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Fire on the Mountain

3.77  ·  Rating Details ·  292 Ratings  ·  54 Reviews

Fiction. It's 1959 in socialist Virginia. The Deep South is an independent Black nation called Nova Africa. The second Mars expedition is about to touch down on the red planet. And a pregnant scientist is climbing the Blue Ridge in search of her great-great grandfather, a teenage slave who fought with John Brown and Harriet Tubman's guerrilla army. Long unavailable in the

Paperback, 167 pages
Published February 1st 1990 by Avon Books (first published 1988)
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Kindred by Octavia E. ButlerBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo HopkinsonParable of the Sower by Octavia E. ButlerWild Seed by Octavia E. ButlerMy Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
58th out of 60 books — 20 voters
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le GuinThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinWalden by Henry David ThoreauThe Drowned World by J.G. BallardEcotopia by Ernest Callenbach
Future Primitive Further Reading
81st out of 103 books — 5 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
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Jan 07, 2016 Andrew rated it it was amazing
A fantastic blend of two of my favorite genres: Alternate History and Science Fiction. It is set in 1959 in a vastly different world than the one we know. What if, in 1859, the legendary abolitionist, John Brown had partnered with Harriet Tubman and been successful in his raid on Harper's Ferry? This novel imagines an America in which a rebellion of not only black slaves, but sympathetic whites, oppressed Irish workers, and even international Marx supporters rally to do away with slavery against ...more
I met Terry Bisson at the Locus Awards and sincerely wish I had read this before I sat down to share a meal with him. Unbeknownst to me, his work has often focused on race and social justice. This is an alternate history in which John Brown and Harriet Tubman joined forces on the raid at Harper's Ferry, Virginia and won. In this timeline, it is the 1950s and a black utopia exists in the south. There are black men going on expeditions to Mars. This is interspersed with two accounts from the past ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Dec 08, 2015 Jenny (Reading Envy) marked it as to-read
This was discussed on Episode 045 of the Reading Envy Podcast.
Jul 04, 2011 Rick rated it liked it
The strength of this book, I felt, was the way it captured the epistolary style of the mid-nineteenth century. Reading about the Civil War recently, it was hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln as the leader of reactionary forces. It would have been wonderful if slavery could have been overthrown sooner, and the nation spared the bloodiest war in its history. At the same time, it's hard to fathom how an international coalition of revolutionaries from Ireland, Italy, Germany, etc., would be able to fin ...more
Jes. Cavanaugh
Oct 14, 2009 Jes. Cavanaugh rated it liked it
Shelves: library-books
I like Bisson, but of everything I've read from him, I liked this the least. This wasn't a very satisfying story. I like the supposition of what could have been if the Civil War had come about differently, but I didn't really see the value in that supposition. I didn't feel like I had a chance to get to know the world they lived in or invest enough emotion into the characters to really care. The abrupt ending and lack of resolution for the personal lives of the characters also left me a little c ...more
Sep 25, 2016 Lauren rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars-I liked this quite a bit but had two minor complaints; first, it could get a bit heavy-handed at times (especially in the allusion to the John Brown's Body speculative fiction novel. I really liked this idea a lot! But idk it was also like "yes we get it") and second the historical narrative by Abraham was occasionally unnecessarily detailed and dragged on a bit too much. Overall a good read though!
David Gillette
Oct 28, 2014 David Gillette rated it it was amazing
So this book is a romantic alternate history of the Civil War, written by a white man and dedicated to New Afrikan anarchist Kuwasi Balagoon and the Black Liberation Army. It's really entertaining. I don't think it's as accomplished as "Talking Man" (which is an extraordinarily beautiful book), but for people of a certain political persuasion it's immensely appealing. Yasmin is an utterly believable character, the kind of good person who would be unbelievable (to me, b/c I'm a terrible person) i ...more
Sep 16, 2015 Erik rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I bought this book in an anarchist bookstore (16$!!), so do not think i think this book is terrible because of the central idea of its plot. The idea of a socialist black-majority country forming out of the south is neat. I can dig epistolary novels, so its not that either. Terry Bisson is merely a terrible writer who could not execute this book.

I just cant conceivably reccomend this book to anyone, and I didnt enjoy reading it.

