Mona Clee’s 1996 debut novel Branch Point is a product of the mid-nineties, the period after the fall of the Soviet Union and before the endless War on Terror. While it acknowledges the dramatic changes in Russia, its sensibilities remain informed by Cold War anxieties. Given how many nuclear weapons remain (then and now), that’s not an unreasonable stance.
In the novel, the 1962 confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union boils over into open warfare, a conflict that very quickly escalates all the way up to a full-scale nuclear exchange. The US appears to have won the war but as the long term environmental effects of the war become obvious — as almost every living thing on the surface of Earth slowly dies from radiation, UV, or nuclear winter — it becomes clear that the US had lost the peace.
A century later the only human survivors are the descendents of scientists who were lucky enough to have been stashed in a top secret ark known as Salamander. By 1982 it becomes obvious that ecological recovery was going to take longer than Salamander was likely to keep functioning as a redoubt. The inhabitants of Salamander turn their efforts to creating a time machine with which they hope to prevent the war in the first place.
Anna, Daria, and Jeffrey are the lucky trio raised from birth to become time travelers. They must travel back to 1962 to convince John F. Kennedy not to kill everyone on the planet. Happily, the time machine is not the delusion of a handful of doomed survivors; teleporting into the Oval Office is an excellent way to convince a President he should listen to you1. Armed with audiovisual material filmed in the aftermath of the war, the three teens convince JFK to make peace with the Russians.
This is all fine and good, but there are a couple of catches. The first is that the trio becomes convinced that they did not save their world at all but created an alternate world where World War Last never happened. The second is that having saved the world of 1962, they now have to live in it, While it is a far wealthier world than the Salamander of 2062, it is also a very foreign one.
History plays out as we know it until the late 1960s, when a cabal of irate Arabs murder every respectable Presidential candidate. An angry America turns to George Wallace and Curtis LeMay, in retrospect not the best choice they could have made. When it becomes clear that this world is as doomed as the world they came from, the trio uses the second of their time machine’s four charges to head back in time to save the world again.
To quote Mr. Incredible:
No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved! You know?! For a little bit. I feel like the maid: “I just cleaned up this mess! Can we keep it clean for, for 10 minutes?! Please?!”
Each time the world is saved, the Russians and Americans find a new way to doom it. Each time the trio saves the world, they lose more. In the end, Anna, the surviving member of the team, is forced to consider a daring strategy, one that will transform history as we know it.
I often finding myself asking “when did we find out about that?” In the case of Branch Point, I am left wondering when we heard about Stanislav Petrov and his decision that the nuclear early-warning system he was monitoring was issuing a false warning. I wonder when the reaction of the aging paranoids in the Kremlin to Able Archer trickled across to the West. The reason I ask this is because once Clee gets away from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the more nonsensical her nuclear war scenarios become2. It’s unfortunate because history since 1945 is rich with moments where a few people had the power to make the world immeasurably worse. But 1996 is almost 20 years ago and perhaps Clee hadn’t heard of either event.
Another question this book should raise concerns the mechanisms of horizontal proliferation. Some of Clee’s scenarios involve more nations acquiring nuclear weapons, sometimes by simply purchasing them on the open market. In actuality, while the great powers have been willing to park their counter-force targets on foreign land, actually selling nuclear weapons to nations incapable of building nuclear weapons hasn’t happened (yet, anyway). Authors writing post-nuclear-holocaust novels might want to ask themselves why. Why was it that even when post-Soviet Russia was strapped for cash, it didn’t sell off its nuclear weapons?
Speaking of Post-Soviet Russia, it’s interesting to be reminded of a time when Yeltsin was seen as a heroic figure, rather than the sad, corrupt drunk he became. The Russian sections of this novel are remarkable; I’d love to see the reaction of someone familiar with Russian history to time-traveler Anna’s view of Russia. She sees it as a flawed reflection of America: both blessed with vast tracts of resource-rich land populated only by weak and easily-defeated natives. For various historical reasons, the US became – at least for a time – the wealthiest nation on Earth while Russia became a repressive, impoverished autocracy.
Rereading this book, I am again struck by how Anna and her friends are so focused on the specific problem they are trying to solve that they fail to see that there’s a general case their efforts do not address. Anna is convinced that the problem is that nuclear weapons came along at just the wrong time, a period when Russia and America, generally not enemies, were bitterly opposed to each other. What the problem looks to me like isn’t that the US and the SU got the Bomb at the wrong time but rather that adding nuclear weapons to a situation where grand conflicts on the scale of the Seven Years War or the Second Congo War — to name just two Great Wars that didn’t involve US/Soviet rivalries — introduce the possibility that someone somewhere will use nuclear weapons with glorious abandon.
In the Branch Point world, nuclear war breaks out a generation after nuclear weapons are invented. Even with active intervention, the Earth only manages to survive another decade or two before stumbling into another needless nuclear war. This suggests to me that Anna’s efforts will prove ultimately futile. In her worlds, as long as there is a period when rival nations have atomic weapons, someone will use them, sooner rather than later. Either there cannot be nuclear weapons or there cannot be rival great powers. But this is just science fiction and has no applicability to the real world.
- Talking Russian when you first appear, not so much. The Russian is because Salamander took in a group of top Russian scientists who happened to be visiting the US when the missiles began to fly and everyone is mixed American and Russian in ancestry.hey would be mixed race too but all the black staff members were ejected to make room for the Russians. Which Anna totally 100% feels kind of bad about.
Speaking of African Americans, the section where Anna muses whether or not to encourage a Russian to import African slaves to Russia’s territory in America — torn between the fact that slavery is bad and the awareness that by if there are no African slaves in the 1800s, there cannot be descendents of African slaves in America in the 20th century and so millions of potential people would denied the chance to live in America — is quite eye-catching. Anna does come down on the No side, for what it’s worth.
- The 1968 war scenario’s proposal that the US might elect some ignorant Southern bumpkin and his war-mongering VP out of anger and fear is absurd, and the idea that the US might then launch an ill-conceived invasion of the Middle East in the angry aftermath of a terrorist outrage is, I think, too ludicrous to consider.