With the passing of Ward Just in 2019, the literary world lost a fine writer who was comfortable grappling with the moral dilemmas surrounding the exercise of power and the lives of those who wield it. Journalist and novelist Elliot Ackerman’s fifth novel, Halcyon, suggests that he may be one of the inheritors of Just’s preoccupations. Blending alternative history with science fiction, Ackerman artfully explores several provocative issues that have become flash points in contemporary America.
The year is 2004, and the novel’s narrator, Martin Neumann, is a college history professor whose specialty is the American Civil War. He’s fitfully engaged in work on a book about the role of compromise in American life amid a society whose “grim national mood” he describes as “rage-ennui.” He’s spending his sabbatical ensconced in a comfortable guest cottage on the premises of the titular house in rural Virginia, owned by retired attorney and Washington power player Robert Ableson and his wife, Mary.
In Ackerman’s imagined America, Al Gore edged out George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, following Bill Clinton’s resignation over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Although the country still sustained a terrorist attack on 9/11, there was no invasion of Iraq, and Osama bin Laden was killed in December 2001. But most startlingly, the public learned that the Gore administration quietly has been spearheading scientific research into the field of cryoregeneration—bringing humans back from the dead—and one of the participants in the experiment is none other than Martin’s host, Robert.
As he reemerges into the world five years after his death, following a year of social quarantine, Robert quickly becomes embroiled in current controversies, attempting to thwart a drive to remove a Confederate monument from the Gettysburg battlefield and defending a sexual harassment claim filed by one of his former subordinates. His revitalization also sparks a thorny legal dispute about the status of the inheritances received by the heirs of a person who was once dead but now is very much alive. Martin observes these events from the periphery, describing them with a detached but sympathetic curiosity.
Early in the novel, Martin asks what “were the minor events of today that would forever change the trajectory of the future?” Ackerman prefers challenging questions like these over convenient answers. With this choice, he leaves ample room for readers to engage in leaps of imagination as bold as the ones he’s undertaken. Anyone who accepts that invitation will come away from this ingenious story with fresh ideas of what past, present and future truly mean.