- Flat, boring characters.
- Alternative history that doesnt make se
Sarah Mae
While I definitely believe that under different circumstances John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry could have been successful, there is absolutely no historical evidence that it could possibly have led to a socialist revolution. This book is nothing but a pipe dream with nothing to back it up. Plus it doesn't even really show us what this socialist society is like, beyond that they are landing on Mars and they have some cool tech.
Dana Mccloskey
The premise of this book was so incredibly interesting but the execution was very poor. The multiple writing styles really got everything jumbled and made it feel like you were reading three books at one time. It took me awhile to actually get through it even though it was so short. I so longed for this to be something more than it was.
Jun 09, 2010 wheels rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to wheels by: Jessica Lawless
This is an amazing story of what this nation state could look like if John Brown's raid (of 1859) had success. Loved this. I recommend it. This is the book that inspired me to seek out Octavia Butler's "Kindred".

Next on my list is to re-read is some Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs.
Tamara Temple
Feb 25, 2015 Tamara Temple rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: political
This is properly speculative fiction, not science fiction, which it is often listed under because the author writes that. But Fire on the Mountain is not about science, nor about the future, but about the past, notably the past of the U.S. prior to the Civil War.

Genre-related things aside, and you should put them *well* aside, this is an astounding piece of fiction. The voices from this work, which is primarily told in letters from the past, gives voice to something I do not get to see very ofte
Obviously wish-fulfillment - and the author is pretty honest on that score - but an interesting book. Well written (though a pretty weak beginning). I think a Brown- and Tubman-founded nation would be some sort of mystic theocracy though.
Ethan Everhart
Jun 08, 2016 Ethan Everhart rated it really liked it
This was an excellent little story about what would have happened if John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry had succeeded and sparked national slave uprisings. Much of the story was in epistolary format, which fit the setting quite well. The weakness of the book is that it isn't long enough to really tell any sort of story in the "present" setting. We get a hint of international socialist countries, the USSA's Five-Year Plan, hydrogen-powered personal vehicles, and a Mars landing, but these things ...more
Matt Mitrovich
Apr 22, 2016 Matt Mitrovich rated it really liked it
Originally review here:
Aug 26, 2012 David rated it liked it
This is less a story than a curated collection of primary sources for an alternate timeline in which the American Civil War was preempted by the success of abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, which leads to formation of an independent, black-majority state instead of the Confederacy.

The book is highly readable and a good case study in the construction of alternate timeline settings. Unfortunately, Bisson seems to have had trouble deciding between telling the story of
Aug 29, 2012 Bob rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, civil-war
I picked up this alternative history book because I enjoy Civil War alternatives, but was surprised to find a complex, admirable bit of imaginative fiction. The dates are a challenge, since the book was written in the 1980s, the main story takes place in the 1950s, and is greatly comprised of letters written in 1910 regarding events of the 1860s. !

But the quilt that is patched together of these interlocking times and stories is really quite attractive. A great granddaughter of a young slave and
Oct 01, 2013 Victoria rated it it was amazing
I had no idea, really, what I was getting into with this book--and it was so much better than I expected.

The year is 1959. The second Mars expedition is about to land. Yasmin is making the long trip from Nova Africa into backwoods U.S.S.A. to take her great-grandfather's writings to a museum. Interspersed with Yasmin's story is the story of her great-grandfather, a former slave who lived through Brown and Tubman's 1859 abolitionist uprising... The one where Tubman didn't fall sick, the supplies
Jim Leckband
"Fire on the Mountain" is an alternative history where the fork in the road of time is that John Brown's raid on the Harper's Ferry armory was an all around success rather than a tragedy of errors. This single unsmashed butterfly leads to a hundred years of alternative history. The war between the states turns into a civil war between the whites and the blacks (I may be wrong - since the history was woven into the narrative and is not a textbook what really happened is obscured).

The following ma
Matthew Antosh
Jul 26, 2012 Matthew Antosh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This has been the third time I've read this book and it continues to be a favorite. It's a real shame that there isn't the same kind of futurist fiction that offers a vision of a new world that we want to build.

Generally, the past-history is far more engaging then the future-history. You only get a vision of the lives of a few people in a future built on the successful revolutionary war led by John Brown, but you never really get a vision of how there society works on a macro-scale (I have the
U.L. Harper
Oct 30, 2011 U.L. Harper rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dropped
Okay, everyone take this review with a big fat grain of salt because this one, no, I didn't get done with it. It got me too upset. I purchased it at a book faire. I like the publishers--PM Press. I read some other stuff from them and it was good stuff and I thought I'd give this one a chance, based on the reviews of the author. Also the reviews for this one weren't bad. So why not?

