John Brunner’s _The Day Kennedy Was Shot_

The backbone of most alternate histories is a convention that I find both incredibly infuriating and fiendishly delightful: the Point of Divergence. Something happens, just a single solitary something happens or doesn’t happen, and that leads to a chain of divergences. The more tiny and minute the difference – and the greater the resulting consequences – the better. For instance in Harry Turtledove’s “South wins the Civil War” 151-timeline, a single order, which went astray in real life, is found before the Union forces can intercept it. The battle of Antietem – the first major Union victory of the war – is never fought. Lincoln is never able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation (because, without a victory, it would look like an incitement for slaves to rise up and kill their owners). Great Britain and France enter the war on the side of the Confederacy (to protect the supply of cotton to their textile mills) and force Lincoln to sue for peace. The Confederacy remains in existence. Over fifteen or so subsequent novels, the two American nations fight another war, and enter in on opposite sides of WWI and WWII. Lincoln survives to be reviled, and becomes a socialist activist. The South institutes a genocidal “Final Solution” for its African-American population.

For a history nerd like me, the Point of Divergence is like a mental sieve. It lets me reinterpret every fact from a slightly altered point of view. It’s a fun mental game.

But, philosophically, there’s no sillier way to view history. The South would not have won the Civil War if an order was intercepted. They had fewer men in the field, a smaller population to recruit from, a smaller economic base…they were going to lose. There’s no counterfactual there. A few details might have been different; but they would have lost. If winning every battle for two years didn’t win them the war, then how would a single unintercepted message have changed that? (And the exact same criticism applies to visions of a victorious Axis in WWII.)

That futility is why I almost wanted to love John Brunner’s The Day That Kennedy Was Shot. The book is out of print now, but I’ve been hearing about it in SF circles for ages, in the same sort of whispered, “Aren’t I cooler than you” tones with which people talk about having read Beckford’s Vathek or Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer.

It’s something of a strange book, kind of an outgrowth of John Brunner bringing (with Stand on Zanzibar) Dos Passos’ collage-style techniques into science fiction in the 60s. The book was written late in his career and marked the point at which he began to write longer, and duller, historical novels that eventually, or so I hear from the gossip in SF circles, totally ceased to be publishable.

There’s a lot in this book that isn’t quite publishable (although that’s common with all of Brunner’s novels). The almost 900-page book is told in nearly 400 sections. Roughly one third of these deal with the main storyline, dealing with a conspiracy-theorist in an alternate-history U.S., that I found quite forgettable. But amongst the rest are some amazing gems, including hundreds of newspaper clippings, restaurant menus, grade-school essays, encyclopedia entries, and other such minutiae dealing with the minutiae of life and history in a slightly-altered U.S., as well as several dozen first-person passages from famous historical personages that border on the near libelous (Brunner is British and his traditional UK publishers refused to handle the book; they were afraid of England’s stricter libel laws). Perhaps because of these passages the U.S. print run is pretty small, but the D.C. Library (for once) had a copy. If you can find a copy (I’ve been looking in libraries and used bookstores for years), the book is worth reviewing for its treatment of history.*

There could not be a simpler divergence point in this novel: on November 22, 1963, President Kennedy is shot by a single bullet. He collapses and is rushed to the hospital, where a report is issued by White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger that the President has been operated on and is expected to live. That night, President Kennedy – with his head bandaged – dramatically interrupts a local Dallas evening news broadcast where a witness to the shooting is describing the event, caught on film by his camera.

Kennedy delivers a speech that closes with the repeated peroration: “I have been to the mountaintop.” Lee Harvey Oswald is caught and a prolonged investigation concludes that he was acted alone. His motive was payback for perceived persecution at the hands of the government (Oswald had been a defector to the Soviet Union). Six months later, Oswald is executed. Kennedy is re-elected in 1964 after a narrow-fought contest with Barry Goldwater.

But the protagonist of the novel is the guest on the news show that night. Abraham Zapruder, who spends the next five years trying to interest the media in his silent 28.6 second long reel – filmed on that day – of Kennedy’s head exploding in a red spray. He’s tried to make sense of what he saw that day. He saw a fatal wound inflicted on the President, and he saw the President stand, and speak, that same night. He becomes obsessed with the footage, watching it over and over again, scrutinizing each frame, blowing them up and plastering his house with them. His wife Lillian leaves him, taking his two children. He’s investigated by the FBI for vaguely threatening insinuations he begins mailing to local Dallas-area papers.

In 1968, he moves to D.C. to try to see Kennedy, to see something, to confirm his growing suspicions that something strange happened that day. Vice President Lyndon Johnson is barnstorming the country, repeating his “We Shall Overcome” stump speech to furious crowds, angry about the mounting losses in Vietnam and about the civil rights agenda, which has long been tabled due to persistent filibuster by the Southern Caucus in the Senate. For the Republican nomination, liberal New York governor Nelson Rockefeller is narrowly defeated by civil rights opponent Barry Goldwater for the Republican nomination. In August 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. mounts a second March on Washington. The city swells with a largely black crowd of 1.5 million: a crowd that includes Abraham Zapruder. As he is pushed and jostled by the militant crowd, who loudly hisses at Reverend King, shots go off in the distance and the stampede begins. Fifty pages later, ten thousand people – unable to escape due to the cordons and blockades imposed by 50,000 riot police – have died under the trampling feet. King is missing. Days later, federal authorities announce that he was killed at the podium in the first moments of the riot. They quickly bury him under a shrine in Arlington Cemetary as riots break out in the inner cities of 47 American cities. A staunch segregationist, Senator James Eastland, is assassinated when masked invaders – described in staccato cut-away paragraphs interspersed with lavish descriptions of President Goldwater’s closed, private swearing in at the now-walled-off White House – break into his home in Doddsville, Mississippi. The Republican party captures the House and the Senate for the first time since 1955. A

