An alternate USA vs. a new America

I enjoy science fiction.  It’s good escape literature, but, at its best, it is a vehicle for thought experiments—asking “what if” such-and-such were true.

Charles Stross is one of my favorite SF authors.  He’s good at world-building, the SF art of creating a convincing imaginary background for his stories, he’s good at asking “what if” questions and he’s good at creating thrilling action-adventure plots.

But I can’t recommend any of his recent books because they’re all parts of long series of novels that are hard to understand unless you’ve read the preceding books.

His current book, Invisible Sun, is the third book in a trilogy, which is a sequel to a previous series (three or six books depending on which edition you’ve read). There’s lots of stuff that needs explaining if you’re entering the series at this point.

But I think it is worth writing about because of its interesting premise—a possible inter-dimensional nuclear war between two North American republics, both ostensibly developed to liberty and justice, but products of different histories in different time lines.

One is an exaggerated version of the present US warfare / surveillance state, in which Washington, D.C., has been wiped out by a nuclear weapon planted by terrorists from a different time-line. 

The other is the newly-independent New American Commonwealth, threatened by a global French Empire, a British royal family in exile and now by Alternate USA.  

A defector explains the threat Alternate USA poses to New America:

They’re a planetary hegemonic power with a very aggressive foreign policy, a tendency to project their own worst intentions onto others, and a system that makes it really difficult to back down from a fight.  Any leader who shows weakness hemorrhages support with the electorate, and the foreign affairs hierarchy is structured to systemically filter out doves and promote hawks.

If they look at us and think we’re weak, they’ll try to manipulate us, and if they look on us and see their own mirror image—a nuclear-armed superpower with para-time capability and a revolutionary ideology, they may panic and attack.  Possibly with a nuclear first strike.

The founders of the New American Commonwealth were aware of the history of our timeline and wrote a constitution intended to avoid the mistakes made by the founders of the USA.  A character says New America’s constitution had a closer resemblance to the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran than it did to the 1789 Constitution of the USA.  

Now, the Iranian government overthrown in a CIA coup in 1953 was a democratic government.  The Shah’s dictatorship, which replaced it, lasted for 26 years.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has lasted 42 years despite continuous economic warfare and covert action against it.

Present-day Iran has a democratic form of government in which its president and parliament are chosen in contested elections, but they are overseen and screened by Islamic clergy and a supreme leader.  The public has input into governmental policy, but the clergy and their Supreme Leader are the ultimate authority.  It is what thinkers in 18th century Britain might have called a mixed constitution, with elements of democracy but also built-in stabilizers.

Suppose you were a founder of a newly-independent country in reality?  What kind of a constitution would you write?  Your primary objective would be to form a government capable of protecting your country’s independence.  To what degree is that compatible with respect for free speech, human rights and free elections? Would you simply accept the dominance of a great power, which in today’s world would probably be the USA?

If you look at countries throughout the world that have stood up to U.S. interference, the dictatorships have managed, on average, better than the democracies.  Cuba and North Vietnam, whatever else you can say about them, have withstood continuous economic and covert warfare by the USA for generations.  Iraq succumbed only to an actual invasion.

 It is democratic governments in nations such as Chile and Brazil that have most frequently fallen to CIA-inspired coups.  

But on the other hand, Venezuela and Nicaragua have had contested elections and been able to stand up to U.S. pressure.  Costa Rica is a vibrant democracy in a region full of heavily-armed dictatorships, which avoids the danger of a military coup by not having a military.

Charles Stross is vague about the details of his fictional New American Commonwealth.  It has a Declaration of Democracy, and a Basic Law which is equivalent of the U.S. Bill of Rights.  

On the other hand, there is no mention of elections in any of his books.  New America’s chief executive is called the First Man.  He is chosen by a Council of Guardians and serves for life.  A character refers to him as a kind of secular Grand Ayatollah.

So is government accountable to the public in New America, or do the leaders simply assume that they represent the best interests of the public, as in the old Soviet Union?  In fact, one of the characters, a former East German espionage agent, says there is much that reminds him of Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain.

Both Alternate USA and New America have what’s called “deep states”—government agencies that act behind the backs of the nominal heads of state.  New America is subject to manipulation and nearly suffers a military coup inspired by false information supplied by Alternate USA agents.

Perhaps the difference is not so much in governmental structure as in the fact that the fictional New America is closer to its founding ideals than fictional Alternate USA and the actual USA.  Perhaps moral consensus matters more than forms of government.

A member of the British royal family in exile, swearing allegiance to New America, says:

I believe in the Commonwealth.  I believe in the rule of the people, by the people, and I believe in the peaceful transfer of power, and the ability of men and women of good will to work together for a better future.  I believe we are living in the early days of a better nation, and I want to be part of that nation, to help build something new, not remain stuck in the past like a fly embedded in amber, struggling as it suffocates.

That’s how people thought of the real USA, for all its faults and crimes, when it was newborn.

New America and Alternate USA bury their differences and form an alliance following an encounter with genocidal insectoid robots that are intent on exterminating hominid life throughout the multi-verse.

Stross’s prose is more convincing and more engrossing than you may think from what I’ve written here.  But if you haven’t read his work, this isn’t the novel I’d recommend to start with.


Invisible Sun: Themes and Nightmare by Charles Stross for Charlie’s Diary.

Russell Letson Reviews Invisible Sun by Charles Stross for Locus magazine.

Stross on Development Economics by Paul Krugman for Crooked Timber (2009)

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