The premise is pretty cool. What if John Brown's revolt had worked? Cool, right. How do you not want to at least pic
Stephanie Foust
Jun 25, 2015 Stephanie Foust rated it really liked it
Terry Bisson is from Owensboro Ky which makes him almost"local".The short novel takes place in an independent Black state in the former USA.This is a re-imaging of Harper's Ferry,John Brown's raid and is a eye-opening read especially with race relations the way they are in 2015 USA.Hope this isn't out of print(Ihave an ex-library HB copy)Recommended.
Jeffrey Paris [was Infinite Tasks]
A high-quality piece of alternative history-style science fiction, complete with a successful slave rebellion that truly liberates African-Americans, instead of subjecting them to another 150 years of post-emancipation repression. In this version, Lincoln is a figure remembered for his failed attempt to keep the union together, thus preventing both liberation and socialism. The "actual" history of the past century is instead represented in dystopian fiction, which is a nice twist on reality. Ter ...more
Sep 16, 2015 Qwerty88 rated it really liked it
started off slow, and the flipping between various POVs, none of them very active, made it still tougher to get into the story, but it ended well.

I do wish that AH authors didn't seem to feel the need to include another AH novel in their story about our world and thus explain how the two timelines differ.
Artnoose Noose
Aug 22, 2010 Artnoose Noose rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone who sees me tabling it at a punk show
Recommended to Artnoose by: ramsey at PM Press
I originally picked this up to table at punk shows, and it looked interesting. Simply put, it speculates what the world would have looked like if the Harper's Ferry uprising had succeeded. The narrative is told from three vantage points: a former slave who witnessed the uprising as a boy and wrote the story years later, his great-granddaughter who lives in the country of Nova Africa with her own somewhat "Mericanized" daughter, and the letters of an abolitionist supporting Brown's cause.

It's a g
Nov 18, 2015 Hannah rated it really liked it
i read this because the incredible walidah imarisha said this was the sci-fi universe she'd live in if she had to choose one when an audience member asked at her presentation about octavia's brood and emergent strategy. it was so fucking rad. i hope in some parallel universe this turn of history did happen because jesus fuck, if only.
A fairly interesting book, even if it seems a bit unrealistic (I'm not talking about the SFnal elements, I'm talking about the socialist elements).
Spicy T AKA Mr. Tea
Interesting alternative history looking at the possibility of John Brown and company winning at Harpers Ferry leading to the creation of Nova Africa and viable socialism. Instead of a civil war to keep the union together, you had an insurrectionist war of abolitionists against slave owners. It's short and a quick read--the writing was great and I loved some of the sci-fi elements. My favorite parts were reading the old letters and hearing the tale of John Brown's victory. I guess I didn't really ...more
May 12, 2016 Kevin rated it really liked it
A work of alternate history that assumes John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry was successful and launched an abolitionist war for independence. There are some fascinating ideas here, but it reads like a 200-page short story. There's a lot left out and I never quite connected to the main characters that framed the story. But the ideas are something. The story includes an alternate world within this alternate world where John Brown failed and we get a world much like the reality we know today. The ...more
Victoria Laskowski
Jan 28, 2015 Victoria Laskowski rated it liked it
I have read this book twice, and both times I have finished it wanting more. Although the author does a great job weaving together three story lines, I would have loved to learn more about Nova Africa and its history since the Shenandoah Brown raid in 1859. What did North America look like in the current day of the novel? How did we manage to get to Mars in 1959? Why was Nova Africa socialist? I just did not get a good sense of what had happened since the historical divergence point to create th ...more
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Terry Ballantine Bisson is an American science fiction and fantasy author best known for his short stories, including "Bears Discover Fire" (1990), which which won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as They're Made Out of Meat (1991), which has been adapted for video often.

Adapted from Wikipedia.
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“I was very aware that the army was here to kill something hiding out (and I think the other black folks felt this as well) not only on the mountain, but inside my heart as well.” 0 likes
“The present, due to its staggering complexities, is almost as conjectural as the past.” —George Jackson “Dawn also has its terrors.” —Victor Hugo “America is our country, more than it is the whites’ ... we have enriched it with our blood and tears.” —David Walker “My love to all who love their neighbors.” —John Brown” 0 likes
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