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 The science is out of date.”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 “The science is out of date in Wells’ War of the Worlds, but people still read it.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.


Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I am picturing Polish Devo in red ziggurat hats.

Dig the shout-out to George Pal.

Anonymous said...

If I hang out here for much longer I'm going to have to start reading more classic sci fi.

And stop reading this. You are screwing with my 20th century history, which is frequently shaky to start with.

Ooo! Oooo! But do Heinlein first! Go on go on goongoongoongoongoon.

Johnny Pez said...

Robert A. Heinlein was hired as a screenwriter by MGM in 1944, in response to the news that Warner Brothers had acquired the film rights to Ernest Hemingway's newly-published spaceflight novel To Sail Beyond the Sunset (see DBTL 11 "Love and Rockets" for the genesis of this novel).

In 1947 Heinlein's marriage to his wife Leslyn broke up, and within a year he married an opinionated, bisexual redhead . . .

. . . named Ethel Merman.

Neo Tuxedo said...

Curiosity got to me, and I looked up Juliusz' father, whose work sounds like it deserves translation in OTL. (The Moon Trilogy doesn't have its own separate entry, but a film made of the first two volumes does.)