Climb the Wind: a novel of another America by Pamela Sargent
(Harper Prism, $6.99, 497 pages, paperback; first published 1998, this edition October 1999.)
It has sometimes seemed as if alternate history novels set in America must inevitably settle into one of two modes: the hopeless dream or the brutal corrective. As the Great Frontier, the New Jerusalem, the location of countless utopias since Thomas More's of 1516, America invites a reimagining built out of visionary desire: thus Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker fantasies, which, before they began to go rancid with Heartfire (1998), expressed a potent longing for the virtuous commonwealths that could have been; and Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain (1988), in which John Brown sparks a slave rebellion that turns the Civil War into a march to authentic liberation. As if in response, harsh realists assert the equal or greater dreadfulness of alternatives to our history: Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee (1955) adumbrates the terror of Confederate dominion over the North; Howard Waldrop's Them Bones (1984) ramifies colonialism and disease into Americas untouched by white settlers; and Harry Turtledove, in How Few Remain (1997) and its Great War successors, extends the Civil War into ever more savage conflicts in the 1880s and from 1914 on. This polarization between illusion and disillusion is natural given the subject matter, but it distorts historical perspective; fortunately, in Climb the Wind, Pamela Sargent provides a (rare) example of balance.
For some time, Sargent has been preoccupied with the Mongols under Genghiz Khan and his successors. This was centrally expressed in the long historical novel Ruler of the Sky (1993); but however fantastic the conquests of the Khans were in actuality, the SF writer's instinct is to extrapolate them further. After all, it was (allegedly) only news of a royal death back home on the steppes that turned back the hordes that were poised to enter Germany and Italy in the mid-13th Century. In her superb novella "The Sleeping Serpent" (1992), Sargent postulated the scenario of Subadai continuing his advance at that time, and establishing vast European Khanates; when the American Indians are apprised of the example of their long-lost Asian brothers, they emulate their victories, and nomadic hegemony forms a solid chain across the Northern Hemisphere. Drawing on that extraordinary vision, Climb the Wind invests certain Plains Indians of the 1860s and 1870s with the spirit of Genghiz and Timur, and tests their disciplined predatory ruthlessness against a Union victorious in the Civil War and gearing for Westwards expansion.
That Sargent's Sioux and their allies are a match for the might of the industrialized North might seem to mark Climb the Wind as Cardian wishfulness; certainly, the ability of the inspired Lakota chief, Touch-the-Clouds, to unite the warring tribes behind him, adopt entirely new weaponry and tactics, and form an attractively liberal polity in the West, is on the margin of probability. His project of being to the USA as Genghiz Khan was to China is historically risible. But Sargent skillfully angles her narrative towards the realistic. Our history, and others, are constantly present, as the material of shamanistic dreams experienced by various major characters, so that the context of the real and the probable is never forgotten. Much of the plot is seen through the eyes of individuals who are dwellers both in the world of the Plains and in that of the Whites - Lemuel Rowland, a "civilized" Seneca Indian who becomes involved, rather reluctantly, in Touch-the-Cloud's schemes; Katia, a Lakota prophetess who is torn between nomadic and urban identities (and husbands); Grigory Rubalev, an Alaskan adventurer - and so the vast power and acquisitive determination of the United States are not forgotten in an easy rhapsody on Native American strength and goodness.
Most importantly, Climb the Wind presents a detailed thesis as to how that formidable post-1865 USA might have been weakened to the point of true vulnerability. If President Grant had died early, leaving his office to the discredited Schuyler Colfax; if business collapses had followed; if Southern secessionism had renewed itself; if the Union had clashed with Britain; if the Sioux had obtained the help of foreign advisers and engineers: then, Sargent argues, a disintegrating America could have been deterred from its conquest of the Plains. Vividly rendered as it is, this scenario gains some plausibility. And the thrust of Sargent's plot progressively implies that it is through diplomacy and political guile, through the deft exploitation of divisions among the Whites that Touch-the-Clouds can become an "American khan"; the daft vision of a few thousand braves with tomahawks descending victoriously on Washington is ironically probable in this light...
Climb the Wind is, then, a deeply considered compromise between the dreaming and thinking poles of American alternate history, and this was surely Sargent's first creative priority. As an argument, the book persuades; as a novel, it is only partly successful. Life on the Plains is accurately conveyed; the rush of historical events, cathartically different or eerily similar to those in our past, is very dramatically rendered; but Sargent's characterization is flatly affectless, and so, however extreme the personal situations she describes, their urgency is not strongly felt. Climb the Wind can be summed up as a fine historical novel of ideas too mundanely told; what makes it a worthwhile alternate history is its earnest revisionist seriousness of theme, and the startling ironies of its close.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 30 October 1999