Ace, 1996, 310 pages, C$6.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-00291-9
As a literary genre, Science-Fiction nowadays is large enough to accommodate a vide range of views on certain subjects. Nuclear weapons, for instance, have been used in a variety of ways by different authors. From the nuke-happy rhetoric of the most extreme military-SF to the wide-eyed horror of the post-apocalyptic segment, there’s been a divergent attitude about the current nec plus ultra in sudden energetic release. Most SF writers have accepted nuclear weaponry as a necessary evil or even as a useful dramatic tool from time to time.
Mona Clee’s first novel, Branch Point is definitely not ambivalent about nuclear weaponry. The hook of the novel is how an intrepid group of time-travelers painstakingly avert one nuclear war after another. The anti-nuke discourse is strong and strident, up to a point -as we’ll see- that it harms the novel’s overall credibility.
Branch Point is set up with a minimum of fuss and believability. We are to believe that by 1962, the US government was able to build a secret facility in California named “The Bunker”, designed to protect the best and the brightest of American scientists. The facility is activated when the October Crisis goes nuclear. A hundred years later, the dying facility has perfected time-travel (uh-huh) and is about to send three teenagers to avert the war. All three happen to be half-American, half-Russian, which is weakly justified (Visiting Soviet scientists were in The Bunker when the missiles flew, and they were far more interested in procreation than their nerdy American counterparts) but rather handy when, later, the teenagers will have to go to Russia.
Within a few dozen pages, the October crisis is avoided. But it’s not the end of the adventure for our three protagonists: years later, four preeminent American politicians are assassinated and missiles fly again. As it turns out, our protagonists have “three more tries” by which to avoid nuclear war, and they’ll avoid that one too, bringing history closer to the one we’re familiar with.
But the cycle starts anew as the 1990 Soviet putsch (in our timeline) diverges in yet another nuclear war, which our protagonists mop up once again. The universe of Branch Point then diverges in “our” future. Naturally, missiles will fly again in the early 2020s, and this time our heroine must use her last chance to avoid nuclear war ever again…
Her solution is rather curious, which is to say that she travels back to a time where Russians could have colonized California, and manipulates them in doing so. It’s an interesting conceit (suggested in the first two pages of the novel, so don’t worry about me spoiling the novel) and interestingly executed.
What I didn’t like as much is the way Clee goes out of her way to suggest that nuclear weapons will forever be banned in her “final” future. Physics go a certain way, and it seems highly doubtful that alternate sciences will not re-create nuclear weapons ever again. In this light, a lot of Branch Point seems highly convoluted. (And let’s not speak of the parts of the novel which are convoluted, such as seeing an old flame of the protagonist pop up at exactly the right moment.) Knee-jerk condemnation of nuclear weapons isn’t nearly as credible or interesting as coming to grip with a responsible usage of them… short of global thermonuclear war, naturally.
Rabid Republicans might also howl at the hero-worship representation of both John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton as minor characters in Branch Point. Baby-boomers are liable to be impressed. Others, like me, are more likely to be amused.
But even despite these problems, big and small, Branch Point remains an interesting novel, more in terms of execution, ideological standpoint and historical Easter Eggs than in terms of overall plot. Certainly, it’s a bit more memorable than other time-travel thrillers, and maybe even a bit more desperate. How much of Clee’s own pet likes and dislikes show through this novel? I’m sure some enterprising thesis author will try to find out at one point.