Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Other Teddy Roosevelts, by Mike Resnick

In celebration of America's birthday, today I have decided to write about America's greatest president, Theodore Roosevelt. As most people who know me are no doubt aware, I have an incredible amount of adoration for our twenty-sixth president and especially his domestic reform policies which sought to get corporate interests out of the business of government and return the power to the people. Obviously there were varying degrees of success with such reforms, but I think the Pure Food and Drug Act was a noteworthy accomplishment. And even beyond TR's tenure as president he was simply a larger than life figure that packed more adventure and accomplishment into his lifetime than most people would in five. As Resnick himself says the motivation to write stories about TR was because some of what he actually did, like track three killers down in a Dakota blizzard or chart the River of Doubt in Brazil, strains our belief that he could have actually done all those things. So it's not a terribly large jump to have him hunt vampires while serving as New York City's police commissioner or to fight HG Wells's Martian invaders during the Spanish-American War. And besides, that sounds like it'd be some pretty cool adventures, why the hell not?

 The Other Teddy Roosevelts contains seven short stories written by Mike Resnick which are little what-if adventures in the life of TR ranging from what if TR tangled with Jack the Ripper in Victorian London to what if TR had won the 1912 election as a Bull Moose Candidate. Or perhaps, most poignantly, what if TR's beloved first wife Alice hadn't died on Valentine's Day in 1884? All of these potential what-ifs raise some interesting questions, but unfortunately this book is not without flaws.

Some of the short stories are actually quite good and I enjoyed following TR hunt down Jack the Ripper, vampires, and Martian invaders but there were a couple of issues that started to surface as I continued with the novel. For example, I noticed that in every story Resnick wrote that Teddy jutted out his jaw pugnaciously at some point and flashes his toothy trademark Roosevelt grin. Certainly I would expect TR to do such things, but when the same thing happens in story after story I start getting the feeling he's just recycling due to lack of better ideas.

A story which I took particular issue with was The Bull Moose at Bay, which explores the idea that TR won the 1912 election and served a third term as president. The biggest problem is that the story takes place in 1916, at the end of his third term and when he's running for a fourth term. Basically the story is an entire argument for show, don't tell. We get told that TR was able to end the Great War in a year, but we're not told how he was able to do so. The economy is stronger than it ever was before and the trusts have been busted, but we're not shown how it's been done. And, most importantly to the story, TR has taken up the cause of women's suffrage but we don't get to see his fights with Republican leadership over the issue. We're just told that they fought over the issue and it may cost TR the election. If any of these stories deserved their own full-length book it would have been TR's third term as president and an in-depth exploration of what he could have done in those four years. Instead we jump to him running for a fourth term and potentially losing because of his support for women's suffrage. The other thing that irritated me was that throughout the entire story Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor are also there, but we're not explicitly told who they are until the very end of the story. I feel like that's supposed to be a big surprise to the reader, a sort of, "No way! FDR and Eleanor were there too?!" But the surprise doesn't work. If you know anything about American history, you're going to know right away who they are so the reveal comes as a, "Well duh." But if you know nothing about American history then the reveal's going to come as a, "Who?" It just doesn't work and makes a disappointing end to an already lackluster story.

The final real kicker for me was The Light that Blinds, the Claws that Catch which went into an absolute idolization of TR. Don't get me wrong, I like me some TR myself, but at the same time I always try to recognize that he was a human with flaws, just like the rest of us, and was not some perfect demigod that strode the earth with us mortals. In that particular story it asks what would happen if TR's first wife, Alice, hadn't died. The result is that TR passes up every opportunity for greatness that comes his way and becomes a quiet, humble man who focuses entirely on taking care of his fragile wife. It concludes with TR dying peacefully in his sleep and history weeping at the lost opportunity. Aside from the elevation of our TR to practically deity-status, I feel like this story relies too much on the Great Man theory of history. Basically, for many years people interpreted history as being influenced by powerful and great men who shape the entire course of events through willpower. Figures like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Hitler, influence the entire world through their actions. The problem with the Great Man theory is that it fails to account for the larger conditions which enable such men to rise to positions of power. Certainly individuals and groups of individuals play a part in the role of events, but there are larger social, political, and economic forces that enable such people to have influence. Quite simply, you cannot prevent World War II by going back in time and killing Hitler because while you've removed Hitler, you have not removed the conditions that allowed the Nazi party to take power in Germany and the creation of a dictator. Certainly you can remove TR from the equation of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, but that does not remove the conditions that would allow a person, or several people, to step into the roles that TR filled during this time. TR was certainly a remarkable man, but he certainly wasn't the only man.

The final issue, and this is sort of quibbling over details, was the list of facts about TR that are placed at the very end of the book. My problem was that some of them were distortions of the truth which seem to serve no purpose other than to make TR look greater. For example, Resnick asserts that TR busted more trusts as president than anyone else, ignoring the fact that William Howard Taft actually busted more trusts during his one term than TR ever did in his two. In addition Resnick claimed that TR managed to end the Russo-Japanese War before it turned into a real shooting war, which is simply not true. While TR managed to negotiate an end to the Russo-Japanese War, it definitely resulted in over 100,000 casualties, as well as 20,000 civilian casualties, and several dramatic battles in which the Japanese utterly trounced the Russians. I definitely think that would qualify for the definition of a shooting war rather than a charming little disagreement. In addition, the Russians were in no condition to continue with the war effort, facing severe unrest at home in response to the military setbacks and the war would have ended anyway without TR's involvement. As much as I like TR I refuse to stand for the distortion of information in his favor.

Despite the initial promise of this book, I ended up frustrated with it more than anything else. I would honestly recommend my readers just pass this book up and go read Tales From the Bully Pulpit instead.

- Kalpar

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