Into the time machine plunges Jomo, the black militant leader of BURN. “Revolution then” is his motto; he’s going to rearrange history so the blacks get a fair shake—or, preferably, world dominance.
But in another area of time, rabble-rousing white supremacist Billy Roy Whisk is also at work—fixing history so the slaves are never freed.
Worlds spin in and out of existence. And through the paradoxes of time, one black man is pursuing Jomo and Whisk, trying to stop them before their experiments wipe out the world—forever.
I’m probably going to pick up a lot of flak for this, but let me just start off by saying it: This book was fantastic.
It’s yet another recommendation from Joachim Boaz, who has a real knack for finding me pulp books with what will likely have incredible racist or sexist themes. And that’s awesome. I always look forward to seeing what he’s dug up for me.
When this one was pointed at me, I immediately seized on the author’s name. John Jakes was somewhere in the back of my mind and I just couldn’t figure it out. Wikipedia leapt to the rescue, and it turned out that he’s the one and the same John Jakes who wrote the best-selling North and South saga, which itself was turned into a miniseries back in the eighties and nineties. I’m pretty sure that’s what I remembered his name from. It turns out that in addition to sprawling historical epics, Jakes wrote quite a bit of science fiction. This book seems to be a hybrid of those two interests since it’s a time travel book. About racists. Let’s get started?
Harold Quigley is a young black man from the then-future year of 1977. We meet him, however, at a point in the far past, specifically in ancient Rome. Harold is a scholar of theatre, and he has gone back in time to see a rehearsal of a play by the Roman playwright Publius Terentius Afer, better known as Terence. As Terence was a freed slave who made good in old Rome, he is of particular note to Harold.
Harold gets some notes written down and then heads back to the present, where we learn a bit about what’s going on with this time machine dealy. It was invented by a dude named Dr. Freylinghausen, who started a foundation (called The Foundation) to encourage time travel for scholarly purposes. The time machine itself is immensely complicated in theory, but its interface is at least really simple. Time travelers carry around a device that they can talk into and tell the computer where they want to go, whereupon they are sent there. Quick and simple.
This is one of the things I liked most about this book. A lot of time travel books seem to hinge their plots on the complications set up by the time machine itself. Maybe they can only spend so much time in the past or future before they start to disintegrate, or maybe the clock is always running in San Dimas, or any number of things that can almost go wrong and set up some narrative tension. This book isn’t about that kind of thing.
Upon arriving back in 1977, Harold sets out to visit his sister, Sally, who is throwing a party. Harold doesn’t especially want to go, because he’s actually spent a great deal of his life trying to escape his own roots. Sally lives in what is essentially the ghetto, and she associates with a group of militant blacks called BURN (the name is a backronym for something I don’t remember. A blackronym? I’m sorry). Their leader, Jomo (he renounced his slave name) is a close associate of her husband, and he’s at the party with a couple of his cronies.
On the way to the party, we’re also introduced to the plot element of white supremacy. Some guy named Billy Roy Whisk is stirring up trouble, preaching a combination of fundamentalist Christianity and black extermination. He’s apparently got more than a few followers. He’s arranging a march not far from Harold’s sister’s house.
At the party, Harold gets bullied and insulted by people, particularly Jomo. They all accuse him of being a race traitor, of giving up on the cause, and of kowtowing to whitey. This situation dissolves, however, when it turns out that Harold’s brother-in-law, Gator, has just shown up with a gunshot wound. He was at the white supremacist rally and shot a cop. Things are looking bad.
Jomo says that if Harold isn’t really a race traitor then he’ll use this time machine thingy to hide Gator somewhere in the past. Despite all his reservations, Harold agrees and takes Gator to New Orleans in 1815, just after the battle so memorialized in that song I now have stuck in my head.
Everybody thinks Harold’s an idiot for this, of course. The deep south in the 1800s? Gator will be killed for sure! But here is were Harold (and John Jakes’s) knowledge of history comes forth. There were free blacks fighting in that battle and Gator will be counted as one of their number. After all, he’s got a wound already, so everybody will think he earned that wound fighting for American freedom. He’ll be lauded. Pretty clever.
As soon as they show up Gator gets roaring drunk and thrown in jail. Harold, figuring Gator will probably be safe from his own stupidity there, heads back to the present.
In the meantime, Jomo is thinking about ways to use this time machine to further his own cause. He forces Harold to show him how to use the machine and then the time travel adventure begins.
What I liked most about this book is how it didn’t rely on a lot of the really obvious time travel destinations. Yeah, Jomo figures he needs to kill somebody, because really that’s all he knows to do, but instead of something really obvious like Robert E. Lee or something, Jomo heads straight for 1591 near the fall of the Songhay Empire. See, the Songhay were an empire stretching over a great deal of Northern Africa for some hundreds of years. Jomo blames their fall on the Muslim invaders that were evicted from Spain some time earlier. The entire purpose of this little visit was to set up a history lesson before heading to the real plan in 622: assassinate Mohammad and prevent the founding of Islam, therefore saving the Songhay Empire.
