A List for President’s Day


Today is a national holiday — the one that celebrates all the Presidents, which seems a little strange to me.  I mean, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Roosevelt, Kennedy?  Yeah, sure.  But does the Presidency of James Buchanan really deserve a holiday?  And what about William Henry Harrison’s pneumonia-plagued tenure of exactly one month — surely a highlight in Presidential history and worthy of a national holiday.  It all seems a bit odd to me.  Then again, it’s a day off, so what the heck.

Anyway, these holiday Mondays are usually pretty quiet here at MW, so I thought I’d take a week off from the serious writing stuff and focus on something on the fun side.  And what’s more fun than lists?  Nothing, I say!  (And, in fact, I’ve done something like this before.) To wit:

A list made especially for President’s Day, by a writer who is lately fascinated with historical fantasy… (A note here:  I have tried very hard to keep polemics out of this.  I’m not looking for arguments about politics.  This is supposed to be fun.  Let’s make sure that our comments follow the same tack, all right?)

Best Political System Created for a Fantasy or Science Fiction Series:  I’m going to declare this one a tie (I know, right off the bat I’m hedging….) between George R. R. Martin’s ongoing  A Song of Ice and Fire series and Frank Herbert’s Dune books.  The political systems in both are incredibly (and realistically) complex and nuanced.  The level of detail in both is breathtaking, and both systems are absolutely essential to the plotting of the series.  If you’re into worldbuilding, and looking for books to model your political work after, look no further.

Best Use of a Historical Figure in a Book:  This one is for Misty.  Have any of you ever read Expiration Date by Tim Powers?  Fantastic book.  And at somewhere along the way Thomas Edison shows up and insinuates himself into the narrative.  I think you have to be very careful with such things — the effect can often be terribly hokey.  But Powers makes it work perfectly.  A master at work.  The book is definitely worth reading.  The follow-up, Earthquake Weather, is on my TBR pile.

Best Use of a Historical Figure in a Movie:  Yes, I know, a lot to choose from here.  But there is that moment in the third Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Indy, dressed as a Nazi soldier, is in Berlin at a book burning, and winds up face-to-face with Adolph Hitler while holding his father’s diary, which contains the key to EVERYTHING the Nazis want to accomplish.  Hitler glares at him for a moment, then whips out a pen and signs the book.  Cracks me up every time I see it.

If I Were to Write a Fantasy Book About a President, It Would be About ____:  I was going to say “…About a Historical Figure…” but I’ve just written a couple of books that include Samuel Adams and James Otis,  among others (Thieftaker and its sequel), so I thought I’d be a little more specific.  I would probably choose  Thomas Jefferson, though I’d give some thought to Franklin Roosevelt, too.  I think Jefferson is a fascinating figure — brilliant, deeply flawed, arrogant and elitist, but also oddly compassionate and deeply devoted to the sciences and arts.  He’d make a great book character.  In 1962, JFK hosted an event for 49 Nobel Laureates and said “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

President Most likely to Have Been Abducted By Aliens:  Grover Cleveland.  No doubt.  Think about it.  The guy is elected President, loses the Presidency, and then wins it back again.  It wasn’t ambition.  Really it wasn’t.  They wiped his memory after the abduction.  He didn’t remember the first term….

American Historical Event Just Begging For a Spec Fic Book To Be Written About It:  Definitely the 1969 World Series win of the Amazin’ Mets.  In fact, I’m pretty sure that the reason it hasn’t been written already is that NASA and the NSA won’t allow it.  Too close to the truth.  No way that happens without magical (or extraterrestrial) intervention.

Best Movies About the Presidency:  Not in our genre, but so what?  My two favorites are Dave, Ivan Reitman’s film about a Clintonesque philanderer who dies in the arms of a secretary and is replaced by his doppelganger (President and doppelganger both played by Kevin Kline).  And The American President, Aaron Sorkin’s earnest film about a popular, strong, courageous, good-looking, articulate liberal President (played by Michael Douglas) who manages to get the girl AND (implied) win reelection.  Hmmm.  Maybe it’s a fantasy after all….  Honorable Mention to All the President’s Men, which we only WISH had been fantasy, and to Primary Colors, which was just plain good.

Historical Novels Worth Reading That You Might Not Know About:  These are books I’ve come across in my research for the Thieftaker books.  Let me start with a fantasy series that overlaps with the Thieftaker in terms of time period — C.C. Finlay’s Traitor to the Crown series about the American Revolution.  Fun reads all. (The Patriot Witch, A Spell for the Revolution, The Demon Redcoat)  I would also HIGHLY recommend David Liss’s books about thieftaking in London in the eighteenth century:  A Conspiracy of Paper and A Spectacle of Corruption.  They are not fantasy, but they are brilliantly plotted and beautifully written.  While we’re at it, I would also recommend Liss’s first novel, The Coffee Trader.

