Book Talk: 'Bearfish' by John O'Brien - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: 'Bearfish' by John O'Brien

Alexander Wallace goes fishing.
Hippopotamuses are strange animals. Their name literally means ‘river horse,’ but they are substantially more rotund than the animals that have powered civilizations. We know them mostly through cartoon characters like Gloria from the Madagascar series, and barring a few zoologists most of us don’t give them much thought unless we live in certain parts of Africa.

But these animals have a stranger history than we give them credit for. In 1910, Robert Broussard, a representative from Louisiana, proposed a bill to import hippopotamuses into the US Gulf Coast region to increase the nation’s food supply. In our world, these lumbering animals never graced the shores from Brownsville to Miami. In John O’Brien’s book Bearfish, he asks, what if they did?

Bearfish is a shorter work from Sea Lion Press (full disclosure, I write for their blog but have not yet been involved with any of their published books). I read it in a single sitting with a number of other short books. As such, it will not take much time, lest you be worried about that.

This is the sort of alternate history that could have been delivered as a fake textbook; such is a method that can reap great rewards but also much frustration if it is not executed well. It could also been a typical narrative, which requires all the novelist’s tricks in addition to the alternate historian’s tricks; this can be done well or poorly. O’Brien sidesteps them entirely, choosing a narrative form that straddles the boundary between the two. It’s something I’ve never seen before: a series of transcriptions of interviews with various people connected with hippopotamuses in the American South.

It’s an inspired choice because it solves the great tension in alternate history fiction: balancing the narrative against the historical background. The whole genre exists because people want to speculate about how history could have gone differently, but they also want a story. The variety of the characters gives you a kaleidoscopic look at the effects of the coming of the hippopotamuses, but the interview format allows them to speak with their own voices. It’s something many alternate history writers could learn from.

The actual characters are a fun, if irascible, bunch. There are hunters and merchants and other profiteers, as well as those who simply have learned a lot through newspapers. My favorite of all is the die-hard communist on death-row who dares challenge the social order. O’Brien does not whitewash the America of this time; there is much to be said about how race relations are affected by the animals’ arrival.

Bearfish is what I look for in alternate history: historical depth crossed with raw entertainment. It does not tilt in one direction or another too much, like a half-occupied seesaw. It is lean, mean, and utterly efficient. I can only hope more books in the genre follow its example.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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