A Whiff Of What-If

Writers of science fiction – just for today, let’s use the field’s highbrow sobriquet: “speculative fiction” – basically turn to you and ask, “What if?” You let them tell you one Big Lie, then the rest of the story has to proceed as plausibly as possible from there. A venerable subset of the field is “alternate history”: for example, what if the South had won the Civil War, or Hitler World War II? As Jeff Greenfield writes in the introduction to his compelling book THEN EVERYTHING CHANGED, “History doesn’t turn on a dime; it turns on a plugged nickel.” A veteran reporter and political operative, Mr. Greenfield offers what in essence are three novellas, each describing a parallel reality based on a “What if?” inflection point:

Story One: in December 1960, a suicide bomber waited in a car outside President-elect John F. Kennedy’s Palm Beach, Florida home, intent on assassination. He got cold feet only when Jackie and the kids came to the door to see JFK off. This fact is not well known, but it’s true. Now: what if the family hadn’t been at the door, and the bomber hadn’t lost his nerve? What if JFK was assassinated before he ever took office?

Story Two: in June 1968, the night of the California primary, Robert F. Kennedy walked through the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen with no bodyguards. What if he’d been protected, and Sirhan Sirhan’s murder attempt was foiled?

Story Three: in 1976, in the second debate between President Gerald Ford and his challenger, Jimmy Carter, Ford committed a gaffe by saying, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” He was probably intending to credit brave freedom fighters, but this statement made him seem ignorant of world affairs. It destroyed the momentum that he had been building, and was the beginning of the end of his defense of the Presidency. What if he’d been able to make himself clear, and talk his way out of it?

I’m not going to go into “what happens,” because that’s the point, the major part of the fun. I will say that the best thing about Mr. Greenfield’s “speculation” is that he doesn’t make up very much of it out of whole cloth. The motives and reactions of key players are as close as he can possibly come to measured reality, many of them based on actual deeds and statements – made, of course, in other contexts. In a 35-page afterword, he elaborates on the real-life factors that permit him to assert, it could have happened just this way. Some of it comes from research, some from his personal experience and interviews. A side benefit is that we get a terrific crash course on the last fifty years of U.S. politics, served up like a page-turner. I learned lots of real history in this book of speculation.

Mr. Greenfield also has frequent fun with our knowledge of the future that his characters obviously can’t share. There are sly allusions to Bush v. Gore, “bottom-up news” as served on the Internet, 60 MINUTES, George W. Bush’s ignorance of foreign affairs, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, FAIL-SAFE, Bush’s statement “freedom is God’s gift to humanity,” President Obama’s election, George McGovern’s Eagleton pick for vice president, Fox News, Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns,” the Kent State massacre (spoiler alert: it never happened), Dick Cheney’s face-shooting incident, Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, and much more. Important true-life historical characters pop in and out for ironically insignificant cameos, from Barack Obama to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Mr. Greenfield has the greatest “button” for an ending (don’t turn straight to it, let the story unfold, but you know he was giggling when he wrote it).

My only beef is that Mr. Greenfield applies “Reality Resets” after the first two stories. In other words, JFK was killed before he assumed the presidency in the first story, but in the second one, reality has been set right and he died in Dallas in 1963. Likewise, in the third story, Bobby Kennedy did not survive the attempt on his life in Los Angeles. It would have been much more impressive – albeit much more difficult – to continue with the same alternate reality. As it is, the reader is twice disagreeably jolted out of the book’s spell, and it takes some time for the following piece to regain its fictional traction.

That said, it’s a tremendous read and a prodigious job of extrapolation – if that happens, that means this happens – which is normally reserved for authors of imaginative fiction or computer code. I think it should be considered for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award next year. That notion might amuse Mr. Greenfield, but if it does, I’m only repaying the favor.


2 Responses to A Whiff Of What-If

  1. bruce says:

    Labels, schmabels. Give me a good “genre blender” in art any day!
    And thanks for the great writing, Tom. You are always insightful, always enjoyable. I’ll look for this one at Lemuria and tell them you sent me.
    BTW: I find the term “speculative fiction” a curious one. It seems redundant, does it not?

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Yeah, it’s just a fancier way to say, “this is a ‘what-if’ story.” By all means, give my best to John Evans — and thanks for supporting your local independent bookseller. You have a great one in Jackson.

      Thanks for the kind words. I’ll try my best to earn them.

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