Sunday, November 6, 2011

After the Fact

© 1988 by Fred Saberhagen

I picked this up a week ago from one of my favorite used book stores for two reasons. First, it has a portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the cover, and I’m currently very heavily immersed in the whole Civil War epic. Second, it’s written by Fred Saberhagen, a minor deity in the pantheon of SF Writers but a god nonetheless, and one I have never read before.

Any historical figure on the cover of an SF book means one of two things. Either it’s an alternate history story or it’s a time travel tale. In the case of After the Fact, it’s the latter. Upon retrospection I realize I am woefully ignorant in both genres, and that’s quite disconcerting for someone who prides himself on being overall well-read in the field of science fiction literature.

So during the Great Power Outage of ’11 I cracked it open and finished it in three hours over the course of four days. Not knowing what to expect, I went into it clean, pure and virginal and wound up liking it. It’s not a classic, but it won’t keep me from exploring more Saberhagen (as a matter of fact, I bought another paperback of his yesterday).

The biggest challenge an author faces when tackling time travel is negotiating paradoxes. A Daedalian labyrinth of immovable and inpenetrable paradoxes. After the Fact, the back-cover blurbage informs us, will be about preventing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Oh, dear; that’s a whole Moebius strip of paradoxes.

The first and most obvious one is, well, if Lincoln is saved, then the past one hundred and forty-six years of history becomes null and void. Plus, history has recorded only one individual assassin in the theater box. So our young protagonist, shanghai’d to the 19th century to foil the murder plot or else, obviously is unsuccessful in diverting Booth’s pistol shot.

I had to read it just to see what happens.

Now, reviewing the novel, I have to see if I can come up with some alternative explanations to the one proffered by Saberhagen. Think of a half-dozen or so separate branches of multiverses that opened up when Fred was at his keyboard fleshing out his outline sometime in 1986 or 87.

1. Maybe Young Protagonist does succeed, and we’re living in a temporal cul-de-sac.

2. Maybe Young Protagonist is tricked into becoming Booth in a terrible twist of fate.

3. Maybe Lincoln has to die because had he lived 2011 would be Hell-on-Earth or some such apocalytpic holocaustic disaster.

4. Maybe Young Protagonist is prevented from succeeding by some Other intelligence from the Distant Future.

5. Maybe Young Protagonist sees or is convinced or has a mental breakthrough (or breakdown) that, however unfortunate and however unjust, the Great Man has to die.

6. Maybe Young Protagonist can’t prevent the assassination because then he will cease to exist (uh-oh, there’s the Grandfather Paradox!)

7. Maybe Lincoln is saved by a temporal bubble being created in Ford’s Theater and ... ow, my head’s starting to ache.

All right, so they’re not really “explanations,” merely thoughts that need to be developed. Or not. Though one comes close to Saberhagen’s resolution which, ultimately, I felt to be satisfactorily revealed in the novel’s final pages. There was life-and-death suspense, a MacGuffin-ish watch that warps time, some psychic stuff, a bit of Deus-ex-Machina that doesn’t draw a penalty flag, and the fabric of time is not destroyed while something truly weird does happen.

That’s the good. The bad is that the novel has a “teevee-movie-of-the-week” feel to it rather than a big-screen element. That’s important to me as I’m such a visual reader. There were also a couple of nagging loose threads that were never really resolved. Life in Washington DC during the final days of the Civil War is realistically portrayed in all its stinky griminess, though I think the female characters are (natch) a little more feministically portrayed and PC-sanitized than a true reading of history would show. But Saberhagen had to do it for the story, and I think it works, so I don’t deduct too many points from the scorecard for it.

Grade: solid B. I’ll be reading at least two more of his novels in the near future.

Best idea: “ ... You see, Jerry, there are usually great, and often prohibitive, paradoxes involved in any attempt to manipulate the past. Sometimes the difficulty can be overcome by making an abstract of the past, and manipulating that ... ” (page 158, Baen paperback edition, emphasis mine).

Is that cool or what?

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