Hope all of you have a wonderful President’s Day.  And if you have the time, how about sharing a list of your own?

David B. Coe

27 comments to A List for President’s Day

  • Fun stuff, David. How about this:

    President you Wish had been Real, not Fictional: Josiah (Jed) Barlet of The West Wing.

  • First off, David Liss’s The Coffee Trader — awesome book. Haven’t read any of his others, but it looks like I now have a few titles to add to the ol’ TBR pile.
    And second, while I too enjoyed the Hitler bit in Last Crusade, I have to say that Quentin Tarantino’s re-writing of history in Inglorious Bastards, where most of the top Nazi men, including Hitler, are burned to death in a movie theater — well, that’s one that I never thought would work and yet I bought it all. I suppose that’s Historical Fantasy, too.

  • Fun, David! And — Fun David!
    And, like Stuart, I now have more books to buy for my TBR pile. Happy Prezzie Day Y’all.

    PS — My two most favorite historical sayings about my state.
    “South Carolina: too small to be a sovereign nation & too large for an insane asylum” James L. Petigru, in 1861 during the Secession Convention( stolen from Sam Greer) “North Carolina: a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit” (unknown)

  • Hepseba ALHH

    First two favorite historical fantasy movies that come to mind: Sleepy Hollow and The Thirteenth Warrior. The first largely because of the costumes (which are some of the best things about most historical films, accurate or no), and the second because I adore stories where two cultures meet and neither one is our own, something else historical films are really good for.

  • A.J., definitely! And I have the 45-disk boxed-set to prove it….

    Stuart, I haven’t seen Inglorious Bastards, though I hear great things about it. Pretty much any new way of killing off Hitler is deserving of praise.

    Thanks, Faith! Love the quotes.

  • Happy Prez Day, Hep. I haven’t seen either movie, but being a huge Washington Irving fan, and having grown up a short distance from Sleepy Hollow, I really want to see that one. I remember visiting Irving’s home as a kid and going to an outdoor, nighttime dramatization of “Rip Van Winkle”. Wonderful memories.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Very nice list. I think you’re right on with your list of books with good political systems. One thing I love about Ice and Fire is how much it reads like real British history.

  • Beatriz

    David says, “American Historical Event Just Begging For a Spec Fic Book To Be Written About It: Definitely the 1969 World Series win of the Amazin’ Mets.”

    This would be why my first word was Mets and not Mamma or Nana. And another reason why I love you, man.

    Stuary comments, “I have to say that Quentin Tarantino’s re-writing of history in Inglorious Bastards, where most of the top Nazi men, including Hitler, are burned to death in a movie theater — well, that’s one that I never thought would work and yet I bought it all.


  • Unicorn

    Fun list, David. Historical fiction/fantasy has always deeply fascinated me, but when I tried to write a historical fantasy centred around the Battle of Hastings, the Normans lost, so it was not entirely a success, you could say.
    Happy President’s Day everyone. Not that I’m American. I’ll just spend the rest of the day thinking of what would happen if some time magic caused Nelson Mandela and Washington to shake hands, shall I? 🙂

  • Thanks, Jagi. I once heard GRRM do a reading, and he mentioned that he had based much of the history for the series on real-world events from European history. So there’s probably a reason some of it feels familiar.

    Thanks, B. Guess I should see that movie.

    Unicorn, it sounds like an interesting take on Norman history. Perhaps unfortunate, but interesting. And I love that image of Mandela and Washington. Thanks!

  • James Polk’s term ended at noon on Sunday, 4 March 1849, and Zachary Taylor refused to be inaugurated on the Lord’s day of rest. David Atchison, who had served as President pro tempore of the Senate for six years, was sworn in for his new term in that role about 30 minutes before Taylor, making him, some people interpret, acting President for that period.

    It seems that would make a great “day in the life” story or possibly screenplay if handled right.

  • Hepsebah, my all-time favorite historical movie is and will always be Gallipoli, even though I am rarely able to watch it. The end shreds me so thoroughly that it takes me days to recover. 😀

    Thank you, David! I absolutely agree with you about Edison in Expiration Date – Powers manages to portray him as a real, flawed human being, and it’s just perfect. I’m also impressed with his portrayal of John Keats in The Stress of Her Regard.

  • Wolf, what a great little tidbit. You’re right: there’s definitely a story there, a short piece if not a novel. You should write it!

    Misty, I love Gallipoli, too. And also Breaker Morant, another historical directed by Peter Weir. Both wonderful movies. And I’ll have to check out that other tim Powers title. Thanks.

  • Loved “Dave.” Great movie. I’m going to have to go find “Expiration Date.” Sounds fascinating.

  • P.S. I almost forgot about a gem of a book I read back in the 90s: alternate history by Brendan DuBois titled “Resurrection Day.” In it the Cuban Missile Crisis flared into a limited nuclear war, wiping out New York and DC and leaving Boston the new capitol. It’s told from the perspective of a newspaper reporter who finally unearths the truth about what happened, exonerating JFK and pointing out the people who were really responsible. Wonderful book.

  • Wow… so many of these I can’t answer well because I don’t read/watch a lot of historical fiction. I do love Hitler showing up in the Indiana Jones movie. And Inglorious Basterds is a great, if scary film.

    Spec fic> Though it was hugely sad, I think the Challenger explosion could have a very interesting spec fic story. And so could Stephen King’s almost being run over by a car.

    And for Pres movies, I like “American President” with Michael Douglas, but Dave does rock.

  • I don’t have much of a list. The first thing I think of is the Knight books by Peter David, where King Arthur, transported into our day and age, becomes a leader and eventually president.

    The movie I can think of is Chris Rock’s Head of State. Lots of fun.

    Sorry the list isn’t exhaustive (says the resident Canadian). Hope you enjoyed the holiday 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Re: Presidents’ Day, my understanding was that it was created to be a “Monday holiday” by combining Washington’s & Lincoln’s birthdays, which used to be celebrated on their actual birthdays (dating myself here!) At least that’s what I recall from school, which admittedly was, ahem…a while ago…

    I second the idea of a spec fic book about Jefferson. Or Ben Franklin. Or how about Abigail Adams, wife of Pres. John Adams? A very interesting woman!

  • Ed, yes EXPIRATION DATE is a terrific book. And RESURRECTION DAY sounds very cool. Always been fascinated by the Cuban Missile Crisis.

    Emily, I thought of the Challenger disaster, too, although writing it would be a very delicate task. Thanks for the comment.

    Laura, I don’t know the Peter David books, but that sounds like great fun. Thanks.

    Razz, that’s right, I’m old enough to remember Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday, too. Preferred it that way, although it always bothered me that George got a national holiday but Abe didn’t. Didn’t seem fair. Ben Franklin would be a fine subject for novel, as would Abigail Adams. Actually, have you read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams? Great stuff, and Franklin figures prominently in it (as does Abigail, of course….).

  • Sarah

    Late to the party, but I’d like to see a story in which Abigail Adams kicks off the feminist movement and actually gets John on board. Think about how history might be different if women had the vote 100 years earlier than they did.

    And I liked Orson Scott Card’s Alvin Maker series in which America is rife with magic. It works much better than I thought it would.

  • I’ve been meaning to read the Alvin Maker series forever, Sarah. Maybe now I will. And that’s two votes for Abigail Adams!

  • A.J. You are spot on in what you said about Bartlet. I loved The West Wing. It was one of the best written shows on tv. Now I’m kind of bored with tv. Accept for maybe when Caprica is on…I can’t help myself, I’m a total scyfy (used to be scifi) geek…lol…

    As for the question at hand, Thanks for the dig on my married last name…he he he I have to admit I didn’t know he was president of anything let alone the country until I met John…lol…

    Forget the Presidents. I’ll take Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce All Mighty. Now that was funny.

    Harrison Ford in Air Force One. He knew the meaning of the word no. I would have said Michael Douglas in An American President but it was already taken.

    Oh and my bald little two year old would say to elect Sponge Bob Square Pants for President.

  • Oh and one more thing. I did write a fantasy book about a President. It is sitting in my drawer as symbol of inspiration. It was the hard copy sitting on my desk when our house burned to the ground a few years ago. It was neither burned or singed. The computer a few inches away from it melted to nothing and all the bills on my desk were turned into ash. Too bad that couldn’t have kept them from being due…he he he

    My disks and that single hard copy of Kings Sword survived. I will never know how that was possible and I don’t care. I just know I use that as a beacon of inspiration for all I do.

    This was a fun game. Thank you. huge hugs and good to meet all of you.

  • Thanks for the comments, Joann. Harrison Ford was good, but I have trouble believing in any President who can do ALL the stuff he did in that movie. Your story about the book is just amazing. I’d keep it as inspiration, too!

  • I made Al Haig President in “Mahogany Dreams” published in Alternate Tyrants, an anthology edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg, pb from Tor Books, March 1997.

  • Sounds like a fun story, Lyn. Although, Al Haig? — Shudders —

  • I can’t help it if he set himself up for the story with his now infamous, “I’m in charge here” comment when Reagan got shot.

    I just ran with it.

    I didn’t realize until the anthology came out that my ~alternate history~ was the only one with a still living cast.