By Alex Wallace
I’ve talked before of algorithms giving me gold; now I turn to a different source of joy (to the world?). Here, I shall sing of /r/freeEBooks on reddit, which I subscribe to simply because I can never stop finding (nor, indeed, ever want to stop finding) books that I want to read.
I also have a history of mashing up Santa Claus with history; some of you may remember my Christmas specials on alternatehistory.com (which, I regret to inform you, will not be happening this year in the form they have traditionally taken; I intend a short story but no more). The idea of mashing something so silly as Santa Claus with relatively ‘serious’ history is simply amusing to me.
So it was with great pleasure I found Rhett Taggert’s Nuclear Santa: Red Christmas on that subreddit. I downloaded it immediately, and devoured it that night. If I had to describe it in a pithy phrase it’d be “Santa Claus vs. Joseph Stalin.” It’s set in the late 1940s, as Santa Claus tries to deliver presents to the Soviet Union, and meets the expected resistance.
The plot follows one of Santa’s elves as he makes his way through the North Pole
bureaucracy, and eventually becomes the jolly man’s deputy. In many ways, this book works as a satire of bureaucracy and industrialization. I once read somewhere that portrayals of the North Pole under Santa Claus have varied depending on how that particular historical milieu thinks of industrial society generally. Here, it is viewed with a certain wry irony, with almost an incredulity that human beings could create the industrial state (it reminds me, upon some thought, of Michael Frayn’s The Tin Men). The North Pole here is a rational society, almost too rational; Taggert mentions how hard it is to fire an elf from a job by comparing it to a teacher in New York’s public schools.
Taggert’s North Pole is a deeply stratified society, where the occupations are chosen early and their associations run the Pole by jostling with one another; his protagonist is an elf who in a way stands against all that, as an anti-bureaucratic everyman.
Taggert talks a lot about how the North Pole operates; for those of you who’ve read it, imagine the essay on the economics of space travel at the end of Andy Weir’s Artemis, but with a gingerbread flavor. A good deal of the comedy that comes from this book stems from how Taggert explains several silly things about the traditional Santa Claus story in a way that feels very modern. To someone with a dry sense of humor, like myself, the result is quite pleasant.
But the North Pole is only half of the story; the other half is the Soviet Union and specifically Joseph Stalin. The Kremlinologists among us will likely be a tad disappointed, given that Taggert makes Stalin out to be a villain resembling that of a Dr. Seuss book. I would imagine, however, that going into too much detail about the Holodomor or the Doctor’s Plot would simply be tonally jarring for what Taggert set out to accomplish. The Soviets here are the villains of fifties ‘red scare’ media, and the morality of the whole tale is rather black and white.
But if Stalin’s heart is portrayed as pitch black, it serves only to emphasize the light at the North Pole. For all the quibbling I could have done about the history in this short book, I was on the whole charmed by how genuine Taggert’s love for the spirit of Christmas is. Santa Claus and his elves are, ultimately, not cynical people; they’re driven in this short book ultimately by a desire to spread joy. Certainly, my response to all this is partially driven by the fact that part of me is still a child who loves the wonder and beauty of the Christmas season, but Taggert really does make all of this feel real, to his great credit.
This is not a rivet-counter’s book. This is a book for those who are willing to see truth beyond simple fact. In that way, for all its amusing wryness, there’s something ultimately beautiful about this little book. For those of you who want something amusing and warm this holiday season, you could do much worse than Mr. Taggert’s book.