What happens when a novel abounding with 18th century anachronisms feels like one of the most urgent works of fiction of the 21st? Welcome to Damien Lincoln Ober’s Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America. It’s subtitled “A Novel of the Digital Revolution,” and that last word functions in a couple of different ways. Ober’s novel is set in an alternate timeline, in which a version of the internet was present during the American Revolution and thus evolved with the new nation. Its structure is also distinctive: each chapter tells the story of the last day in the life of one of the Declaration of Independence’s signers.
It’s also one of the most bizarre novels I’ve ever read, and one of the most original. The closest point of comparison I can make might be to Michael Swanwick’s Jack Faust or Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World — but said novels are light-years apart in other ways. Ober’s novel ultimately occupies its own space, a hallucinatory counterfactual that frequently turns utterly nightmarish.
Getting one’s head around this book is a strange process. And the presence of an internet hundreds of years ago isn’t the only divergence from history: there’s a harrowing plague known simply as The Death, which devastates the nascent United States and takes the narrative into body-horror territory; there are visitors from another world, mysterious creatures, and multiple layers of reality. The closest analogy I can think of is a wholly imperfect one, but imperfect comparisons seem entirely appropriate here. When writing A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin drew upon real-world history for some of his inspiration–specifically, England’s War of the Roses. Imagine, if you will, a retelling of the War of the Roses that interpolated some of the details Martin added when riffing on this period of history but jettisoned its otherworldly setting–so you’d have, say, dragons and frozen zombies marching around 15th-century England, interacting with kings and queens in a much more recognizable context.
Except that Ober is, I think, going after something more ominous here. Reading his novel, I found myself thinking of the aide in the George W. Bush administration who was infamously quoted by Ron Suskind in the New York Times Magazine in 2004:
“We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
At its core, Ober’s novel is about conflicting factions within a nation attempting to create and maintain their own realities, using constant advancements in technology to advance their own causes. Finding resonances for the contemporary United States in the earliest days of the nation is a storytelling device that many have found powerful; please note the ticket prices for Hamilton as but one recent example. And so instead of heated debates over historical legacies, we have virtual versions of historical figures lurking in online spaces, controlled by shadowy figures. We have political factions each managing their own virtual spaces, establishing their own areas of influence. We have questions over what’s real and what’s imagined, and what even constitutes “reality” at any given moment.
Does any of this sound…remotely familiar? Ober’s book was first published in 2014, but if you’d told that it had been written in one feverish run as Donald Trump’s presidency kicked in to high gear, I’d find that wholly believable. By the end of the novel, debates rage over what’s essentially fake news, informational spaces are highly contested, and Andrew Jackson is President. It’s the rare book in which real-world events seem like an entirely plausible sequel to the fictional goings-on. Ober’s novel brings together history, technology, and dream logic; the end result is something wholly familiar and utterly unsettling, a trip into the past that simultaneously rewires the future.
Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America
by Damien Lincoln Ober
Nightshade Books; 322 p.