World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve”

The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve“, Robert Silverberg, 1982.

Franz Ferdinand, red-faced and tense in preposterous comic-opera uniform, waved half-heartedly to the bleakly staring crowd. Drab, plump Sophie beside him, absurdly overdressed, forced a smile. They were meaty-looking, florid people, rigid and nervous, all but clinging to each other in their nervousness.

“Now it starts,” he said.

“Yes. The foreplay.” She slipped her arm through his.”

And so our lovers, the time travelers Reichenbach and Ilsabet, have their first encounter one summer day in the Sarajevo of June 28, 1914.

And the climax of an age, and a sort of sublimated climax for our lovers:

There was a clashing of gears. A gaunt boy emerged from a coffeehouse not three meters from the car, less than ten from Reichenbach and Ilsabet. He looked dazed, like a sleepwalker, as if astounded to find himself so close to the imperial heir. This is Gavrilo Princip, Reichenbach thought, the second and true assassin, but he felt little interest in what was about to happen. The gun was out, the boy was taking aim.  But Reichenbach watched Ilsabet, more concerned with the quality of her reactions than with the deaths of two trivial people in fancy costumes. Thus he missed seeing the fatal shot through Franz Ferdinand’s pouter-pigeon chest, though he observed Ilsabet’s quick, frosty smile of satisfaction. When he glanced back at the royal car he saw the archduke sitting upright, stunned, tunic and lips stained with red, and the boy firing at the duchess. There was consternation among the aides-de-camp. The car sped away. It was 11:15.

“So,” said Ilsabet. “Now the war begins, the dynasties topple, a civilization crumbles. Did you enjoy it?”

“Not as much as I enjoyed the way you smiled when the archduke was shot.”

Reichenbach has studied the war, he knows its history:

… exchanges of stiff diplomatic notes, declarations of war by Austria-Hungary against Serbia, Germany against Russia and France, Europe engulfed in flames, the battle of the Marne, Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, the flight of the Kaiser, the armistice, the transformation of the monarchies … now … he was unmoved. Ilsabet had eclipsed the Great War for him.

For many modern authors, the war is a bit of exotic horror or color. Silverberg, in his use of the war, in a story that goes on to be a tale of jealousy and intrigue and would-be murder across history, is looking at something else. We watch movies, read fiction — and even non-fiction, and listen to ballads of historical horrors for many reasons. It may be to honor our history or others or even the history of our family. It may be to remind ourselves of others sacrifices, others misdeeds, and horrible accidents that could have been avoided.

But don’t we also consume historical fiction, just a little bit, for the same reasons Reichenbach and Ilsabet observe it directly? Curiosity. The thrill of seeing “trivial people in fancy clothes”. That is the question Silverberg makes us consider in his use of the Great War.

As you would expect from an author who himself wrote some good popular histories, Silverberg got his facts straight.

There was an assassination attempt on the Archduke before Gavrilo Princip’s. Nedjelko Cabrinovic threw a bomb at the Archduke’s car, but it bounced off. There were actually seven would-be assassins in Sarajevo that day. But only Princip and Cabrinovic took action.

I’ve found varying accounts of when the shooting took place, but Silverberg’s time is a good approximation.

As to the clothes and other details

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

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