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Founding Fathers online: writer Damien Ober pens novel of alternative American history

  • Screenwriter and novelist Damien Ober, whose work toggles between history and science fiction, blends the two in his novel “Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America.” He’s seen here in his Easthampton work area. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Screenwriter and novelist Damien Ober, whose work toggles between history and science fiction, blends the two in his novel “Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America.” He is seen here in his Easthampton work area. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Screenwriter and novelist Damien Ober, whose work toggles between history and science fiction, blends the two in his novel “Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America.” He is seen here in his Easthampton work area. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Screenwriter and novelist Damien Ober, whose work toggles between history and science fiction, blends the two in his novel “Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America.” He’s seen here in his Easthampton work area. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Swashbuckling novelist T.C. Boyle calls Damien Ober’s book “a new kind of fictional history … as fanciful and exuberant as a Garcia-Marquez novel.” 



Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 25, 2018

History is full of “what ifs,” and one question that’s always intrigued from the American Revolution is whether Great Britain could have snuffed out the rebellion early on by crushing the Continental Army at the Battle of New York in the summer of 1776.

Instead, the English let George Washington’s battered forces escape to fight another day — and seven years later, the Treaty of Paris gave America its independence.

Damien Ober says he’s not really interested in those kind of conjectural questions. But as a student of American history, as well as a big fan of science fiction, the Easthampton writer is not averse to creating a more fantastical version of the early American experience.

He’s done that with “Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America: A Novel of the Digital Revolution,” a book that blends alt-history, sci-fi and elements of fantasy in a story that also does away with a conventional narrative structure.

Each of the book’s 56 chapters is set at the deathbed of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a period that runs from 1777 to 1826 — a nearly 50-year span that also imagines those bewigged figures from our history books having full use of the internet.

And the digital world, just as it does today, holds both promise and peril for the leaders of early America. Ober’s book features Ben Franklin, the noted experimenter and man of letters, devising an internet operating system designed to knit the new nation together — but there’s also a virus, known simply as The Death, that escapes from computers across the country and kills over half the population.

Witches, visitors from outer space (“Off-Worlders”) and a giant sea creature also make appearances in a story that still hews closely to the historical record. The Battle of Yorktown, Shay’s Rebellion, the arguments between Federalists and Democrats regarding a strong central government vs. states’ rights — they’re all part of the book, too, but filtered through a decidedly experimental narrative. 

“I loved American history from an early age, and I knew I wanted to write something in that area,” Ober said during a recent interview in his Easthampton home; he grew up north of Boston and thus got early exposure to famous sites like the Battle of Bunker Hill and the Freedom Trail.

“But I also wanted to write something sci-fi and kind of sprawling and epic,” said Ober. “It all sort of came together, although it took me a long time to do the research and develop the idea.”

“I wasn’t trying not to write [a conventional novel],” he added. “I was trying to write something that captured my imagination … I wanted it to be a pre-industrial setting but with the internet, a sort of antique futurism. I love the idea of them riding horses and not having electricity and needing to use clipper ships but still having this technology.”

“Doctor Benjamin Frank-lin’s Dream America,” published by Night Shade Books of New York, represents just one part of Ober’s writing. He is primarily a screenwriter and has written both for TV and film. He has helped write some of the episodes for the secondseason of “The OA,” the Netflix series that mixes science fiction, supernatural and fantasy elements, and he has also penned screenplays of two books by the novelist Robert Olmstead, “Coal Black Horse” and “Far Bright Star,” for Sea Change Media, a production company started by Casey Affleck.

After studying film at the University of Southern California, Ober earned an MFA in fiction writing at the University of Maryland. He moved to the Valley in 2009 from Washington, D.C. 

Bending history

Ober, who works out of a study that has bookcases filled with volumes on history, says the idea of using the death of each of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as the basis of his novel (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson famously died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826) at first seemed like “almost a funny conceit — there was a point where I probably didn’t take it that seriously.”

But the more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea, with each chapter — vignettes, really — revealing something about the signer. It would also allow him to create an episodic narrative in which the overarching storyline could be told by different voices, while the futuristic and fantastical elements — one signer, Thomas Lynch, is snatched from a sailing vessel by a giant sea monster in 1795 — could be introduced bit by bit.

The tall, lanky Ober says he did extensive research into the signers, including reading biographies, and he kept their deaths pretty close to the true accounts, while allowing himself some artistic license. Lynch, a congressional representative from South Carolina, is believed to have died at sea with his wife, though probably not at the hands (or tentacles) of a monster.

There’s off-beat humor, too, in some of the dialogue, which has none of the 18th-century mannerism one might expect but rather a colloquial, 21st-century feel. In one scene, Benjamin Harrison, a Virginia representative, is arguing with his son about the merits of digital programming; there’s an eye-rolling, “kids today” exasperation in his tone about the latest social networking platforms, as well as young people’s online habits.

“When I was your age, we knew how to really represent people,” Harrison says. “You had a meetup, a few flexdocs, some fan pages. You had someone in charge of a group, not some group in charge of the people.”

“Dad, have you been on Franklin’s Dream?” his son counters. “Do you even know how group avatars work? … you are so stuck in a pre-The Death paradigm.” 

The novel also riffs on “drones” (low-level artificial intelligence — AI — programs that skitter across the internet), “haunts” (leftover social networking profiles from deceased people that take on renewed life through AI) and “brainpages” (the novel’s version of a person’s entire social networking profile).

In that sense, the book raises questions about the online world today and its possible future, less as some sort of warning about what our digital habits might produce but rather as an observation of how people feel about technology in general — including the notion that some people find the virtual world more real than the physical one.

“A lot of writing about the future can take on a dark, kind of Gothic tone, this feeling of gloom and doom,” Ober said. “Half the population may be saying ‘This is too much, too fast,’ because things do change so fast ... but it’s fascinating to think about where it might go, best case and worst case.”

Ober says he’d like to write another novel, though his time in the last several years has increasingly been taken up with screenwriting. One of his screenplays, for what he calls a “techno-horror” film titled “The Friendship Game,” is in production with Scythia Films and Social Construct Films; Daniel Bekerman, who produced the 2015 thriller “The Witch,” is a producer on the new project. Ober also goes fairly regularly to Los Angeles, whether for research, meetings with directors and producers, or for some writing sessions.

And writing a novel, he said with a laugh, “is helpful for screenplay writing the same way running 100 miles is good training to run three miles. Screenplays are much smaller and focused, more collaborative. A novel is just you vanishing into the desert for ages and ages, and then you come back with this bloody manuscript.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.