Pál,” Żuławski supplied.

“That’s him. So there you go. A good story is a good story, and never mind the science. In fact, I’ll let you in on a secret. I like old-fashioned science fiction. And when I tell Stanley Unwin that I’ve found a classic Polish science fiction trilogy just waiting to be translated into English, he’ll jump at the chance. What are they like, by the way? Verne? Wells?”

After a pause, Żuławski said, “I would say more like Ray Bradbury.”

“Even better. As soon as I get back to Britain I’ll give Stanley a call.”

Their conversation was interrupted then when one of the publishing people came up and claimed Żuławski for some emergency, and Asimov was left to his own devices.

He was moving towards the buffet table and letting the unintelligible sounds of Polish wash over him when he was startled to find that he could understand a woman saying “ . . . grammatical errors like you wouldn’t believe.” It dawned on Asimov that he could understand her because the woman was speaking Yiddish.

“I hope it’s not my grammatical errors you’re talking about,” Asimov replied in the same language.

The irritated look on the woman’s face vanished when she saw who had interrupted her. “Dr. Asimov, a pleasure to meet you. The name’s Rosenfarb, Chava Rosenfarb. My friend here,” she gestured towards her companion, “is Simcha Simchovitch.” Both of them were around his own age, in their early thirties.

Rosenfarb continued, “I had no idea you could speak Yiddish.”

“Oh, sure,” said Asimov. “After all, I was born . . . “ He trailed off as the thought was suddenly brought home to him. “About eight hundred kilometers east of here. A village called Petrovichi.”

“In the Belarus Devo?” asked Simchovitch.

“Past it, about fifteen or twenty kilometers over the Russian border.”

“Ever been back there?” said Rosenfarb.

Asimov shook his head. “This is the first time I’ve ever been this close since my family moved to America.”

“Then it’s about time you did,” Rosenfarb said firmly. “Where are you staying?”

“At the Bristol. What? Why?”

“Good. We’ll pick you up at seven tomorrow.”

“Wait a minute,” Asimov objected. “I’m not going back to Petrovichi. Why should I? I don’t remember anything about it, I was three when I left. What would I do, buttonhole strangers on the street and tell them I’m an American writer they never heard of?”

“Every man should know his roots,” Rosenfarb insisted.

“I do know my roots. I’m from Brooklyn. My parents own a candy store there.” Turning to Simchovitch, he said, “This is crazy. Isn’t it?”

Simchovitch shrugged. “When Chava gets one of these ideas in her head, it’s best to just do what she says.”

“Simcha has a car,” Rosenfarb stated. “We can drive there.”

“Eight hundred kilometers? It’ll take all day. Chava, you are quite definitely crazy.”

“So, we’ll make an outing of it,” Rosenfarb said with blithe unconcern. “Tour the countryside. Show you your ancestral homeland.”

“Poland is not my ancestral homeland,” Asimov pointed out. “I was born in Russia. For that matter, Petrovichi is still in Russia. Do you think they’re going to just let us waltz across the border?”

“Sure they will,” said Rosenfarb. “Things have loosened up there a lot since the Boss had his tuchus mishap. Trust me, you’ll have the time of your life.”

Asimov knew he should just turn around and walk away, but somehow he couldn’t disengage from Rosenfarb. There were some people, he knew, who just could not be argued with; John Campbell, for one. With mounting horror, he realized that he would not be able to say no to Chava Rosenfarb and make it stick.

Like it or not, Isaac Asimov was going back to Petrovichi.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Amping Up "Power"

Reading science fiction stories written during the Great Depression in the midst of the Great Recession is an exercise in retroactive deja vu. It's particularly startling to read a middle-of-the-road mechanical engineer like Harl Vincent declaim about the oppression of the capitalist system and become dreamy at the thought of a dictator seizing power in the United States and instituting radical reforms, as he does in "Power", a story from the January 1932 issue of Amazing Stories magazine. So it's important to place the story within its proper social context.

"Power" was probably written in the middle of the year 1931. The stock market crash of October 1929 and the start of the Great Depression were a year and a half in the past, and the economic crisis had been growing steadily worse ever since. Bank panics had grown increasingly common, unemployment had risen to 15.9 percent, and shantytowns called Hoovervilles had appeared in every city, populated by people who had lost their homes and had nowhere else to go. A government dominated by pro-business Republicans was helpless to address the situation, cutting spending in a counterproductive effort to balance the federal budget, and clinging to the gold standard.

A year earlier, Vincent had written "Gray Denim", a story in which he introduced his stratified world of a purple-clad elite ruling over gray-clad masses. In that simple and rather improbable adventure story, Karl Krassin, who has been raised to believe himself a member of the gray masses, discovers that he is the heir to the throne of the Continental Empire, a state that rules all of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In the end, he turns his back on the Empire, and returns to New York to rejoin the gray-clad workers. In stark contrast, when Scott Terris, the protagonist of "Power", has a chance to gain political power, he grabs at it with both hands and refuses to let go.

Much fiction includes an element of wish-fulfillment fantasy, and this is certainly true of science fiction. "Power", though, is an example of political wish-fulfillment. Unlike the politicians of 1931 who seemed stunned in the face of catastrophe, Scott Terris acts boldly and decisively, and completely transforms his society is less than three months. Terris' dictatorship proves immensely popular, to the point where Gail Destinn, the proponent of democracy, admits in the end that Terris' actions were necessary.

The Bastard of Yonkers has commented on the similarity between Vincent's dystopian future and the one seen in Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis. Although it is unlikely after this much time has passed that we will ever know whether, and how much, Vincent was influenced by the film, it should be noted that Mussolini's rise to power in Italy had made dictatorship a hot topic of the day. For that matter, Matt Crawford of the Power Syndicate was probably inspired as much by Samuel Insull as by any European dictator.

As it turned out, a dictatorship wasn't necessary to deal with the Great Depression after all. The whirlwind of legislation that marked the beginning of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency in 1933 proved that representative democracy was equal to the task of facing the crisis. By the time Vincent wrote his sequel to "Power" in 1939, events had soured him on dictatorship. Set two centuries after "Power", "Master Control" told of the fall of Scott Terris' new order: wars sparked by power-hungry dictators left the world devastated, allowing the telepathic tyranny of the Central Control to take over humanity.