WHEN ANGELS WEPT
Eric G. Swedin
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
There is a long history of alternate history volumes which are written as textbooks, with no reference to our own world. The most famous is Robert Sobel’s 1973 classic For Want of a Nail. More recently, Eric G. Swedin, like Sobel a professor, has published When Angels Wept. While the earlier work focused on a two-hundred year span of history, When Angels Wept focuses on the period between the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis just over a year later.
Swedin begins his work by taking a close look at the Cuban revolution, Bay of Pigs fiasco, Sergei Khrushchev, and John F. Kennedy. In fact, the first four chapters of the volume could be a straight history text with the exception of a few small details regarding the space program and the Fire. The text diverges from the history of our own world when cloud cover delays the overflight of Cuba which revealed the installation of missile silos in Cuba by the Soviets for a week. Although a week may not seem like a long time, it allowed the silos to become more complete and raised the states of brinksmanship between Kennedy and Khrushchev.
In the chapters outlining the two leaders, Swedin paints portraits of men who want to do the right thing for their countries and the world, but are stymied by their own weaknesses. In Khrushchev’s case, this weakness manifests in his belief in the lessons of Communism and his own mixture of paranoia and inferiority. Kennedy is shown as a stronger individual, wracked by medical problems but also in a position of having advisors who are more hawkish than Kennedy and who he doesn’t fully trust, but can’t completely ignore.
While Khrushchev and Kennedy are really the only “characters” in When Angels Wept, although Swedin does draw a series of sketches of other (often fictitious) individuals and their role in events or how the events effected them. These quick sketches, whether of the German immigrant to Chicago who must deal with the destruction of her world for the second time, or the Soviet pilot who finds himself cut off from his superiors in a world which resembles his worst fears, provides a sense of verisimilitude to the history Swedin is inventing.
The two halves of the book, the factual and the fictitious, are woven together nearly seamlessly, and readers who are unfamiliar with the timeline of the Cuban Missile Crisis may not be able to put their finger on the moment when Swedin deviates from Kennedy and Khrushchev’s actual actions. That ambiguity is part of the strength of the volume since it helps paint a picture of how precarious the situation really was. Furthermore, it demonstrates that any and every moment of history can be important, not simply the ones that appear to be.
Unlike Sobel, Swedin’s book is not entirely separated from our own world. In an introduction and an afterword the author explains what he is doing and why he made some of the choices he made. Furthermore, while Sobel invented his entire bibliographic apparatus, Swedin uses real sources (and footnotes them) to demonstrate to the reader that his version of history was a distinct possibility based on what was actually happening in the 1960s.
When Angels Wept provides a chilling alternate history of a time in our own not too distant past. Swedin sweeps away the gauze of nostalgia that portrays it as a simpler time and reminds us that there are dangers in every period, whether offered by global rivals, terrorists, or misunderstandings and how we respond to those events color who we will become and what our future will be.
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