Bearfish: An Almost-History of Southern Livestock – John O’Brien – Review

Bearfish: An Almost-History of Southern Livestock

 John O’Brien

 Sea Lion Press

 William Howard Taft: 27th President of the United States (1909 – 1913) and 10th Chief Justice of the United States (1921 – 1930). Taft was the only man ever in American history to reside in both the White House and the Supreme Court, not to mention his other achievements in a distinctly impressive resume: Solicitor General, Civilian Governor of the Philippines and Secretary of War to name but a few accomplishments. Yet he remains one of the lesser-known Presidents, and is perhaps best known for the health issues related to his weight and girth, and the resulting myth that he once got stuck in a bath in the White House due to his size. However, in Bearfish: An Almost-History of Southern Livestock, the author John O’Brien has taken on the titanic task of increasing President Taft’s notability (and notoriety) – or at least, a counter-factual version of Taft.

For in Bearfish – one of the latest titles published by Sea Lion Press in its latest tranche of alternate history titles – Mr O’Brien envisions Taft signing into law a piece of conservation legislation deceptively titled The Useful Appropriation Act – or more popularly known as the Hippo Laws, and subtly but radically changing the course of American history. In this timeline, hippopotami were imported into the United States – not as Zoological exhibitions, but rather as cattle to be used as foodstuffs. As the title suggests, Bearfish takes the format of a series of interviews conducted by a University student in the 1960s, on the subject of the introduction of Hippos into the American ecosystem. Initial impressions are that this will be an amusing but superficial piece of alternate history, an impression which is cleverly reinforced by O’Brien in the first interview, which is filled with details about how the animals were introduced into southern Louisiana, including several amusing anecdotes relating to people underestimating the strength and intelligence of the animals.

As the story unfolds, however, it becomes clear that this is in fact an entirely serious piece of alternate history, and is perhaps also one of the first pieces of ecological alternate history that I have seen in the genre. As we progress through the series of interviews that are collected and transcribed in the title, O’Brien quickly begins to highlight the significant changes that the introduction of this new breed of animal has caused in the United States. From the effect that it has had on local and national-level politics, to the manner in which it influenced the culture and lifestyle of minorities such as African-Americans and Native Americans, O’Brien deftly shows how an entire country can have its cultural, sociological and political dimensions so radically challenged through the introduction of one breed of animal (although the mention of Camels and other animals in the introduction to Bearfish points towards further intriguing changes that have taken place).

Bearfish is a short piece of fiction, and I’ve no desire to spoil the developments that take place, but by the time I had finished it I realised I wanted to read a great deal more that was set in its universe. It is sharply written and set within a coherent world, and the author obviously has a firm handle on all of the implications that the introduction of Hippos would have in the United States. Much like another Sea Lion Press title, Bob Mumby’s Making Murder Sound Respectable, an entirely original and fascinating world has been built, but the narrative has barely scratched the surface of the possibilities it offers. Thoroughly recommended.

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