A talk with Gary Morgenstein, author of A Mound Over Hell
by Doc on Nov.07, 2018, under Books
Gary Morgenstein’s A Mound Over Hell is possibly unique among science fiction novels that include a sport. In most cases, such as the movie Rollerball (itself based on a short story), the sport in question is often invented for the story, or otherwise altered to fit a futuristic setting – say, zero-G football. But in this story, baseball as we know it – or at least, knew it – is central to the plot, while also blending science fiction, history and political threads in to a cohesive whole. It’s not a book about baseball. It’s not a book about politics. But it IS a book about all of it. And it blends it all well, which isn’t an easy feat.
It is nearing the end of the 21st century, and America is devastated after having essentially lost World War 3 against the Muslim Caliphate, which now controls most of Europe. A new society has formed, based on the concept of the Family and led by Grandma, has arisen while any show of patriotism to the old country is now illegal. There is no welfare system – people who fail in society now live in Disappointment Villages, seeking to work their way back out.
Baseball, the “national pastime”, is one of the last vestiges of patriotism, and it is having its last season, played in the bombed-out remains of Amazon Stadium (formerly Yankee Stadium), with holographic baserunners and fielders, and a handful of indifferent “fans” in the seats. Puppy Nedick, the last baseball historian, is covering the final season and mulling his future. But then one night he finds a strange visitor in his apartment – a man purporting to be Mickey Mantle. Yes, THE Mickey Mantle. And a few days later, Ty Cobb shows up. And even Mooshie Lopez, the greatest player ever. But how could they all be here, for the last season of baseball, since all of them were dead?
I’ve known Gary for almost 10 years – we first met when he was the director of public relations at Syfy – so when we got to talk recently, we’d reminisce about press tours, scotch, and the Red Sox vs. Yankees – he grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium, while I’m a denizen of Fenway Park…but we did manage to talk about the book, and after talking about it I want to read it again!
Doc: So when we met, you were working as Syfy director of communications. But you were a writer, first and foremost before that, and had some novels.
Gary: This is my fifth novel. It’s my first science fiction novel. I wrote a science fiction musical off Broadway a few years ago called The Anthem, so yes, I always had a shadow life. I’d do the corporate world, and then I would come home and I’d write. Write on weekends or in the morning, or when other people went out for lunch and enjoy themselves, I close my office door and wrote.
It’s just who I was. And this idea came to me a couple of years ago. Well, I love science fiction, as you know, and I’m a lifelong baseball fan. I grew up six blocks from Yankee Stadium and I’m a history and politics junkie. So a couple years ago, my wife and I were having Sunday breakfast, listening to the Beatles. And this is absolutely true. And we’re having everything bagels with a schmear, which is the breakfast of choice in Brooklyn. And this idea pops into my head – well, what if baseball is entering its final season ever in dystopian society run by someone named Grandma. Okay, well, that’s a kind of a cool first sentence…So I thought, okay, well, it’s a dystopian America – that means America suffered some horrible trauma. And in my mind, it means that we have to lose something, like lose a world war and let’s start setting things up.
Who would we lose it to? And to say we lost it to Russia…Well, okay, that’s the Cold War. Now we’re back to Red Dawn. And China, that’s boring. But Islam? Islam pushes a lot of buttons because if you’re writing speculative fiction, you need to have one foot or at least a few toes in the present who connect every people to what’s going on now so they could be dragged into the future and see how it might have happened. When Arthur C. Clarke wrote Childhood’s End, obviously the notion of overlords was fanciful, but the fact that there was an Earth lost at the time and wallowing in all these problems, who would be willing to give the aliens the opportunity to clean them up was something that people could relate to.
So I wanted things that people could relate to while creating a whole new world. So in this world, America has lost World War 3. So then when you build the world, then you start having rules and you have to explain things, and you must be consistent no matter how many problems it creates for you as a writer, because it’s like fun challenges and, well, what kind of America lost that?
