Some estimate books about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy number in the thousands. And with the 50th anniversary of the assassination c...moreSome estimate books about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy number in the thousands. And with the 50th anniversary of the assassination coming next month, there's been a growing stream of them this year about the assassination and Kennedy's presidency and its legacy. Amidst the avalanche, political commentator Jeff Greenfield contemplates where we would be if Kennedy had not been killed. He does so through the alternative history trope in If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History.
As Greenfield points out in both the preface and afterword to If Kennedy Lived, he believes alternative history needs to be founded on plausibility. Thus, everything prior to November 22, 1963, that plays a role in the book actually happened and Greenfield's conjectures are predicated on historical documents of the times and thoughts of the actual people. Greenfield seeks to explore only what realistically might have happened, not with inventions like the time traveler who tries to prevent Kennedy's assassination in Stephen King's bestselling 11/22/63. Yet while a degree of plausibility is essential to believable alternative history, If Kennedy Lived also reveals the limitations of strict adherence to this approach.
Greenfield explores a number of key issues that might have been affected by Kennedy's death, such as whether he would have kept U.S. forces in Vietnam or the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He even considers the possibility and ramifications of Kennedy's philandering becoming public. Yet even the latter has a wonkish feel. The book tends to examine what might have happened more through policy debates than in terms of social ramifications. This doesn't mean Greenfield totally ignores social impact. For example, he contemplates how different decisions about Vietnam might have affected the nature and focus of the protest movements of the 1960s. It's just that there seems to be more discussion about policy and political implications of that change.
Greenfield both displays and uses a bit of irony when it comes to actual history. He points out that although Kennedy was pushing for tax cuts in 1963, the Republicans strenuously opposed the idea (although Congress approved cuts in 1964). The irony extends to noted individuals. For example, when the treasurer of a company founded by Jerry Rubin embezzles the money, Greenfield has Rubin saying, "I never should have trusted an accountant under thirty." And in this timeline Richard Nixon does not tell David Frost in 1977 that "when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal." Instead, this Nixon complains about the Kennedy Administration's use of the IRS, saying, "Just because a president does it does not mean it's legal."
Certainly, given what those individuals actually said, it is plausible they might have said what Greenfield suggests. And perhaps it is because of this insistence on plausibility that the book concludes on the eve of the 1968 election, the end of the second term Kennedy wins in it. Thus, Greenfield does not extrapolate from the alternative scenarios he posits to look look at even longer term consequences.
Although unquestionably well researched and written, If Kennedy Lived has a bit too much of an "inside politics" feel.
My five star ratings here are few and far between. In fact, it's been two years since the last one. It's even less frequent that I start marking up th...moreMy five star ratings here are few and far between. In fact, it's been two years since the last one. It's even less frequent that I start marking up the books I read. Matt Haig's The Humans surpassed the bar on both.
The Humans is one of those books whose qualities exceed any description of it, particularly when the first thing you have to know is that it is narrated by an extraterrestrial. But for anyone to toss it in the genre bin for SF would be inexcusable. The SF element is simply a vehicle for telling a story about humans and the human condition.
The story stems from a brilliant, but not very likable, Cambridge mathematics professor, Andrew Martin, making a significant mathematical breakthrough. It is so significant that the Vonnadorians are concerned about what humans will do it. They kill Martin and our narrator inhabits his body with the mission to destroy any trace of the discovery.
The faux Martin is disgusted by his assignment. Not only will he have to cope with the "midrange intelligence" of humans "living a largely deluded existence," but also their "hideous" bodies and "baffling" social customs (clothing, for example.) Moreover, he will have to take his place in the real Martin's family, his wife and, among the most bewildering of homo sapiens, a teenage boy. Alien Martin slowly adjusts to his situation and begins writing an account of his mission for aliens. His commentary, frequently humorous ala Douglas Adams, reflects an increasing comprehension of the strange species on the planet. As that comprehension grows, his observations of humanity and the human condition become ever more insightful.
Through the SF structure Haig gives us an "objective" outside observer of our lives today. Not only do we see what it is to be human through innocent eyes, the fact the observer is not human eliminates or at least reduces any tendency to attribute his perceptions to biases we might impose on a human character. And while some might accuse Haig of occasionally resorting to platitudes, anyone who doesn't see part of themselves in the story and reflect on their own life is missing its essence. The guileless alien Martin shows us how being human requires not just our strengths, hopes and talents but also our faults, frailties and failings.