THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
by Gore Vidal
Random House, ISBN 0-375-50121-5, 1998, 260pp, US$23
A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 1998 Evelyn C. Leeper
Just as with Vidal's earlier LIVE FROM GOLGOTHA, I will be nominating this for a Hugo. Which is to say that, just as with LIVE FROM GOLGOTHA, I will be throwing away a vote, because the chances of enough nominating fans 1) reading THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION, and 2) considering it as eligible for the Hugo, is vanishingly small. But hope springs eternal, they say, ...
Just to clear one thing up: THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION is definitely science fiction. There is time travel, there is alternate history, there is cloning (of a sort), and there is transplantation of personality into, well, robots (for lack of a better term). There is also sex, hence the rather outre cover which is supposed to parody the typical romance novel cover rather than seriously place this in that genre (though I think reversing the two figures would have been even better). One does have the feeling that the artist at least read the book, though.
T. is a thirteen-year-old student at St. Albans when he is summoned to the Smithsonian on April 7, 1939. War clouds are gathering, and he apparently is the one person who can save the world. But first he must meet the inhabitants of the Smithsonian, including all the Presidents and First Ladies as well as various anthropological representatives, all of whom come to life after hours a la the Twilight Zone episode. While he can't convince anyone to use his bomb that will destroy buildings but not people (politicos and the military prefer things the other way around), he also has some ideas for how to get the world out of its current crisis, which he foresees as leading to total nuclear war.
It isn't giving anything away to say that T. *does* change history, but that things don't turn out exactly as planned. Vidal does a lot of hand-waving about the various time paradoxes involved, but no more than many other authors. He also spends a fair amount of time having the various Presidents give their views on the world situation, what got them into it, and what they should do about it. As an observer of American historical thought, Vidal shows us the differences in philosophy among the Presidents: the isolationists, the expansionists, and so on. Decisions are not made in a vacuum in this book, but as the result of argument and discussion among the various philosophies. (One is reminded of the musical "1776.")
Another reviewer has said that Vidal's work is "all style, no substance, and a pretty boring read," contains a "long droning narrative on the essence of time," and postulates an unlikely alternate history. Let me respond to this.
I find the concepts of "all style" and "pretty boring" a bit contradictory, but in matters of taste there can be no argument, as they say, so let me just say that if you haven't liked Vidal in the past you're unlikely to like him here. He concentrates as much on *how* he says something as on *what* he says. This certainly sets his work apart from much of the alternate history which is being written today. This is probably the crux of the dispute here, in fact. If you want to read this strictly as an alternate history novel, well, yes, you might say there is not enough of what happens to change this or cause that. But I tend to dislike that sort of novel, often full of detailed descriptions of battles, but with nothing of either characterization or literary style. I love to wallow in Vidal's excesses of style!
I also found Vidal's narrative on the essence of time not boring at all, but an interesting explication, if not completely scientifically rigorous. (It was at least as sensible as Kage Baker's in THE GARDEN OF IDEN.) And as for the fact that "a lot of it is the kid talking with dummies," as I said, I found the main character's discussions with the ex-Presidents, and the discussions among the ex- Presidents and other characters to be one of the book's strong points. If you'd rather think of it as having somehow downloaded their personalities into androids, maybe that will help. It's an artificial set-up, true, but no more so than finding God's corpse in James Morrow's TOWING JEHOVAH or having Dr. Frankenstein's creation as a baseball player in Michael Bishop's BRITTLE INNINGS. I don't demand hyperrealism of my alternate histories. (The last person to do that well was Robert Sobel.) What I look for is an alternate history that tries to say something about us. At Intersection in 1995, Harry Turtledove said that alternate history doesn't have to be believable to be good; there can be a "gonzo" story that was still good, and that in any case, we do not write about alternate worlds--we write about our world, and alternate history gives us a different mirror. I find enough content in what Vidal is trying to say in THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION that I am willing to overlook the question of strict plausibility.
I highly recommend this book to fans of time travel, alternate history, or sharp commentary on United States history.
%T The Smithsonian Institution %A Gore Vidal %C New York %D 1998 %I Random House %O hardback, US$23 %G ISBN 0-375-50121-5 %P 260pp
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