Title: States of Deseret
Author: William Morris
Publisher: Peculiar Pages
Genre: Alternative History, Fiction
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 109
Binding: Kindle only
Reviewed by Christian Anderson for the Association for Mormon Letters.
Mormon authors have become prominent figures in most of the provinces and territories of fiction, but are curiously absent from the realm of Alternative History, despite figuring often as subjects. The new anthology States of Deseret sends out a few pioneers into this territory in the form of eight bite-sized stories, which both use and spin the tropes of the genre, hinting at greater things to come.
There are two reasons why this collection should not be unprecedented in 2017. First, Mormonism itself seems compatible with the genre. The writer Mitch Horowitz is only the most prominent person to suggest Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon as a kind of alternative history. Similarly, Orson Scott Card wrote the widely-praised Alvin Maker (= Joseph Smith) saga, which netted him four Locus Awards and three Hugo nominations before he stopped writing them 14 years ago. Card himself would call this series a fantasy “because magic is real” (as distinct from Science Fiction, which “has aliens”), and indeed the introduction of magic / mystic “counterfactualities” makes it merely AH-adjacent. But clearly, awards committees are not averse to Mormon history-themed work.
The second reason is that major writers in the genre have frequently roped Mormons into their AH works, recognizing them as a valuable cultural touchstone to play out the tensions between politics and religion. Michael Chabon has Mormons granting Jews a homeland in the Hugo and Sideways Award-winning Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a possibility Lee Allred playfully has his J. Reuben Clark entertain in the last short story in the collection). Harry Turtledove, in his sprawling 10-volume TL-191 / Southern Victory saga, has Custer brutally conquer Utah Territory, surviving LDS soldiers as valuable but not-entirely-trusted shock troops, and Mormon terrorists performing the first suicide bombings in 1930s New York.
Allred’s physically-limited Peck manipulates his superior Clark behind-the-scenes in much the same way (and even in the same building) as Turtledove’s Abner Dowling manipulates Custer. And the popular tabletop RPG Deadlands (think, steampunk Wild West with zombies) also grants the Mormons an independent nation, the Republic of Deseret, which has the most advanced technology in the hemisphere, reminiscent of the fruitful collaboration imagined by David J. West between Philo Farnsworth and convert Nicolai Tesla in “Electric Apostle.”
As these eight authors set out into this dimly-seen territory, some similarities and differences with the rest of the genre begin to appear. English-language AHs tend to focus on hinge moments that cause the US to lose either the Civil War, or WWII (or both, in the case of Turtledove). Similarly, both Lori Taylor and Lee Allred have their Mormons join with the Indians to form an independent territory. In Taylor’s case, a mixed-race historian from the Latter-Day Confederacy of Many Nations has a faith crisis when, as a guest scholar at the Smithsonian, she discovers Oliver Cowdry’s (real) letter asking permission to colonize and convert indians, rather than partner with them as she’d been taught.
Such a military alliance of Mormons and Natives against the United States was actively, though secretly, sought by Brigham Young in 1845-6, as revealed in the recently published minutes of the Council of 50. This brings in the trope of Recusive AH, where fictional characters try to imagine what our world would be like; examples come from heavyweights like Nabokov’s Ada and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.
Marion Jensen does this explicilty in his humorous “Not Even the Names Have Been Changed”; a writer proposes a story where Brigham Young stopped in Utah instead of pushing on to Northern California, but such a possibility is dismissed as wildly implausible by his historian brother. Eric A. Eliason also exploits the idea of a hinge moment in “Another Meadow”; a Ceder City man happens to catch wind of John D. Lee’s plans, warns the Fanchers, and prevents the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
While not the most technically sophisticated, the story I enjoyed most in the collection was Anneke Garcia’s “Richard Meets the Missionaries”, where an investigator in Britain is hesitant to join the predominantly black LDS church, founded by Joseph Smith after his family moved to Liberia in the 1820s as part of the Back-to-Africa movement.
However, Mormon writers can contribute a new trope to the genre: “What if X converted”? In “The Father”, Inari Porkka’s narrator delivers a scholarly discorse on the effect Leo Tolstoy had on Mormon aesthetics, or would have had he converted instead of merely having “read and enjoyed” the Book of Mormon Suzy Young Gates gave him in our reality. I already mentioned West’s obituary of apostle Nicolai Tesla. Judging by the number of “secret celebrity conversion” rumors that have circulated in the last few decades, Mormon readers are very willing to suspend disbelief in this area.
Magical elements creep into the collection as well. In “The Guns of Perdition”, DJ Butler has Jesse Strang, Brigham Young, and Joseph Smith III meet in the Nauvoo Mansion House to bid on Joseph and Hyrum’s guns, an auction interrupted several times by inexplicable events and macabre revelations. This is actually the first story in the collection, as the stories are arranged chronologically by the date of the Hinge Moment.
Each story is very short, and the collection as a whole barely reaches 100 pages, so many themes are not explored. One thing none of these authors discusses explicitly is how their AH fits with the theory of parallel universes. Other authors have proposed numerous fascinating possibilities, from hierarchically ordered realities where one imposes on the other (Stephen King’s Dark Tower heptology), “rubber band” worlds where choices alter details of history but overall patterns remain the same (Ilona Andrew’s Legacy series), an infinite number of universes where all possible decisions have been made somewhere (Larry Niven’s Myriad Ways), a “central reality” from which one can access all the worlds of fiction (Jasper Fforde’s delightful Thursday Next books), or a number of universes circumscribed within the limits of what remains consistent with human personality (in several of the 42 books set on Terry Pratchet’s Discworld). Another unexplored region is the relative role of decisive moments (Points of Departure) vs. the cumulative weight of numerous small decisions in driving a wedge between the AH and our reality.
Mormon writers have a unique combination of training to think about unknowable histories, and the opportunity to describe resettling a known cultural identity in a new history from the inside. These stories prove that the tried-and-true methods of the AH genre work with Mormon themes, and that a Mormon inflection can add texture and novelty to the standard models. Rather than finding the edges of the field, these stories merely hint at the limitless possibilites yet to be explored. In short, the pages are white, already for handwriting. I look forward to being able to lay up in store a great many LDS Alternative Histories in this world’s near future.