So it’s set twenty five years after we lost and we’re surrounded, we’re still independent because we still have more nukes. And we said, to the Caliphate, the Islamic empire, “Well, if you try to invade, we’re launching the nuclear missiles, and then everyone loses.”
And they said, “Well, okay, we’ve got most of the world, that’s a good point, so we’re just going to surround you and cut off trade,” and so a new America, a post democracy America, post capitalism, post all sorts of -isms, has arisen because we failed democracy, the freedoms are gone, there is nothing preordained about great powers staying great powers.
Ask the Romans, the Greeks, the Brits, the Soviets, the Thousand-Year Reich which didn’t last too long, and there’s no reason why America should always be that shining city on the hill. So there’s a new society. The Family run by Grandma, an elderly woman, she is ninety two and the society is built upon love and integrity, so it doesn’t matter what you are.
There’s no identity politics in this world. There’s never any mention of gay, straight, black, white…it doesn’t matter, except if you’re Arab. But all the Muslims were deported before the war started, almost all of them.
So as long you work hard and you love and you contribute, and you show you’re ethical, everyone thrives and there’s other things in this world.
There’s no acts of patriotism allowed. The Pledge of Allegiance, the flag…everything is discredited. No social media, because if you think about it – again, this is world building – if you have society where everything is about the family and real relationships, I don’t want to spook everyone out there, but the thousand friends on Facebook are really not your friends.
And so the society encourages real friendships and certainly real families. Because we lost four million children in the war, for a variety of reasons, from direct attacks to ecological damage. So we have to breed again. And so things like banks are eliminated under the anti-parasite laws. Social media, under the anti-narcissism laws. So it’s a whole new world.
And central to this is baseball.
And baseball is associated with the failed nostalgic America and baseball fans who, many of whom were the Miners, which was a rebel group back in 2060, who wanted to prosecute the war more vigorously because we were getting our butts kicked because we thought, “Oh, well, you know, we’re America we just show up and those Muslims, they’ll go running…”
Well, guess what? They believed in something more strongly than we did. We no longer believed in America, in what it was, and we didn’t know why we were fighting. And there was a terrorist attack at the 2065 World Series between the Yankees and the Cubs at Amazon Stadium, formerly Yankee Stadium, and so baseball was punished. Baseball was a pariah. All the rest of the stadiums, the other nine stadiums were razed to the ground. Owning a baseball glove or any memorabilia was illegal. And Amazon Stadium was kept up as a monument.
And so as the book opens, baseball is facing its final season ever. They mock it, it’s been humiliated and holograms play baseball because no one wants to play baseball, and maybe like a dozen people show up for the games and it’s really just to cut work and make out. The scoreboard is falling off, there’s skeletons from the terrorist attack in the stands and the outfield, and the main character, Puppy Nedick, is a baseball historian, former star pitcher in college. He hurt his shoulder and his life is really not going too well, he’s about to lose his job. He has a messy divorce from his wife. On opening day he comes home and he’s completely depressed. Because he realizes this really is it, it’s going to be all over.
And he’s got to get a job because in the Family, there’s no such thing as welfare, it’s all individual responsibility. So he has to work, and he comes home, and he drinks way too much bourbon because it’s his birthday, and he wakes up the next morning and there’s this old guy on the floor.
An old white guy. Puppy is African American – all the main characters in the book are diverse because this is 2098. This is what America would look like. And this guy has obviously been drinking and insists he’s Mickey Mantle. Puppy says “of course you are, isn’t that the way my life is going?”
And then a few days later Ty Cobb comes back, and then from the future, perhaps the greatest player of all time, the Latina Mooshie Lopez, comes back.
And so baseball regains popularity. But it becomes a point between those who want a genuine peace with the Caliphate and those who want to finish the job and start World War 4.