President Kennedy serves out his term and retires to Hyannis Port amidst universal revilement, followed only by Abraham Zapruder, who takes up residence in a houseboat in Cape Cod and drives slowly past the compound every day. As Goldwater steers America into a steady escalation of the Vietnam War, Zapruder is joined by a cast of disenchanted 60s burnouts who trace the beginning and end of their awakening to seeing him and President Kennedy on television. Together, the crew disseminates cuts of the film throughout the nation’s underground channels, and begin to collect other pictures and other eyewitness reports, of that day.

In 1970, in order to extend the draft, and gain funding for his wars in Vietnam and Cambodia, Goldwater cuts a deal with the liberal wing of the Republican party, led by Senator Edward Brooke III, a Republican of Massachusetts (the first black senator since Reconstruction). Goldwater isolates the Southern Senators from their allies amongst certain elements of the Republican party, and the support of liberal democrats gives him enough support to pass a defense appropriations bill and several key civil rights bills.

Both Brooke and Goldwater are vilified and abandoned by their Republican base for their hypocrisy; the former for supporting the Indochinese War and the latter for supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1970. In 1972, Brooke loses to Robert Kennedy, who has long since distanced himself from his brother. California governor Pat Brown, defeats the co-sponsor of the civil rights bill, Senator Hubert Humphrey – who has been tarred by his support for the Indochinese War – for the Democratic nomination, and wins a solid victory over President Goldwater. On January 20th, Brown shocks the nation by exiting on foot from the heavily-guarded Hay-Adams hotel and walking a circuitous path along the lengthy perimeter of the Mall’s border wall in order to reach the steps of the Capitol, where he takes the inauguration oath in front of an outgoing Congress that had gathered to watch the ceremonies on closed-circuit television.

Zapruder pays no attention. He is the grand old man of an LSD- and cocaine-infused mélange that has grown up on the shores of Cape Cod. Short-circuited wanderers make trips to the documentary shrine he has established on a renovated fifty-foot yacht. He rarely leaves, and is ready to cut loose for international waters at the first sight of federal agents. At this point the narrative retreats into the world of his floating museum as he more and more pieces of the Kennedy conspiracy spiral at him out of the chaos of the docks. Who is the man in the compound? Zapruder is obsessed by the notion. Who is the man in the compound?

Throughout the 70s, as President Brown soothes the Indochinese War down into a long-simmering boil fuelled by a highly-paid all-volunteer army and American deaths exceed the 100,000 mark in what comes to be called “America’s Algeria,” Zapruder dispatches his followers in successively more elaborate attempts to penetrate the Kennedy compound. Finally, a crew disguised as professional embalmers, dispatched to attend to the postmortem needs of recently-deceased 90-year old Joe Kennedy find the withered patriarch alive in his bed, surrounded by an army of Cuban servants, having faked news of his death in order to garner some sort of contact from his three long-estranged sons. Zapruder soon hears that President Kennedy has been living in a palace in Jeddah at the invitation of King Khalid of Saudi Arabia while Jacqueline Kennedy begins the third year of her reign as senior editor of The New York Times Book Review magazine.

The book ends in 1979, which is the year it was published. Martin Luther King’s body is exhumed and given the long-denied autopsy demanded by his widow. It is found that cause of death was due to blood loss following a bullet wound to the femoral artery. Tucked amidst newspaper descriptions of the growing scandal, which sparks off fresh riots and an insurgency candidacy by Senator Robert Kennedy for the presidency, there is a description of Zapruder’s diagnosis of lung cancer and his frantic efforts to finish the 3,000 page exegesis of his theories for publication. As he nears the final working-out of the theory – which involves the notion that Kennedy’s simulated death was the final evolution of a subconscious viral meme impregnated into the human consciousness by the long-ago violent death of a eunoched Chinese court mandarin at the hands of a jealous rival bureaucrat, which had spurred its own reenactment again and again throughout history – Zapruder is struck to the floor of his cabin by a voice from inside his ears that whispers unmentioned permutations to his deep consciousness. His eyes twitch behind open lids for thirteen hours before he finally drops dead. The book closes with a two-column obituary describing his growing counter-culture status and the upcoming movie of his life, starring Henry Fonda.


*A similar approach is used (though in far less exhaustive detail) in Eileen Gunn’s masterful short story “Fellow Americans”. In fact, if you haven’t read her short story collection Stable Strategies and Other Stories (whose thirteen stories contain her entire published output – written over two decades!) then you’re really missing out.

Comments (



  1. David Barron

    That sounds horribly dull, aside from the fictional ephemera.

    I think alternate history can be a lot of fun done right. You mention Harry Turtledove, and while I didn’t like the particular series you referenced, I did like his “Guns of the South”. Which was just zany good times with AK-47s and good characters with no pretension to…er…ahistorical accuracy.

    As for history itself, I am as equally an opponent of Great Event theory as Great Man theory for big-picture History. But, as techniques (“historical science”) improve we can slowly increase the accuracy of measuring the influence individual events and people have and thus the scope of small-picture history.

    Perhaps, in a speculative future, this accuracy and scope could apply to big-picture history.

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