Whoa, this book is now likely to raise hackles from all sorts of people.
Jomo’s assassination attempt fails and they return to the present again.
They arrive to find Billy Roy Whisk at the Foundation. His plan is essentially the same as Jomo’s. He wants to re-write history to the detriment of the blacks, though.
And here we have what I think is the major strength of this book. Neither Jomo nor Whisk are good guys. At the risk of sounding a bit trite I’d say they’re essentially the same at heart, just with different motivations. They’re both willing to wipe out all of history in an effort to kill other people, or at least subjugate them. Harold is stuck in the middle. He’s not ashamed of his blackness like Jomo suggests, but he’s also not willing to resort to violence to solve the problems his people face. He is, at heart, a peaceful man. A scholar. He’s just caught up in this mess. He does, however, recognize the threat Whisk poses, so when Whisk pops back in time to do nasty things, he and Jomo and Jomo’s girlfriend, Diana, follow after him.
At lot of the rest of the book is rapid-fire bits of history. Whisk tries to assassinate President Lincoln before the Emancipation Proclamation. He is stopped. He tries to burn the original copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Fails there too. He tries to kill Frederick Douglass. No go. It goes like this for a bit.
Jomo gets sick of this kind of thing right around saving Benjamin Franklin’s life and decides that the right way to go about this problem is to take the offensive too. Harold tries to point out that having two idiots mucking up the time stream is a surefire way to make sure that the universe explodes or something. Jomo calls him whitey’s puppet or something and sets off to kill Booker T. Washington.
Thing is, he succeeds. Harold loses track of him for a bit and finds himself a year after that successful assassination. It’s 1896 and the world has gone to hell. Without Booker T. Washington’s statements about peaceful cohabitation with the white man, a full on race war has occurred in Chicago and New York. It’s gone to pieces and thousands if not more people have been brutally murdered in the streets. Also without him we’d never have had “Green Onions” by Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
FIX IT NOW
A quick stop at 1895 erases that timeline and gets Jomo really really mad at Harold. Jomo’s girlfriend, Diana, is starting to listen to what Harold has to say, though. That gives Harold something to think about. He’s always had a thing for Diana, although he’s never really had the nerve to do anything about it. Plus she’s always held him in contempt for being a race traitor or something. She’s starting to give him the eye, though, and that makes Harold start to think some things.
As a character, Harold is actually pretty interesting. Like ever so many of the protagonists of the books I’ve read so far, he’s completely passive. At first. See, this book has something that very few of the other ones I’ve read actually had. Character development. Harold is starting to come to terms not just with his race, but with himself. He’s still committed to pacifism as the smart way to achieve true equality in this world, but he’s starting to see that there’s a different kind of pacifism that he needs to cultivate. Instead of buckling whenever anybody puts the pressure on him, he needs to stand up to them. And he actually starts to do that.
It’s almost too little, too late, though. Jomo is coming unhinged. He heads back to 1977 to kidnap Harold’s sister, Sally, and use her as a human shield to do what he meant to do at the very beginning of the book. Harold is helpless to stop Jomo from running the Prophet Mohammad through with a scimitar.
They return to 1977 to see what glorious new black world has been created by Jomo through the wholesale murder of one of history’s most important figures. At first, it’s not very different, except that The Foundation doesn’t exist. Uh-oh. Does that mean time travel won’t work anymore? What of our heroes? Will they cease to exist?
Well, not really. Apparently it takes a bit for history to catch up to them, so they have a chance to see what’s going on in an America where Islam never existed.
Man, if this book were written at some point after, say, 2001, it would have been a very different book and it might have started a war. I just feel the need to point that out.
The first thing they notice is that the cars are different. They’re now three-wheeled contraptions with what appear to be rocket motors. I guess that’s pretty cool. I can keep this timeline.
America is now New Songhay, of course. Oh, and everything is UPSIDE DOWN.
See, the majority of people are black, as you might expect. There is some civil disturbance because the white people are getting all uppity. One of the natives of this timeline point out that sure, maybe they shouldn’t have brought the white people across the sea from Europe to be slaves, but all that ended two-hundred years ago so what’s the problem?
Yup, they landed in the mirror universe. Pretty much every piece of our geography and history is flip-flopped. Cities are there in their familiar places, but they have names like Al-Sidakh and Pfeffertown. It’s wacky!
The main thing, though, is that our characters don’t exist in this universe. At first they just all feel tired, but it quickly becomes apparent that they’re dying because history is trying to fix itself. They don’t belong.
Okay, I have a few problems with this part of the book. For one, why would history say they don’t belong in a timeline when they are gallivanting all through the past? Wouldn’t they “not belong” there as well? Or is it just that they spent so little time in each historical era that it didn’t have time to take effect? Maybe that’s it.
