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.

No comments: