Saladin at Jerusalem: A Friday story

This is another alternate history vignette, originally posted here and centering on Abdelkader El Djezairi, one of the most fascinating and heroic characters of the nineteenth century.  The story takes place some years after the end of his resistance to French colonization in Algeria, and after an incident in Damascus which ironically made him into a friend of France.  Those who know what happened there might have some idea of where this story will go… or maybe not.

______

Beit Hanina, 1866

Baudouin rode into camp and found that he was late.

“He’s looking for you,” said the sentry as Baudouin swung down from his horse, pointing to the tent at the center of the camp. “The sayyid needs to see you,” said a Taibeh man who recognized his face. “The emir – he’s been asking for you,” said one of the Syrian officers two tents down. And Raymond, his fellow French lieutenant, put down his bottle long enough to say “get in there, because the king is about to send out a search party.”

The Frenchman needed no more warning, and he ducked into the command tent without stopping for breath. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw that all the staff officers were sitting around the table. They were an even more motley assortment than the last time he’d seen them: some from the great families of Damascus and Aleppo; Bedouin sheikhs who led troops of scouts; mountain Druzes; Algerians; one or two of the other officers who led his five hundred Frenchmen. Men from the local tribes and towns had come to join them: their fathers had rebelled against Mehmet Ali thirty years ago, and now they’d rallied to a new banner in exchange for the promise that they could rule their own affairs.

And at the head of the table was a bearded man in a hooded cloak. He was nearing sixty, but his hair was still black and his features strong; his burnoose was unadorned and he had a bandolier of ammunition over his shoulder. He looked more like the fighting man he still was than the prince he had become, but still, every eye around the table was on him: Abd-el-Kader, these past ten months King of Syria.

Once, in Algeria twenty years ago and more, Baudouin had fought this man. Now, he called him lord.

#

“Ah, my brave Baudouin, at last you are here,” the king said. “Have you been in the city?”

“I have, lord.” The words came easily, but there was something fearful in them: now that Baudouin had gone to Jerusalem and returned, he realized what a hideous risk he had taken. Pilgrims still came in and out even with Abd-el-Kader’s army approaching, and the garrison still hesitated to molest Europeans, but if anyone had realized why Baudouin was in the city, he’d have died… eventually.

“I suppose it’s too much to expect that the tunnel is still open?”

“It’s closed, and the Turks are guarding its ghost.” The peasant rebels had used the Dung Gate tunnel to break into Jerusalem in ’34, and when Mehmet Ali’s soldiers had retaken the city, closing it had been nearly the first thing they’d done.

“Then what did you see? More than that, what did you hear?”

“The mutasarrif is in the citadel with the regulars. There are men on the wall, but most of them are conscripts, and they’re complaining that they’ll be the first to die.”

Abd-el-Kader leaned in intently. “They don’t think they can win?”

“The officers promise them victory. The men don’t believe. Even the regular troops – in the coffee-houses, all of them say they want to go home.”

“And the people?”

“They have no love for the Turks. They won’t fight, but they’ll welcome you in: the Muslims know the local tribes are with you, the Christians know what you did in Damascus, and the Jews remember how you treated them in Oran.”

Abd-el-Kader’s face broke into a smile. “Then we’ll sweep the Turks out, Baudouin. You and Raymond and Godfrey will enter Jerusalem with me.” The smile, in turn, became laughter: Abd-el-Kader was endlessly amused that his French officers had the names of Crusader kings, and he lamented that Bohemond had gone out of fashion.

“But there’s the Citadel, sayyid,” said Ibrahim Barghouti: he was from Bani Zeid, the newest of the king’s lieutenants, and he knew the city well. “With forty thousand men, we can sweep the Turks from the walls, but the mutasarrif has cannon and his soldiers are well-armed. We’ll have to lay siege to him, and we don’t have time.”

Baudouin nodded involuntarily. The Sultan was gathering another army, and Abd-el-Kader would soon have to guard his northern marches. If Syria’s borders were to meet Egypt’s as its new king intended, he would have to finish the campaign quickly, and that left no time to besiege David’s Tower.

“You’re right, Ibrahim ustaz. I’ll have to consider this. But Jerusalem will be mine.”

#

Outside the tent, Baudouin went to find a meal. The rush of his escape from Jerusalem was behind him, as was the staff meeting, and he felt strangely drained.

The smell of cooking came from the Ta’amirah men’s encampment, and the route there took him past the artillery. Godfrey was there, in the uniform of a French captain: unlike Baudouin and Raymond, he was still a serving officer, and the cannon were a gift from the Emperor. He saw Baudouin and gave him the briefest of acknowledgments: he said nothing, but his opinion of Abd-el-Kader and the Frenchmen who followed him was clear.

He may call himself a king, but he will be the Emperor’s man, was written on his face. Baudouin, as he’d done before, shook his head. He knew enough of Abd-el-Kader by now to know that, while the Algerian honored his debts, he was no one’s puppet. He might take Napoleon’s aid, but he would be a king in truth.

Once, the thought might have given Baudouin pause, but his loyalty was no longer to France, whether empire, kingdom or republic.

#

It had been in Damascus, in 1860… There was fighting between Druze and Maronites in Mount Lebanon, so of course there was fighting in Syria, and Baudouin saw flames and smoke as the mobs rampaged through the Christian quarter. Man, woman and child were put to the sword and driven into the fire, and the air echoed with screams. Baudouin huddled in a small church with his Marie and their six-year-old Thérèse, knowing there was nothing he could do to protect them.

But then Abd-el-Kader and his men had come, driving away the mobs and leading the Christians to shelter. The emir had been exiled by a French government that feared what he would do if he returned to Algeria, but that didn’t deter him: he took French citizens under his wing just as he did the Christian Arabs, and that night, Baudouin’s family had slept in his house protected by his soldiers’ guns.

Baudouin owed Abd-el-Kader three souls, and when the zu’ama of Syria had offered the emir a throne, the Frenchman’s life was his for the asking.

#

Night had fallen and Baudouin stood at the edge of the camp. The hills of Jerusalem stood in the shadows, and on them, he could see the outline of the city.

There were holy places within. Thérèse had dreamed of coming here: she’d so wanted to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. But business, and Baudouin’s diplomatic post, had never allowed…

He felt the touch of a hand on his shoulder. “Are you thinking of them?”

“Yes, lord.”

“I know what it is to miss a wife and child.”

Baudouin nodded but said nothing. The lives Abd-el-Kader had saved, God had taken three years later when the fever came. That was the other reason why there was nothing tying Baudouin to France, and why he had nothing to live for but the man he’d chosen as his king.

“I will make you whole, Baudouin. We will find a Melisende for you. Maybe in Jerusalem, maybe somewhere else, but she will be there.”

There it was, the Crusades again. Abd-el-Kader’s joke grew old sometimes. But Baudouin understood what was behind the words: it was something that neither of them ever said, but that the Algerian was wise enough to know and that the Frenchman admitted to himself in his moments of clarity. Having only one allegiance was a sickness, and a man needed more than a king: he needed a family.

His answer, when it came, was oblique: “We might both die tomorrow.”

“We might, but with God’s will we won’t, not if the Turks do as I hope.”

“You have a plan then, lord?” asked Baudouin. The staff meeting had been inconclusive.

“Yes, I have decided. You will get your orders in the morning. Now find your tent and go to sleep.”

The King of Syria had commanded, and his French lieutenant gratefully obeyed.

#

Baudouin rode out at dawn, Raymond mounted next to him and his men at his back. His orders, given minutes before, were to advance through the villages west of Jerusalem and invest the city from the south. A Druze cavalry troop rode with him: they, too, were to take the high ground above the Hinnom and Kidron valleys while others garrisoned the western villages themselves. The main body of the army was stirring, and it would soon advance from the north.

“It will be a siege after all,” said Raymond.

“It looks that way.” Baudouin wondered what Abd-el-Kader was thinking. Did he truly think he could reduce the citadel so quickly? Had he decided to use artillery after all, even if it put the holy places at risk? That would go against everything Baudouin knew of the emir’s character, but what other explanation could there be, especially with him leaving a gap in the line to the northeast…

A bullet whistled and cracked past Baudouin’s head, and more gunfire erupted from the Turkish patrol that had hidden itself just south of a village. Men and horses fell, and for a second, Baudouin was paralyzed. But it was only a second, and then he drew his saber and kicked his horse into a gallop.

His men followed and the charge went home. Baudouin was face to face with an officer, trading saber strokes: he narrowly parried a cut at his face and pressed forward in a flurry of strikes. The Turkish captain fought back fiercely, shouting curses and battering at Baudouin’s guard, but then he broke off and fled as a Bedouin troop came to the French soldiers’ aid. The rest of the patrol broke off with him, a few turning to shoot backward at their enemy but most fleeing pell-mell up the valley.

Baudouin called a halt to regroup. He counted five of his men dead and several others wounded, and he told off a squad to carry the injured ones to the rear. A troop of townsmen from Jenin rode past him and their officer called out to see if anything was wrong, but he waved them onward.

There was gunfire elsewhere as other troops encountered the enemy, but none of it seemed to be slowing the investment of the city. “We should advance that way,” Raymond said, pointing at Abu Tor and the ill-named Hill of Evil Counsel. There was a small Ottoman garrison there, but if they took it, they would command the heights that guarded Jerusalem from the south.

Baudouin nodded and saw that his troops had regrouped and were ready to ride. He began to shout an order but trailed off as he saw a scout riding up at the gallop.

The man was from the Fawaghrah tribe – the foie gras, as some of the Frenchmen called them – and his horse was lathered. “Stop the advance!” he called. “Stop the advance! The Turks are leaving the city!”

Baudouin looked and saw that it was true: soldiers were evacuating the citadel and the conscripts were leaving their positions on the walls. Suddenly he understood the reason why Abd-el-Kader had left a gap in the northeast. He hadn’t wanted to surround the city: he’d wanted the Turks to see that they were about to be surrounded. Backed into a corner and ordered by their commander, even demoralized soldiers would fight, but if they were left a path home, they might force their officers’ hand, especially if the officers were uncertain themselves…

“Without a battle,” Raymond said, and for the first time since Baudouin had met him, there was something like awe in his voice.

“Does the king want us to pursue?” Baudouin asked.

“No,” said the Fawaghrah man. “He said they won’t come back. We might need to chase them out of Abu Tor if they don’t leave on their own, but that’s for later – he wants you and the other commanders with him when he enters the city.”

“Think of that, Raymond – we Crusaders will ride into Jerusalem at last.” But this wasn’t a Crusade, Baudouin realized: here was Saladin come again, and this time the Franks would be at his side.

#

The French lieutenant rode north at the command of his Saladin, the king he had chosen. But later, as he passed the gate of Jerusalem, it was Thérèse’s face he seemed to see.

Should Pokémon Go?

pgo-uw

Following the articles about the D.C. Holocaust museum’s reaction to Pokémon Go, it struck me how very differently game-theory people and other people react to what’s going on with this game. The spots in the museum have been targets in another game (Ingress) for a few years, apparently without incident. Hundreds of thousands of people play that game, and many have played it inside the museum. But Pokémon is a very different sort of game. It is much more popular, and appeals to younger people, and unlike a game that is essentially a game-ified version of Geocaching, Pokémon is lighthearted and people are excited about it because it is new.

The original game was intended to get people out, walking, seeing things they might never otherwise see in their communities or around the world. It has worked that way for me. I’ve spent time looking at art, and buildings, and historical places that I never knew existed because first Ingress, and now Pokémon Go have drawn me out to do those things. I know people who have lost weight, met friends, and improved their mental health playing.

The spots that appear now in Pokémon Go appeared first in Ingress. Most of them have been submitted by players, people exploring their world and wanting to draw particular attention to meaningful places. That’s how the spots inside the Holocaust Museum came to be. I would warrant that the museum has benefited from visitors seeking those game spots, and they are apparently so benefiting now.

But the important difference I’m seeing is that the challenge the museum is facing made me think “great! People are visiting a place with so much to teach them because of the game! Now, how should they take the next step to encourage appropriate behavior from those visitors?” In other words, “how could the museum gamify getting the behavior they want from visitors instead of the behavior they don’t?” Quiet, respectful behavior and attention to the exhibits presumably.

When I was in Milan, one of the official pamphlets from the Duomo had information for Ingress players about a mission there. One of the most famous cathedrals in the world, a historical wonder intended for silent, respectful contemplation of God, used a game to get more people to visit and to get them to see the best parts of the church. That surprised and impressed me, of all of the places I would expect to clamp down on frivolous things or modern things, instead they embraced the possibilities.

Right now HORDES of people who are friendly, interested, and monumentally willing to learn and be influenced to positive behavior are available to the Holocaust Museum (and every other significant site on the planet from the North Pole to the South). “Get out” isn’t going to work. “Don’t play” won’t be a thing. The only way to make that happen would be to ban cell phone use, and even that would be iffy. (Do they know about smartwatches and glasses and rings and every other morphology of technology that people will employ to achieve their objectives? Have they MET people?) But “if you are respectful and appropriate we will reward you with a path that gets you your game objectives” would work beautifully. It would get them more visitors and get those to pay attention to the museum’s educational objectives. Win-win. The game-theory holy grail.

Thinking through that, in their place I would contact Niantic and ask them to stop spawning Pokemon in the exhibit areas. The main problematic behavior seems to be people “chasing” (probably slowly turning and stepping in odd directions) Pokémon. Stopping the spawns would make that stop. Instead, spawns in a gathering area where people wait for their friends, or in the gift shop, would benefit the museum, and would benefit people waiting.

The game points inside (Pokéstops) I would leave. Those attract people to see parts of the museum that they might otherwise miss. They have information about those spots. And they aren’t disturbing anyone (because they are not different than the Ingress portals that have not disturbed anyone for years).

Regardless of Niantic’s approach, or willingness to help (I wager they will be eager to help), the Museum could still give visitors a reminder of appropriate behavior. It’s not about the game, people have presumably been using their phones in the museum all along, it’s about the behavior. Unfortunately people do need reminding sometimes to behave appropriately. But “we welcome you to use your phones in the museum, but please be mindful of the people around you and their experience in this important place.”

When I was young, my parents went to enormous lengths to expose me to culturally and historically-significant places. If Pokémon Go had existed then, I would have appreciated that so much more. I had (and still have) what others might describe as “a short attention span.” (It’s long enough to do what I need to do, just not long enough to tolerate wasted time). Having a game on hand to absorb minutes or more waiting for other people to finish their experience keeps me from getting grumpy. Children everywhere work the same way. I personally prefer to visit museums in which people are not grumpy (especially children, and especially me). I understand the reactions of people who think that playing a game is disrespectful. I disagree, of course, but I understand. But I also know that neurodiversity is a thing. That people experience life differently. That all of the “put your phone away and experience life” in the world doesn’t create a positive response or a meaningful experience. Has anyone NOT been that sullen child forced to “experience” what we are told to?

I just sat last night at a Pokéstop in a place I see every day. That stop is a sculpture I’d never seen before, tucked away in back of a building. I would not have experienced it but for the person who submitted it as a “portal” in Ingress because they loved it, and but for Pokémon Go and the “lure patch” some other player applied to that stop. Those people invited me to experience something they found meaningful, and I was delighted to share in that. I was very able to calmly and quietly play my game and appreciate the moving work of art. That has been my observation of Ingress, and if Pokémon gets more people to see their world more thoroughly, (plus the other positive benefits,) I’m going to frown hard at “don’t play here” responses based on non-players assumptions about what players are thinking. I am sorry for people whose peaceful reflection can be disrupted by someone else silently looking at their cell phone, but I don’t feel at all obliged to put mine away for their comfort. If that phone has drawn me to a place, I am entitled to my experience. My experience is not “disrespectful.” That is other people’s mistaken interpretation of what is happening in my head. If a place chooses to forbid me to use the thing that probably got me there in the first place, then I will pass along to the next place. Washington D.C. is a deeply rich city that I could not experience all of with years to do it.

To each their experience. If Pokémon Go players are being inappropriate, then they should stop, and the Museum should certainly ask them to behave properly for the benefit of others there. I think that the Museum could find ways to benefit, as so many other places of cultural significance have done. This is a new kind of thing, and clearly not going anywhere. We have the opportunity right now to find ways to cultivate it positively and set expectations. It is a VERY exciting time. I hope that most places faced with the dilemma we’re hearing about will find ways to make a win-win out of it.

#teaminstinct #enlightened

Hugo Ballot: Novella

I wasn’t able to put the best novella of 2015 on the top of my Hugo ballot, because that story, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik, didn’t make the finals.  That said, I can’t complain too much about the choices I had: the novella can be an awkward length, but most of this year’s entries carried it off and some were very good indeed.

There’s a clear winner and a clear loser.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric’s Demon is what a fantasy novella should be.  It’s a coming-of-age tale with considerable depth, well-drawn characters and tight, vivid storytelling.  The titular “demon” is a fascinating character in her (their?) own right, and though she’s not very demonic, it’s easy to see how she could be, and one of the best things about the story is that it’s also something of a coming-of-age tale for her.  Penric’s Demon is everything I’ve come to expect from Bujold, and it easily tops my ballot.

Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, on the other hand, is half-baked.  It’s full of narrative that interrupts the flow of action and dialogue, chapter breaks that make no sense, and backstory presented through infodumps rather than flowing naturally into the story.  The author takes much too long to introduce the characters and is too slow to get where he’s going.  There’s the kernel of a good story in there, which puts it above No Award, but the flaws in the writing are too great to ignore.

The other three entries are closer together, which surprises me, because I initially expected Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti to stand out as much as Penric’s Demon did.  I really wanted to like Binti.  It’s an Afrofuturist space opera, which pushes pretty much all my buttons.  There’s a mythic quality to the storytelling, which I also favor, and the author handles the cross-cultural themes very well (an Igbo author writing a Himba character is roughly equivalent to a Spaniard getting into the head of a Ukrainian).  The protagonist’s moral growth through adversity and coming to terms with her aspirations are universal.  In some ways, Binti is a gem.

But it’s a flawed gem.  Too much of the writing, especially in the first part of the story, is clumsy and repetitive: it gets better as the story moves along and the action picks up, but never entirely goes away.  The protagonist’s shift in sympathy toward the alien Meduse happens much too quickly to suspend disbelief, especially given what the Meduse had done to her friends a short time before.  The Meduse’s motivation to attack the ship was weak and not fully realized within their culture.  These flaws weren’t as overwhelming as those of The Builders, but they were enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State, on the other hand, was better than I expected.  It’s a virtual reality story, and I usually hate virtual reality stories.  I’ve never been a cyberpunk fan, and virtual reality is too often used as a device to gloss over the moral implications of the characters’ actions because their victims aren’t real.  When I saw that Perfect State was set in a universe where every “liveborn” human was master of his own mini-universe, Nine Princes in Amber-style, I expected the worst.

Instead, the story addressed the moral implications of virtual reality head-on, and its conflict arose precisely from the protagonist’s belief that “machine-borns” were people whose lives mattered and who were worth fighting for. There’s also some interesting exploration of how “real” the liveborn humans are in comparison to the simulated ones, and how similar are some of the forces acting on them. Unfortunately, the protagonist flinches at taking his beliefs to their logical conclusion, and the moral weight of the story is compromised by the likelihood that the conflict zone’s population were, in fact, robotic constructs. But the writing is tight, the action is exciting, and I don’t regret the time I spent reading.

Binti and Perfect State ended up very close in the rankings: at the moment, I think the Sanderson has a narrow edge over the Okorafor, but I’ll probably change my mind several times over between now and July 31.

That leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets.  I’m not a Reynolds fan: when he’s good, he’s very good, but most of his work falls flat, and he sometimes takes thought experiments well past the point of collapse.  Slow Bullets did nothing to change my opinion. There’s nothing bad about the story – it’s lucid and competently written – but also nothing particularly good.  The reason why military records are kept on “slow bullets” and why the bullets are so important to the story is never satisfactorily explained.  Nor is there any real reason why the enemy torturer chose to become the narrator’s nemesis, why they ended up on the same lost ship, or why, once they encounter one another again, the torturer suddenly loses much of his importance to the story.  And Reynolds does little to make us care about the characters, so when the plotlines are (mostly) resolved, I didn’t care much about that either.  It’s well ahead of The Builders, but behind Binti and Perfect State.

  1. Penric’s Demon
  2. Perfect State
  3. Binti
  4. Slow Bullets
  5. The Builders

Hugo Ballot: Novelette and Short Story

It’s voting time for the Hugo awards, which means that it’s also time for everyone with a Worldcon supporting membership to spam the universe with their opinions on the finalists. I’ll start this year’s ballot with novelettes and short stories, which are what I actually read most often day to day and thus require the least homework.

The two categories are a study in contrasting quality. Despite the second year of Rabid Puppy interference (I still can’t believe I just wrote that), the novelette shortlist is quite credible. Folding Beijing is easily one of the best stories of 2015 and would no doubt have made it onto the ballot without Theodore Beale’s help. And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead belongs on the ballot too – yeah, gratuitous foul language and dated cyberpunk plot, but it’s a hell of a story. Obits isn’t Stephen King’s best work, but even bad King is better than most of what’s out there. Even the two Castalia entries aren’t terrible – What Price Humanity is a tightly written and suspenseful story of war veterans being trained in virtual reality for one last mission, and Flashpoint Titan is no worse than ordinary missile porn. Granted, in a year where the eligible works included Ian McDonald’s Botanica Veneris and Rose Lemberg’s Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds, I’m sorry to see the Castalia stories there instead, but the top of the shortlist is very good indeed and none of it is bad enough to get No Awarded.

The short stories, on the other hand, piss me off.

The top two aren’t bad. Both Cat Pictures Please (the only non-Puppy entry to make the shortlist) and Asymmetrical Warfare are entertaining. There’s an idea or two in Asymmetrical Warfare, in which starfish-like aliens learn the folly of judging a book by its cover or a lifeform by its shape, and Cat Pictures Please is a nice portrayal of a self-aware artificial intelligence and its attempts to understand humanity’s self-destructive side. But though both are entertaining light reading, neither is really more than that, and in a year that featured (for instance) Ursula Vernon’s Wooden Feathers, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Midnight Hour, and Megan O’Keefe’s Of Blood and Brine, neither really stands out.

And the other three… well. There’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the Chuck Tingle dinosaur-porn story that Beale pushed onto the ballot as an exercise in pure trolling, and Tingle’s successful counter-trolling, while funny as hell, doesn’t cure the waste of a ballot slot. From there, it goes even further downhill. If You Were an Award, My Love has no literary merit that I can see, and is quite possibly the most spiteful story ever to be nominated for a significant literary award. And Seven Kill Tiger – even aside from the bad science, what can I say about a story that portrays Africans as subhuman and in which the hero, a Chinese mining exec in Zambia, successfully unleashes a genocidal plague against them so that Han Chinese can take over the continent? His inner monologue includes – I’m not paraphrasing – “Africa would be a glorious place were it not for the Africans” and “African men thought of themselves as lions, and they lived like kings of beasts, entirely content to lounge about living off the labor of one or more of his lionesses,” and he’s the good guy.  He’s talking about Chewa people too – I know some Chewa people personally, and the story’s portrayal of them doesn’t amuse me.

I understand perfectly why Beale and Jerry Pournelle thought that Seven Kill Tiger was a good story. I disagree.

Bottom line: all the novelettes are going above No Award, three short stories are going below it, and I’d like to announce to the world at large that two of the items on the short-story ballot belong there less than Space Raptor Butt Invasion does.

Novelette:

1. Folding Beijing
2. And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead
3. Obits
4. What Price Humanity
5. Flashpoint Titan

Short Story:

1. Cat Pictures Please
2. Asymmetric Warfare
3. No Award
4. Space Raptor Butt Invasion
5. If You Were an Award, My Love
6. Seven Kill Tiger

Homecoming: A Monday story

On occasion, when I write a story I don’t plan to submit, I’ll post it here for your reading pleasure (or otherwise). I particularly welcome comments and criticism on these posts – I mean it about the criticism, because I’m always looking to improve my craft. I’ll respond to any comment on a story posted here.

Anyway, this story takes place in South Carolina, but not our South Carolina: it’s the South Carolina of this world. The story stands alone, and you should be able to tell some of what makes its world different from ours – if not, I’m not doing my job.

_______

Lobeco, SC
September 1961

Caroline began cooking at three, and she put up the flag at five thirty.

The first car pulled up outside at a quarter to six and a couple of tourists got out. Caroline sized them up as they climbed the steps to the veranda: forties or fifties, office job somewhere, Northeastern from the look of them. She opened the door a minute before they would have rung the bell, and said “Come on in, I’m Caroline.”

“I’m Fred and this is Nora,” the man said – definitely New York or New Jersey. “Dinner’s on?”

“Sure is.” The flag was up, and that had meant one thing ever since tourists started coming this way by automobile: that anyone who cared to stop by and pay could have a seat at the table.

“Your family here?” asked Nora, handing over a five-dollar bill.

“No, just you and me. Dining room’s that way.” Caroline led them in to where the table was already set: a sweetgrass basket in the center with napkins and utensils; peanut stew with chicken and okra; fish fry with rice; cornbread and greens; a salad from the kitchen garden. There was no menu – people who came to house restaurants ate what the family ate – but she liked to make more than one thing so no one would get up hungry.

“Let me get you something to drink. Lemonade? Sweet tea? Beer?”

“Lemonade for me, beer for him.”

Caroline went to the kitchen, brought back the pitchers and poured, and then she took a helping of stew herself and sat down at the table. “What’s bringing y’all here?”

“The festival.” Fred looked surprised that it could be anything else, and in truth it was the answer Caroline had expected. St. Helena Island always threw a party to celebrate the Sea Island Republic’s declaration of independence back in the Civil War, and with the hundredth anniversary this year, they were doing something special. The Sea Islands’ independence had been brief, but it was heroic, and here in Gullah country, people still felt it.

“You’ll have a good time, trust me. Make sure you try…” But the doorbell cut the conversation short, and Caroline got up to bring two more tourists to the table.

More people drifted in over the next hour: the next-door neighbors and the widower from up the street, a lone tourist all the way from Wisconsin, a family from Virginia. Caroline sat and chatted when she could and got up and served when she had to. It was a good mix and they all seemed to get along: once they got talking about the festival, she hardly needed to put a word in to keep the conversation going.

At seven, when the Virginians came in, she thought about taking the flag down. Twelve people was all that would fit in the dining room. It was a nice night and she could sit a few more on the veranda, but she’d have to cook more and she liked to have everyone in one place when she brought out the pecan pie and the banjo.

She considered a bit – another few dollars wouldn’t hurt – but it didn’t take long to decide. She got up to take the flag down, or at least she was about to get up when she heard a man’s voice in the door, saying “I’ll have the roast loblolly, please.”

Caroline knew that voice, and when she looked up, she knew that face.

“King of Mali, Sam, what the hell are you doing here?” She gave the guests an embarrassed smile – she never cussed in front of other people if she could help it – but then she turned back to the man standing in the door, and her look would have left him for dead if he’d had any shame.

“The flag’s up, ain’t it?”

“It’s up for everyone but you, Sam. Beaufort’s about twelve miles that way – someone there’ll feed you.”

“Can’t use some more company?”

“I could have used your company a lot of times the past seventeen years,” said Caroline, but suddenly, the heat of anger turned to something cooler. “Tell you what, Sam, I cooked dinner for you that day you never came home, so I reckon you’ve got one meal waiting. I don’t want to make a scene in company, so if you sit in the kitchen I’ll serve it to you. And then you get gone.”

For a second, Sam looked like he wanted to say something else, but then he shut up and let Caroline lead him to the kitchen. She sat him under the militia rifle and Arabic calligraphy and across from the Freedmen’s Circle calendar, dished him out some stew and rice, and went back to take care of the customers.

She was in the kitchen a couple more times before the guests left, and each time, Sam didn’t say a word and paid attention to his meal. She hurried the guests out faster than she’d planned – pie, yes, but no banjo playing tonight – and when the last one was gone, she walked in again and found him still there.

She stood for a moment, hands on her hips, and finally sighed. “All right, Sam,” she said, “if you won’t leave like a decent soul, you can at least help do the dishes.”

“At your command, ma’am,” said Sam, and he disappeared into the dining room to clear the table. After, he scraped off the dishes, washed them in the sink, and handed them to Caroline to dry: it became a rhythm, and after a while it was almost like old times.

“The kids gone?” he asked a few minutes later.

“You’d know if you’d stayed,” Caroline answered. “But Yusuf married that Camara girl and he’s working at the drugstore, and Sharon’s in college in Freetown.”

“Sierra Leone?”

“Yes, studying to be a teacher. These days, she calls the speech Afro-Atlantic instead of Gullah.”

“They do get ideas over there, don’t they? And you, Carol? You doing all right? Cookin’ for money…”

“Oh, I’m fine, Sam. I just do this weekends. I like cooking for a crowd, that’s all, and with the children grown, this way I have someone at the table.” She gave him a very pointed look. “Tell me. Why the hell did you come back? What did you think you’d find?”

“I came for the festival, like everyone else.”

“You know exactly what I mean. Why’d you come here? Plenty of hotels in Beaufort where you could have stayed, if all you wanted was to join the party on St. Helena.”

Sam started to answer, then stopped, then started again. He was holding a dish, and he put it back into the suds. He stood there, and Caroline looked deep into his face: it was older now, with both of them in their forties, but it was still the one she remembered, with dark expressive eyes and the Rice Coast written on its features.

“I don’t know, Carol,” he said at last. “I really don’t know. Just that I drove up here from Mobile, and all the way, I kept seeing your face. I haven’t been back to South Carolina all this time, and I still can’t think of it without remembering you. No place is ever home like the first home, I guess.”

“There was a time when you were happy enough to take off to a second one,” answered Caroline, but her voice had gone from harsh to resigned. “Khadija – that was her name, wasn’t it? You still with her?”

Sam shook his head and laughed – it was painful laughter, but a laugh all the same. “That lasted about five years, and one night I came home and she wasn’t there. After, there was a woman or two, but never for very long.” He handed Caroline the last spoon and sank into a chair beside the recipe books. “You?”

“For a while, I was too busy raising the kids alone. But after… same thing. A man here, a man there. I thought about getting married again once, but it didn’t happen.”

“Aren’t we supposed to get better at this when we grow up?”

Caroline couldn’t help it – she laughed. “That’s what I keep telling Sharon.” She took a chair across from his. “Beer?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He got up and found the beer himself. “You going to the festival too?”

“I already been. I’ll go again, but not tomorrow – I’ve got things to do.”

“Circle things?”

“That’s what the plans were. I was supposed to teach a French class down at the Circle hall. But that’s canceled now that there’s gonna be a shout for Anne Marie.”

A shock came over Sam’s face. “Anne Marie’s dead?”

“She’s been fighting Congo fever for years. It’s been coming for a long time.”

“I can’t believe it. Anne Marie.”

“I know what you mean,” said Caroline – Anne Marie had been the life of the Lobeco Circle even when they were in school, and she’d seemed indestructible. “I don’t know who’ll keep things together now – I’m surprised the shout got arranged without her to organize it.” They both laughed again, the laughter of two people who’d grown up and who knew that life sometimes tasted bitter.

Sam got up suddenly and disappeared down the hall – Caroline knew what for. She started putting the cups and utensils away, and with her mind on the task, it came as a surprise to see him standing in the doorway again. He was smiling, and it looked like he’d been there a while.

“You still can stop a clock, Carol,” he said.

“The hell,” she began, but she never got the words out of her mouth. She wasn’t sure if she should be angry, especially since she’d been thinking that Sam didn’t look half-bad himself for forty-two.

“Don’t think you can buy my forgiveness with lies,” she finally said.

“It’s no lie, Carol, but I do wish you’d forgive me anyway. I did wrong.”

“I forgave you long ago. We all make our mistakes.”

“No, Carol, that’s not it. You weren’t a mistake for me. You were the one right decision I made. But we were what – eighteen, nineteen when we got married? Everyone says to get married young so the Congo fever won’t get you, and the Circle practically marched us to the altar when they saw we were together, but I wasn’t man enough yet to handle being married to anyone. Then there was Yusuf and Sharon, and…”

“I know. Not like I handled things much better. But like you said, we’re supposed to get better at this when we grow up – I wish you’d given it that chance.”

Sam sat down again and the silence lengthened, but it had become a companionable rather than a hostile silence. “I’d like to go to Anne Marie’s shout tomorrow,” he said.

“You’ll be welcome, I’m sure.”

“Allah carry her soul up high,” he said. It was the first line of a spiritual, and he sang the second: Caroline took her banjo down as she’d been planning to do hours before and finished it with him. She couldn’t sing worth a damn, so she played a harmony to his voice: her fingers found the strings naturally as they’d done at Circle dances a long time ago.

“If you’re staying for the shout,” she said, “you shouldn’t go to Beaufort this late. I’ll get you a blanket and pillow and you can sleep downstairs. Downstairs, mind you – if you come knocking at my door, out on the street you go.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and saluted. She laughed again and showed him where the linens were.

“We’ll go to the shout together?” he said.

Her lips started to form a no, but she turned around instead and was halfway up the stairs before she looked down.

“Ask me tomorrow.”

Sidewise in learning

Somebody – maybe Bradbury, maybe Heinlein, maybe John D. MacDonald – said that you need to write a million words before you’ve learned the craft. I’ve never kept count, but I wrote for forty years before I sold my first story to a pro market, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit the million mark somewhere. And if I did, about half those million words were alternate history.

History has fascinated me since I was a child, and the unknowable ifs of history – what might have happened if the past had played out differently – have appealed to my imagination for nearly as long. I was about ten years old when I read Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time, and from then on I was hooked. I read alternate history stories anywhere I could find them, and when I discovered an Internet discussion group on alternate history in 1995, I became a participant. I’ve played with historical what-ifs in one forum or another ever since.

The magic of alternate history, like that of all speculative fiction, is that it’s open to nearly anything. What if Spinoza had gone into exile in the Ottoman Empire after the Dutch rabbinate excommunicated him? What if the Malê Revolt in Brazil had gone a bit better – not much better, but a bit – leading to a Jacobin Islam taking root in West Africa? What if the early split between the Kingdom and Republic of Haiti had become permanent? What if the kenbut (local justice courts) of ancient Egypt had assumed power by default during one of the periods of collapse, leading to the formation of quasi-republics? What if the Iron Age Nok culture of Nigeria had developed steel, or if African rice had been domesticated in Mali before 3000 BC?

(And yes, in case you haven’t guessed, all of those are my scenarios.)

But while alternate history has been wonderful exercise for the imagination, have my half-million words of it helped to teach me the craft of writing? In some ways I’m not entirely sure. Bulletin-board alternate history is different from published alternate history, with intellectual rigor and historical plausibility prized above storytelling. There’s a reason why the scenarios explored on alternate-history forums are usually called “timelines” rather than stories or novels: their object is more to build a different world rather than to tell the stories of its people.

World-building is of course part of all speculative fiction, but on alternate history forums, it becomes the whole. Timelines often use more of the tropes of academic writing and popular history books than those of fiction, and the interactive nature of Internet forums turns them into something like seminars. There isn’t really an equivalent in published literature: Robert Sobel came close with For Want of a Nail, but that was a one-time tour de force that has never been, and possibly never should be, duplicated. For that matter, Sobel was an economic historian rather than a novelist by training, and while his writing was interesting to those of a historical bent, it violated most of the rules of good storytelling. I’d go so far as to say that bulletin-board alternate history is a different genre from the works of authors such as Turtledove or Stirling, and as such, it isn’t necessarily good training for literary writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t entirely bad training. World-building is important, and participation in an alternate history forum is a master class in how to do it right and (just as critically) how to do it wrong. Bad alternate history is wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which the author picks an event and then proceeds from unspoken premises to paint the map his or her favorite color. Good alternate history is all about discovering the premises: taking a pivotal event and applying principles of historical cause and effect both to posit how the event might turn out differently and project the long-term outcome. Good alternate history is more science fiction than fantasy, and requires the author to develop an understanding of the political, economic, social, intellectual and environmental factors that drive human development. The research that I’ve done for my bulletin-board scenarios has improved my general knowledge and sense of plausible world-building as well as my knowledge of the specific cultures and personalities that have found their way into my writing.

And even in bulletin-board alternate history, there’s plenty of room for storytelling. As I became more confident in writing timelines, I shifted more and more from the macroscale to the microscale, and began focusing on one-shot vignettes and the story arcs of historical characters. Of the works linked above, the Haitian one consists entirely of short stories (after some preliminary discussion) and I’m quite proud of a couple of them. Most of the others also intersperse short fiction with the general historical discussion: Malê Rising even includes literary selections “written” by authors living in the alternate universe, and aside from being good exercise in writing from different voices, one of those selections led directly to my first professionally-published story.

So, yes, playing with history is part of my million words – not to mention that it’s been a lot of fun, and fun, at least, is never wasted.