Presidential – Martin Cocagh – Review


Martin Concagh

Sea Lion Press

It’s become a common sight, during any election season, to see newspapers, magazines and blogs running a series of articles covering the high-points (and low-points) of the incumbent currently in office, their predecessors, and especially those who tried, but failed, to reach the highest office in the land. At their worst, they can be little more than puff pieces or summaries obviously cribbed from Wikipedia (or even articles from previous elections); but at their best they can be a highly effective way of highlighting and analysing key events and influential people in a political system, and perhaps even a way to try and explain trends and movements that have led to the current candidates in an election. In Presidential, another title from the latest tranche of ebooks released by Sea Lion Press (and with another memorable cover illustration by Jack Tindale), author Martin Concagh makes use of this framing device to deliver an enjoyable and often thought-provoking counter-factual tale of the American Presidency. Covering a period from the late 1980s to the present day, Concagh delivers excerpts from a series of articles examining, in the words of its fictional journalist, ‘…a speech, statement or quote which in some way defines the character and legacy of each American President – and how each one defined what it meant to be Presidential.’

At this point in the review, I should highlight that my knowledge of American politics is far from detailed, and it became obvious from reading Presidential that there are significant gaps, particularly in terms of the relations between the occupant of the Oval Office, Congress and the Senate. This is a similar problem to one I faced in reading, and then reviewing, Many A Hero Untold by David Hoggard and Bob Mumby; my knowledge of Irish history and politics is very weak, although definitely improved after finishing that title. As such, I am certain that there are certain details, subtle hints and nuances, that I am not familiar enough with to discover or understand; and I suspect that an American reader will get even more enjoyment out of Presidential than I did. However, as with Many A Hero Untold, Mr Concagh’s story is so well constructed, with concise, clear writing, impressive levels of detail and a clear overarching narrative that my lack of knowledge did not detract from what is obviously a high-calibre piece of alternate history fiction.

The fictional in-world introduction to Presidential purports to present 48 articles about the American Presidency in the lead-up to election day, but the excerpts that form Presidential only give us the final eight of those articles. Yet those eight articles, each only containing a few hundred words, deftly make use of a few small changes in our own reality (Points of Departure or PoDs) to portray a USA, and by extension an entire world, that has diverged in small but deeply interesting ways. We see how John McCain, elected in 1996, tries to deal with an intervention in Kosovo that rapidly spirals out of control and into a potential world-wide conflict; a terminally-ill President  resigning after being effectively missing from the public eye for whole two months, and the political ramifications of his time in office and the cover-up around his illness; and the interplay between two premiers – one in the United States, the other in Britain – that quickly develops into one of the most intriguing, tightly-plotted and well-written pieces of short-form alternate history I have ever written.

The eight short articles in Presidential form an incredibly interesting story all by themselves, but by the time I had reached the end of the story, I found myself wondering what else had been left out of this counter-factual world. What other events, speeches or characters had taken place in between the events depicted in these eight chapters, and for which there had not been room to cover, both within the 48 articles written by the fictional journalist, and more broadly within the richly-imagined universe Mr Concagh had imagined? We will likely never know, and yet the fact that I was left trying to imagine them after I had finished Presidential is perhaps the best recommendation I can give for such a good piece of alternate history fiction.

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