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Back in the USSA Hardcover – September, 1997

3.9 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In the zany scenario of this alternative history of the 20th century, Russia didn't have a revolution, but the United States did, sparked by Teddy Roosevelt's death in a gun battle between the Rough Riders and striking meatpackers in 1912 Chicago. Soon Chairman Capone and the iron arm of the Federal Bureau of Ideology have remade the party of Eugene Debs in their own image. As the authors laboriously conceive it, the U.S. becomes a sort of simplified Eastern Bloc in which historical and pop-culture figures mingle with the fictional characters. Sometimes the rules of this transformation bend weirdly enough to create a kind of brief, madcap diversion, as when Buddy Holly tells how Howard Hughes and Jack Kerouac barnstormed across the USSA in the Spruce Goose, here a homemade biplane ("`I'll tell you what music was in those days," says Holly, here spared from untimely death, "Mario fucking Lanza singing about agricultural machinery"). Despite such bursts of high spirits, Newman's (Bloody Red Baron) and Byrne's disheveled goose has a hard time getting off the ground, and the cartoonish country it surveys offers little food for thought.

Copyright 1997 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 356 pages
  • Publisher: Mark V. Ziesing; First Ed edition (September 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0929480848
  • ISBN-13: 978-0929480848
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.9 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,763,431 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Kim Newman is the most accomplished practitioner of "alternate history", as evident from his astonishing Anno Dracula series, as well as his dark & daring tales of the Diogenes Club in 'this' world. But in this book, perhaps because of the geography (the United States of America is, after all, much-much bigger than the comparatively tiny UK or Britain envisaged by Saki, in his "When William Came" or in the Anno Dracula books), the gallop never becomes canter. There are intriguing flashes of Newman's magical touches here & there. The way pop culture and history mixes into imagination to give it a pseudo credibility is also very good. But it could have been great. Perhaps the authors would give it a new flourish, adding a few more taut novellas to the main body, when they (hopefully) re-release this book at some point of time. Recommended.
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Format: Hardcover
While it's adequately believable as alternate history, "Back in the USSA" is primarily satire. The role reversal between USA and USSR puts a mirror to the real world: to especially telling effect when there's no change. For instance, "In the Air" has a lot to say about the double standard that makes people see identical behaviour - platoons of children in military uniform honouring war heroes, and saluting the flag - as healthy patriotism in their own country, but sinister militaristic indoctrination in another. Other targets are the US Vietnam movie mythos ("Teddy Bears' Picnic" features classic English comic characters conscripted to a British Indochina war); British royalty ("Abdication Street" is a bad-taste mimic of the Charles/Diana wedding); and the late tycoon Robert Maxwell. This may not be to your taste; many of the TV and movie in-jokes are far more accessible to UK readers. But if it is, you'll find it a wonderfuly dark and witty take on the major events of this century.
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Format: Hardcover
Authors approach the fictionalization of history in a variety of ways. Some choose to illuminate events with behind-the-scenes information or through the use of unusual perspectives--George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series and Lewis Shiner's Glimpses are examples. Borges proposes a garden of forking paths, where each decision creates another reality. Writers like Howard Waldrop warp reality to suit their purposes. Finally, there is the "what if" kind of alternate reality. Stephen Baxter's Voyage asks: What if John Kennedy survived Oswald's assassination attempt and went on to champion the space program? Robert Harris' Fatherland proposes a world where Germany won World War II. Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain depicts a United States where slaves successfully revolted during the Civil War and founded an independent southern country.

Back in the USSA belongs to this last school, asking: What if the Communist revolution of 1917 took place in the United States rather than in Russia? Byrne and Newman posit a world where Eugene Debs takes the place of Lenin, Al Capone the place of Stalin, and First Secretary Kurt Vonnegut leads the USSA into a new era after communism fails. Composed of seven novellas, this collection explores the political, global, but most of all the personal repercussions of this change in history. Historical figures take the lead roles, but famous fictional characters are also prominently featured. Thus, Charles Foster Kane, champion of the robber barons, becomes President, and Norman Bates, Lou Ford and Andy Taylor appear as peripheral figures in a story about Wisconsin mass murderer Ed Gein.

The first story, "In the Air (1989)," takes place shortly after the fall of communism in the USSA.
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Format: Hardcover
The premise is that Teddy Roosevelt was assassinated by Annie Oakley after a successful presidential win by the Bull Moose Party. His Vice President, millionaire Charles Foster Kane (yes, watch out for the fictional characters who appear in the narrative as well as the historical ones who appear in new personnas), plunges the USA into a disastrous early entry into the Great War. This leads to a violent Revolution and the establishment of of a new Socialist state in America, while Russia evolves into a constitutional monarchy.
This is quite a trip! The book is told in the form of separate narratives, from the young Buddy Holly under the regime of Chairman Capone (the USSA's Stalin), a wonderland mirror version of the Untouchables and the Grapes of Wrath, a tale about Ed Gein coldcut supplier to the Party big-wigs, the British experience in the Vietnam War ("Teddy Bears Picnic" -- a wonderful sequence), television under the csar during a Royal Wedding, and much more.
Newman and Byrne are mishugah, and I like it.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an ambitious but very odd and uneven book, more an anthology than a cohesive--not to mention coherent--tale of alternate history. It is also a very British book, filled with character and pop-culture references unfamiliar to the average Yank. Even so, it's often laugh-out-loud funny, and occasionally moving.
Alternate history most often falls into two categories--plausible, and farcical. This book doesn't even attempt realism; it mixes historical figures and fictional characters into the same batter, which results in a surreal batch of Special Brownies. (Charles Foster Kane is a contemporary of Teddy Roosevelt; J.R. Ewing is shot in the White House rather than on Dallas...)
Each chapter is a story in itself, and (unless I'm mistaken) are deliberate spoofs of literary and other media genres and styles. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (with Absinthe replacing Thompson's pharmaceuticals of choice and a Rolls Royce providing transport) and Ernest Hemingway are three of the most glaring examples, and there are references to and styles reminiscent of other writers, lyricists, poets, talking heads, et al. Sometimes the names are changed, slightly or severely. At times they are restored to their birth names. Sometimes, they just use whole cloth.
The Russian/American ideological swap doesn't always translate, especially when the emphasis on the European audience leaves Americans scratching their heads. Even so, the AU version of the Vietnam War, with the British shouldering the burdens and the losses, and the parallels to Apocalypse Now, was simply brilliant.
All in all, it was a worthwhile read, but I did come away disappointed. It's hit and miss--but when it hits, it's fabulous.
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