Alternate history can be a challenging subgenre for any writer. Setting the story in near-future America and extrapolating from recent history to express what the mainstream may consider radical political concepts raises the bar that much higher. While John Miglio's Sunshine Assassins proceeds from an interesting and colorable premise, its execution prevents it from clearing these hurdles.
Sunshine Assassins posits an America in which fundamentalist Christians and multinational corporations have joined forces to control the country. Most authority and power flows from the federal Department of Morality Enforcement. A descendant of the Cold War's MK-ULTRA program, the DME has no compunction against using drugs, brainwashing or even assassination to achieve "Corporate Christian conformity." At the heart of the beast is a shadow government, the Sunshine Council, comprised of representatives of conglomerates and right-wing fundamentalists. The result? A nation in which 10 percent of the population, all self-professed born-again Christians, holds 90 percent of the wealth.
There is, of course, an opposition. The National Underground is an amalgam of dissidents, progressives, and revolutionaries who oppose the fascist nature of the government and the stratification of society. Their lack of resources and government's use of the media and technology for conditioning and controlling the populace have rendered them largely ineffective. Among the leaders of the movement is the story's protagonist, Frank Corso, who cut his teeth on the counterculture and protest movements of the 1960s.
All this, of course, serves as excellent fodder to urge viewpoints and policies common to modern dissident literature. Miglio expresses these ideas not only in the change the Underground seeks but also in the impact of events from the Cold War through the current conflict with Islamic fundamentalism. While Miglio tries to avoid the pedantry found in some works in this political genre, he is fixated on equating the Underground's goals with Jeffersonian ideas, particulary the concept of a nation with an economy based on small companies and individual entrepreneurs. While much of the espoused philosophy does find root there, other parts can be found in the platforms of the Libertarian Party (legalization of all drugs) or the Green Party (wholly phasing out fossil fuels and nuclear power).
The literary aspect of the work — and ultimately its political impact — is undercut by dialogue that sounds contrived and unnatural. Similarly, some chapters come off as little more than set pieces. There is the obligatory escape from the jaws of the beast. There is the "let me tell you how we got to this point" chapter. There is the scene victimizing an otherwise honest and well-meaning family. There is a romance the reader can see coming a mile away.
And while Sunshine Assassins is alternate history, it often requires wholesale suspension of belief unnecessary to depict this future. For example, in the first chapter Corso not only escapes from custody in the center of DME headquarters, he kidnaps the DME's second most powerful man in doing so. A couple of chapters later, he kills two assassins sent after him. He accomplishes both feats single-handed. Not bad for a former journalist and college professor who is nearly 65 years old. We also see crucial DME personnel converted to the Underground's aims as a result of single experiences. Finally, the core of the story revolves around a Mission Impossible-type plan to foment revolution by exposing the Sunshine Council and the truth behind it via the government-controlled media.
Given the schisms in this country arising from economic status, globalization, attitudes toward fundamentalism, and the traditional conflict between left and right, Miglio's premise is certainly worth exploring. In the final analysis, though, his storytelling keeps Sunshine Assassins from really succeeding as either alternate history or dissident prose.