I don’t know if I’ve really created new genre, but I’ve come close. I’m not going to make the statement that there’s never been a science fiction book which used baseball. And I’m sure that there was A Deep Space Nine episode back in the nineties, where there was some story line for one of the episodes about baseball. Mainly baseball is used like a fantasy, you know, Field Of Dreams and stuff like that, Damn Yankees. But I don’t think, you know, you’re a science fiction buff so you tell me, but most science fiction writers don’t think the baseball will make the cut into to the future, with perhaps good reason, since we see average attendance dropping and the interest among the young people certainly fading. So when we add that with the social aspect, the political aspect, I tried to create something kind of different. And it is book one of the series.
Doc: One of the things I found interesting is that it mixes this end of baseball story with this whole political, post-apocalyptic story going on and, like you said, although baseball might be mentioned as part of some other science fiction thing, usually it’s either gone or it’s not a central part of anything. I don’t know of any case where any current sport has really been utilized in any future science fiction story like this. If anything, it’s a made up sport, you know?
Gary: Yes. Rollerball.
Doc: Yeah. So they’re trying to create something new to fit in with the story. As you mentioned, in your story, patriotism is now illegal and baseball is, among the sports probably considered the most patriotic of them all. It’s America past time and all that is interesting that it even survived as long as it did in this situation and was just left to kind of dwindle away on its own.
Gary: You put it exactly right. It did kind of start withering away, and the number of stadiums started closing and there was just one league after a while, and people, they cared, but they really didn’t, because again, because that was the Great America. And we failed it. I don’t like to say that America failed. I like to think that the people failed democracy. We were given freedom.
A country is like a relationship – you have to work on it. And, you know, this is not being politically partisan, because I’m an independent and I’m a populist. But I love my country. And I love the notion that you and I could sit here talking and say what we want without worrying in an hour that someone’s going to come and arrest us. But, you know, there’s a lot of countries, there are more countries in the world where that will happen than America. And so, there’s, a lot of things that I tried to play with.
Religion is outlawed, for example, because fundamentally, it was the thought that, well, their god, the Islamic god kicked our god’s butt, so something’s wrong. Religion doesn’t work, so religion is banned. There are Catholics, for the most part it’s Catholics who practice in secret. And that becomes the biggest story line throughout this series. Israel was the first nation to be hit by the Islamic Empire. Not a big surprise. So the number of world Jews were decimated, and the few that exist are in hiding. And ME, or Muslim Europe. We’re called Crusaders, which we are called again. I make things up when I carry it to another level. You know, what ISIS called us and, we’re viewed as second class citizens.
But yet, despite that tyranny in the Caliphate what I talk about is the many Muslims who say, “Well, no, this is not right. We want an age of enlightenment,” and one of the main characters in the book is Azhar Mustafa, who’s a fishermen in the Caliphate of North Africa in Barcelona, formerly Spain. And you see his perspective, and also the perspective of the son of the grand mufti, who also doesn’t buy this so it’s a question of when will the hate stop? I don’t think writers should say what that book is about, because that’s up to the reader.
It’s unlike a TV show or a movie or a play, when you see the character and that’s the actor, you don’t have much left in the way of your imagination, right? But with a novel, you can enter the writer’s imagination. And I could the describe character clearly. But, you know, your idea of the color of blue eyes is different than mine. And how I describe something, you’re not going to see it that way. You’re going to translate into your own imagination. And so, I think, it’s good for readers to draw their own conclusions.
But that said, I think if there’s one underlying message it’s that hate begets hate. The human race is very good at that. And at some point, it’s got to stop while we can still survive.
Doc: That is very true. And on the idea of being able to come to your own conclusions on what a story means, I find that to be a mark of very good storytelling, especially when you’re delving into these areas that some may see as do you really want to talk about Islam that way, or something like that? But it’s being able to debate with someone after seeing a movie or reading a book and discussing the different conclusions that people come to makes for far more interesting things than like, “great story, done”.
Gary: It should linger, right? You should think you’re at best entertainment, because books are entertainment, just like any other form of entertainment. A character will linger. A story will linger. I was very happy that I only heard from one reader, one person who ever accused me of bigotry. I thought, I’m stepping on some third rails here, but I did bend over backwards. “Look, this is what it could look like,” but I’m not painting everyone wrong, and I really was very careful about that and research it down to little things. Because at the end of the day, we’re all people. It doesn’t matter. Everyone just wants to be happy. They don’t want their boss to drive them too crazy, they want to make enough money, so that the family is well, so everyone is healthy. And they’re not thinking, “Oh, well, I have to vote for that political candidate,” Or that religion is better than your religion. Really not.
One of the benefits, when you write science fiction, is you could take what’s going on now, and create a new world and mirror things, but then offer different possibilities. But at the end of the day, the book is not about any agenda or any philosophy, per se. These are people. These characters, Puppy Nedick, the baseball historian and really the second main character is Zelda Jones who’s an African-American woman, they are both in their late thirties and they are best friends and Zelda’s not thinking about changing the world, she would just like to fall in love. But she’s always screwing up relationships and she’s always saying the wrong thing at jobs. And she and Puppy and the others, they get thrust into global politics without having any intention of doing that.
They’re just regular people who suddenly have to be a lot braver than they ever could have imagined. And that’s when you think about all sorts of horrific circumstances that people live under. And they survive. It’s remarkable when you think about it, because of the human spirit, and I try to just break it down and just say that we’re people, and if we find that commonality, maybe the future will be a better place.
Doc: You touched on this a bit, with patriotism is illegal, democracy is illegal. I don’t know if we call it the new government, but at least the new society, that notion of family, so Grandma becomes essentially the ruler, but the government itself is set up as a family. And so people are not so much called citizens, but Cousins, part of the government and so forth, or at least elevated in society. Explain the philosophy behind that, the whole concept of an extended family really has taken over.
Gary: Well, I think it’s going back to the best part of a life is the family. A family could be friends, too, of course. But that inherent tribalism of our species is what binds people together. And what they tried to do in the family is shed all the polarization and everything that didn’t work. And, yes, Grandma is the ruler, because someone’s got to be the ruler. And there are cousins who lead, but it’s a very gray area. They lead without leading per se. No one tells you really what to do.
There are laws, but it’s consensual, because it certainly makes sense and it’s all about individual responsibility, and you’re accountable for your actions, and no one’s going to force you to do something.
And the best example of this is the Disappointment Villages, the “DVs” and there’s eighty nine as the book opens. Now in this world, say you really tried hard at life. Okay? You and your wife. I mean, really worked hard, and every time, every job, every business, you had has failed. You’ve got kids. You’ve got to support them. Now, what are we supposed to do with you? There’s no welfare. Because the fact that you fail at a variety of professions is not my problem, okay? It’s, yours to fix, and we want you to have the opportunity to fix it. You’re not to be shot or put in prison or exiled to some remote area.
So the Disappointment Villages are set up, and all too often, almost always in science fiction, you see…remember Elysium with Matt Damon? The good example, it’s like a barrio and the poverty and the barbed wire and the crime. It’s exactly the opposite here in the DVs, because people want a second chance. They’re allowed to reboot. They’re allowed to see if they could find their way and figure out what went wrong.
And certainly, and probably the priority is to make sure that doesn’t happen to their children. So it’s a subculture and it’s not. The family is supposed to be a class of society but that’s impossible. And so, I grew up in the South Bronx, so I would have grown up in the DV. You’re not supposed to be stigmatized, but you always think of yourself that way. They have a short hand language, so that when people who aren’t from the DV, they can talk, and they don’t know what they’re saying. And you’re supposed to work hard, so the streets are clean – you could eat off the streets. There’s almost no crime in the Family, anyway, but there’s never crime in the DV. That would be a disgrace for everyone. For anyone to miss school – if you’re not going to a class, you better be working. You better be doing something so it’s a very high energy to succeed and get out of the DV. If you can’t do it, at least make it for your children. So in a way, the Family rejects the great American power, the hubris, which led us to think we were so mighty.
But there was old fashioned values, about individual responsibility, about love, about trust, about honesty. In business, you can’t…I can’t go around saying, “Brian, what a schmuck.” No, I would get fired because we’re supposed to work together. And it’s that sense that there’s got to be a higher standard of living that, the back stabbing, the cutthroat…all that just didn’t work.
