The Taser's Edge

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines a tweaked history of the United States.  In the other 1940, American aviator, celebrity, anti-Semite, and isolationist Charles Lindbergh wins the Republican nomination.  Campaigning on the argument that a vote for FDR is a vote for war, he wins the election handily.  After Lindbergh becomes president, the US signs a non-agression pact with Nazi Germany.  This book follows what this all means through the eyes of a Jewish family in Newark, and particularly through the eyes of a small boy in that family named Philip Roth.

I call it ‘tweaked history’ rather than ‘alternate history’ because the book, or at least the first 3/4 of it, is eerily plausible.  So plausible that it was actually difficult for me to  read at long stretches.  One of the most difficult sections is when the Roths take a family trip to see the sites of Washington, DC.

There they visit the Lincoln Memorial and hear anti-Semitic comments directed at them at its base, return to their hotel to learn that they are being asked to leave with the excuse that their reservation booked months before is no good, then they stand in the street as President Lindbergh flies over the city piloting an Air Force jet and the crowds around them erupt in cheers.  I can believe that scenes similar to this have actually been experienced by minority families in the US capital.

The plausibility continues as the American Jewish community divides over how to approach Lindbergh’s administration, whether or not to believe growing rumors that there are programs underway in collusion with Nazi Germany to answer the Jewish Question in North America.  Some prominent Jewish leaders cozy up to the administration and are rewarded with jobs and celebrity, while those who fight new moves to politely yet coercively relocate Jews are labeled as fear-mongers not to be listened to.

Not to ruin the book, I will only say that I don’t think that Roth pulled off the ending, although I don’t think it would have been at all pleasant if he had written an ending in continuity with the rest of the book.

My basic take: if you’re interested in history, race in America, World War II, or trying out Philip Roth as an author, this is definitely worth your time, despite some disappointment near the end.

Odd John by Olaf Stapledon
To start this review, you should see the artwork for various editions of the book, much of it wonderful:
No, it has nothing to do with aliens. Whatever would give you that misleading impression?

This is what a young English boy (the title character) looks like if he stays naked in the sun in the Pacific long enough.

This cover's caption and artwork have nothing to do with the book's plot.

And here we have artwork featuring a green-skinned alien for a book featuring no aliens, green-skinned or otherwise.

Finally, a rendition of John that matches Stapledon's descriptions. Although it obscures the fact that none of the book is set in space.

My older brother likes to mix up his classics with his not-so-classics.  For instance, this summer he followed up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with Odd John by Olaf Stapledon.  Z described it to me as “if the X-Men comics were conceived in the 1930s.”  The following is the inscription from the inside cover of the crumbling paperback he loaned me, in cramped cursive handwriting from a previous owner (or so Z claims):

I have purchased this book because it seems about a theme which is the story of my own life: how can a superman live in a world of ordinary men?  Obviously, the penalty is death, to be right about anything; as demonstrated repeatedly by historical occurrences.  And yet, I think we superior men should not give up w/ out a struggle; & I may be able to get some pointers or suggestions as to how to prolong the agony long enough, perhaps, to accomplish some of my ideas.

John R. Martin

The strange thing is, this book really could be read as a manifesto for what a person beyond Homo sapiens should do in relation to the rest of us non-superhumans.  To me that speaks to its strength as speculative fiction.  The author really thought through all kinds of biology, history, politics, physics, engineering, and philosophy.  Actually, it could come across as preachy were it not so fantastical.

The other work with which I think Odd John could be fruitfully compared is Herman Wouk’s epic novel The Winds of War about the build-up to World War II.  Really.  Both Stapledon and Wouk are struggling with the complex modern world and where it is headed.

Stapledon’s Odd John argues that humans have created a world too big for their evolutionary breeches.  Their industrialization and economics have become too big to be tamed or really understood (not a bad insight today either).  At one point, John compares the future advancement of Homo sapiens as a species to a spider trying to escape from a deep porcelain sink.  It can crawl partway up the side, perhaps even most of the way, but its progress is inevitably blocked, and it will eventually slide back down, eventually to its death.  Politically, this would mean a world ever more at war with itself, ever more confused, a confusion perhaps caused by this progress beyond human limits.  Perhaps it could mean worldwide war.  Did I mention it was initially published in 1936?

Meanwhile Wouk’s various characters in Winds of War, published in 1971, are living from the late 1930s up to 1941.  Like the characters of Odd John, they too are arguing about the cause of what’s happening to continental Europe and the larger world.  They throw out theories about the inevitability of the rise of Hitler or a force like him.  Like Stapledon’s characters, Wouk’s characters talk about politics, history, philosophy, physics, and more.  All their conversations and even their existence seem to be about figuring out why the war happened and why the Holocaust happened, and whether either or both were inevitable.  It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to think this is the author’s own inner dialogue.  But his conclusions are ultimately unconvincing, and perhaps that’s because even a 1,000-page paperback can’t ‘figure out’ something like the 20th century failing to digest the 19th.

Somehow, Odd John, at a brief 191 pages in my (Z’s) copy, manages to think through all these things much more deeply.  And more authentically, written, as it was, during Hitler’s rise, but before it was clear what his rise would mean for the world.  Most interestingly, Odd John works through, just as Nazism did, how superhumanity (self-perceived in both cases and real in only the fictional) might relate to normal humanity.

Check it out.  If it’s not in your local library or bookstore (and odds are, it isn’t), it is available in full on Project Gutenberg Australia.