Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuly (Pyr 2011)
I must admit that I am not a fan of alternative history novels. There is first the problem how alternative history differs from fiction in general. The answer usually turns on a single event turning out differently that is in fact the case. To look a recent and painful incident, authorities might have connected the proverbial dots and foiled the 9/11 plot. Going back further, image that on August 23, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. came down with laryngitis, or more happily that he did not go out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in 1968. One wonders what would things be like today. Unfortunately, such all-to-human counterfactuals, being unmoored from any covering laws, are such that almost any any alternative seems plausible, so that any such story we choose to tell says far more about ourselves now than how we might have been.
One might reply that this is exactly what fiction is suppose to do, that an alternative history is simply a devise that allows us to suspend disbelief that what is placed before is fiction and yet feels real. And if simply providing the illusion rather than reality, one might set aside any misgivings, but there is a more serious indulgence. For while the historian might stray and ask how things might have been different as if we could learn from our mistakes beforehand and so gather up some lesson from history with the hope that things could have been better and will having now been chasten, it is the conceit of alternative history that this is the best of all possible worlds. Fiction by its nature almost demands that this be so since it thrives on tension. A world better than the one we inhabit may be more pleasant to live in, but would make for dull reading. Our attention is lost at “happily ever after.” At best, such fiction is skewed to providing an inflated view of ourselves.
After such a scree, one would be forgiven if I summarily dismissed McAuley’s Cowboy Angels as being no more than historical fiction on stilts. This particular work includes not one but a couple dozen alternative histories readily at hand and a handful that we actually visit. Such pardon is unnecessary. The main alternative history (which following McAuley we will call “the Real”) avoided World War II, and the entire Cold War (this includes not having a Korean or Vietnam War) and in most ways is at least twenty years more advanced than are we and has at least one bit of technological far outside our grasp. People of the Real seem happier, wealthier, healthier, than we do, and it would appear that everyone that lived through the 1960’s remembered them.
For all that, Cowboy Angels is still engaging. What the America of the Real discovered was how to travel to alternative universes. Each of these alternate Americas are is a sheaf that has branched of the Real. What this Real America also discovered was it would seem that it was the best of all possible Americas. The conceit would seem to be vindicated. Faced with this, the America of the Real engages in clandestine operations and regional conflicts to liberate these alter-Americas into the image of the Real. The agency of the Real in charge of trans-universal liberation is—not surprisingly—the CIA. The parallels to this sheaf (which look almost but not quite like the Nixon sheaf of the book) are evident and in time such operations are shutdown following the Church commission (it is remarkable how parallel universes converge when space isn’t flat).
If you are afraid that I’ve just given away the plot, you are dead wrong. I’ve only given up the background. The real action involves the a retired agent, Adam Stone, and his travels across several sheaves to rescue a former colleague, Tom Waverly. Tom, incidentally, was presumed dead for three years before any of this action took place and manages to kill himself off at least once more before it is all over. That McAuley is having fun is evident. Adam Stone is rock-solid, Tom Waverly is, well, not, and the Real—counter to its “Its a Wonderful Life” pretensions—includes a Pottersville, New York. More than fun, McAuley provides a steady stream of action and the sort of spy-craft intrigue one would expect of a novel that involves the CIA in this, or any other possible world. Moreover, each sheaf Adam and Tom find themselves in is a case study in the merits of intervening in the affairs of others we judge less fortunate. To complicate matters, there may also be a plot by a splinter group of the CIA that want to revive the glory days with . . . time travel. You guessed that, didn’t you. Part of the fun, and part of what makes Stone’s job so difficult in accepting this possibility, is that it is hard to tell whether you are meeting a past or future self or simply a self from an alternative universe. Speaking of alternative selves, some are more constant than others. One of the more constant would be Elvis (but alas, not Bob Dylan). Apparently he is a performer in most alternative universes. The Real has imported several for themselves (and you thought ours died in 1974). Time travel and calculated intervention have dangers that go beyond the parallels with alternative universes, but McAuley does not really go beyond the confines he has already appointed and as such really doesn’t pursue any moral implications beyond what Issac Asimov did in the 1950’s with The End of Eternity.
That glitch aside, McAuley pulls off a masterful tale that until the very end takes the reader to the very edge of some sort resolution, sense, or even sanity, only to be pulled deeper into action where neither time nor space should make any sense at all and yet must. Presuming that this is the best of all possible worlds damns all other possibilities.