Doc: One of the other aspects of the book that I really like is about the world building that goes on in it. If you provide to me a broad world, my imagination goes and starts filling in all the other possibilities that there are in those worlds. And you’ve started that with this book, because you’ve had a war, it’s sometime after the war, there’s, various things that have happened that opens up space for more. And obviously, the continuation of the story. How big a world do you see this in terms of future stories?
Gary: Well, in book two and on, it gets expanded to the Caliphate, the Muslim Europe. Because I want to show what life is like there and what it would be like for Crusaders. And I try to dig a little deeper, because in book two, and the other books, America is going to go through changes. And it’s going to have to reassess some of the truths it thought were truths, but were lies and deal with, well, do they really want another war? And Grandma, who said, well, we someday want to be a power again. But we want to be a power of our ideas and our ethics and not our weapons.
So it’s a real clash between people like that and those who say no, the old world has to continue on. And then of course there’s the notion of religion, you know, the godless America versus the religious Caliphate, and can they just side by side, and then there’s the robots? Because in 2040 robots with faces were banned because they simply blended in, no one could tell them apart.
And so bots were allowed, but without faces, so we know who they are. Grandma, believing that everyone, all organic and non-organic beings deserve equality, created something called the Little Extended Families which included bots. So they’ve been given rights and jobs, not like jobs with high emotional context, like a teacher, a policeman, a doctor, but bus drivers, cab drivers. And they’re treated right and there’s no discrimination, no one is ever discriminated against.
In the book, the only time anyone ever pointed out what someone is, is when Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle show up. And Ty Cobb was not the most enlightened person. He looked around and he says, “Where’s all the white people? What’s going on” and, you know, and Mickey, of course, wants to hit on girls. Well, you know, you can’t do that, it’s just not happening. But there’s no mention of anyone. There is a gay story line, but it just is. It’s just whatever, it’s just people, and I think that we’re so caught up in what we are, so politically correct, and I’m very politically incorrect, but not in a negative way, just in a way like I don’t care.
Doc: Yeah, I was explaining a bit of that to my kids…this is the way people thought. It doesn’t mean it was right, but it’s, the way people thought back then. The story brings that to the forefront in the personification of Mickey and Ty, and their culture shock.
Gary: Yes, they’re on the subway and then looking around like “What is going on?”
The government is in the Bronx. Washington was taken out, L.A. was taken out, wasted by chemical attack, so they figured, well, no one’s going to go bother the Bronx. Too many poor people there. So the one stadium, my beloved Yankee Stadium.
Doc: Got to leave Yankee Stadium. But you did rename it.
Gary: Yes, I love baseball. There was a poll…which found that fifty six percent of sports fans – not any old person but sports fans – never watch a baseball game, and that really blew me away when you think about it. And baseball, the sport of baseball is, by its nature, kind of slow, because that’s baseball, it’s just how it is. Baseball requires sentimentality. And we, unfortunately, our society now lacks sentimentality. And so I could see the day when baseball is not the pastime. And I wanted to explore that and see what that would mean to the American psyche. As a baseball fan I wasn’t going to let it go.
Doc: Speaking of baseball…what do you think? Yankees vs. Red Sox… [Ed note: we had this conversation before the Red Sox and Yankees played in the American League Division Series]
Gary: If I had to bet money, I would bet on the Red Sox. Sounds heresy…
Doc: It’s not heresy to me…
Gary: Yes, but I went to Fenway Park in August for my wedding anniversary, my fourth wedding anniversary, and I had never been to Fenway Park, I’m ashamed to say, and I just fell in love. It’s like you’re seventeen years old and you’re at a party and you see that girl and you just melt, and when I walked into Fenway I was like, oh my god, this is what a baseball stadium should be like, and to me, yeah, I’d like the Yankees to beat the Red Sox. But if they don’t, the Red Sox are class and they have a tradition, and as long as you love baseball. I’m good with it.