And then there’s the fact that several times throughout the book it was established that our characters do not know all languages, nor do they have some kind of translator device. So why is it that all of a sudden they’re able to get around and talk to people in New Songhay? Do the people of Black America speak English? Why? It’s not like people in our timeline learned the languages of the enslaved. Are we just supposed to assume that English is the best language and that even the descendants of a world-conquering Songhay Empire just up and decided to learn it?
I guess I’m willing to let some of that stuff pass because the rest of the book was so good. I just have to nitpick a bit. Language issues tend to really bother me in books because I feel like they’re very rarely handled right. Anyway, black to the story.
The group arrives at the site of where the Foundation would be if it existed just in time to see Billy Roy Whisk show up looking really confused. He’d apparently been using the time machine to attempt to kill MLK and Malcolm X, but when he arrived he couldn’t find them due to Jomo’s tampering. Whisk slowly begins to get more unhinged. Harold makes a break for it and heads back just in time to stop Jomo from killing The Prophet. He comes back and there’s a standoff. Whisk has taken one of his own followers hostage and is demanding use of the time machine. Jomo figures he can kill them both because what’s the problem with that. Harold won’t let him because that won’t solve anything. If Whisk dies, he’ll become a martyr for the cause and his followers will grow. Of course, if he doesn’t die then Whisk himself will lead a bloodbath through the cities of America. It’s a tense situation.
Harold, in a flash of brilliance, solves the problem. He grabs a white woman follower of Whisk’s and just kisses her, right on the mouth. Whisk is completely enraged at the idea of a black man laying hands on a white woman, let alone kissing her, and makes a dive for Harold. Harold heads back into the time machine.
There’s a chase scene leading through various points of history culminating on board the Saint Leon in 1819. Saint Leon was a slave ship that was lost when everyone on board, slave and slaver alike, succumbed to Ophthalamia, which was common on slave ships. Everybody onboard is blind. Harold goads Whisk into a fight and then takes his transmitter and throws it overboard. He then returns to the present, leaving Whisk stranded and eventually blinded. See, he was blinded by his hatred. It’s like a metaphor come to life, man.
I’m not sure how that was supposed to be better than just killing him, but everybody in the book seemed to think it was a good idea.
Harold returns yet again to 1977, belts Jomo right in the mouth and calls him the equivalent of Black Hitler. All along he’s been trying to tell him what a bad idea all this was, but Jomo was also blinded by his hate. Harold essentially usurps Jomo’s position of power in BURN, saying that instead of resorting to violence to solve the problems the black folk face, he’ll resort to smarts. And there the book ends.
Man! What a good read! The story was not only there, it was really easy to follow. I didn’t get caught up in some author’s attempts to be deep or anything. I was just able to follow along, completely entertained, the whole way through. The characters were pretty good, too. Jomo was a megalomaniac trying to destroy whitey out of hate, but he was actually a fairly complicated guy. He was afraid, really, and that’s what made him hate so much. He was a coward and he hated that fact about himself. Whisk, on the other hand, was pretty standard fundamentalist racist fare, although Jakes made a good choice in having this guy be a moralizing preacher man who won’t say any swear stronger than poop nonetheless a cold-hearted bastard who would bomb Lincoln or choke Franklin with his bare hands while dismissing any non-whites as not even human.
And Harold, the character who couldn’t figure out what he wanted to do with himself or with the problems of the world, finally came into his own at the end. And he did it realizing that it was going to be a sacrifice, that he’d have to give up the scholarship that he’d so enjoyed in an effort to finally bring peace between the races. He found his courage and his calling, I guess, but he also regretted having found them in some part of himself.
I’m going to say that despite this book being about race and all that, I didn’t find it in the least bit offensive. Sure, there were offensive things said all throughout the book, but those things were said by characters, especially Whisk, and in no way did that ever feel like the author’s opinion on the matter. Whisk was more or less a caricature anyway, although I didn’t honestly find him that unbelievable. I guess the really unbelievable thing was that he managed to find so many followers that believed what he did and lead them into doing horrible things. Then again, in the future this book presented that kind of made sense. At one point Harold expositioned us with statements about how in the seventies the black people really started to make some strides. Schools were getting integrated, jobs were being filled, and so forth. Institutional racism was actually on the way out. Coincidentally, though, and the book makes it very clear that this was coincidence, the country started to go down the tubes. Air pollution, economic problems, and so forth. The natural thing for somebody like Whisk to do would be to blame the blacks’ rise to equality on this fact. Yeah, it’s the same argument Hitler used against the Jews, but it was successful that one time, wasn’t it?
So yeah, I’m going to look for more of John Jakes’s science fiction works. This one was really engrossing and just a ripping good yarn with a decent, albeit sort of obvious, moral. Hate doesn’t solve problems, guys. It only makes them worse, no matter which side of the fight you’re on. Don’t even hate the haters.
I can get behind a philosophy like that.