Author Harry Turtledove
First Appearance Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
Genre(s) Alternate History
Publication date September, 2018

"Powerless" is a short story by Harry Turtledove, first published in the September/October 2018 issue of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is an alternate history story depicting a world where communism became dominant in the world, with the Soviet Union serving as the global hegemon. The story, set in an indeterminate time, is inspired by Václav Havel's essay, "The Power of the Powerless".[1][2]


The story is set in Los Angeles, California, which is part of the larger West Coast People's Democratic Republic (the United States having ceased to exist). While there are some clues as to the time frame of the Point of Divergence, the story itself is deliberately set at an indeterminate time period to emphasize the timelessness of resistance to authoritarianism.

Charlie Simpkins, his wife, Lucille, and their two children reside in a one bedroom apartment. Charlie works in a state run green grocer. One day, as a political campaign is gearing up, Charlie is sent a propaganda sign with the traditional communist slogan "Workers of the World Unite!" The sign proves to be a last straw for Charlie: he knows that the Party really doesn't mean anything it says, and he throws the sign in the trash instead of hanging it. In short order, Charlie loses the grocery position and is sent to work in a warehouse. He continues to engage in passive-aggressive acts of rebellion, with consequences to himself and his family. However, he soon realizes that these negative consequences are no worse than the original status quo. He meets other like minded people who realize that, while they don't have the power to topple the Party, they are not powerless, and can carefully and subtly exercise that power they do have to make improvements in the system, or at least keep the Party and the state at bay to some extent.

Literary comment[]

The example of the shopkeeper refusing to put up a sign is taken directly from Havel's work, and many of the arguments Simpkins and his fellows make are close to verbatim Havel's own.

The POD is never made explicit, but some textual clues put a range between 1935 and 1965, although the evidence seems to point to a 1950s POD. Studio City, established in 1929 in OTL, is a setting. One character quotes from A Farewell to Arms, which was published in 1930. "Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism", an ideology first formulated in 1935, is still the name for the version of communism practiced in the world. Stakhanovism, also initiated in 1935, is referenced in passing. The Progressive Party, which disbanded beginning in 1955, is still a permitted party in the WCDPR. The Packard, which ceased production in 1956, is still seen as a status symbol for the party elite, as are televisions, which became ubiquitous in the 1950s. Charlie has a son named Nikita, likely named for Nikita Khrushchev, who ruled the USSR from 1955 to 1964 in OTL. Simpkins reflects at one point that you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, which is likely an allusion to Bob Dylan's song "Subterranean Homesick Blues". None of the characters in the story have any living memory of the defunct United States, nor do any characters reference it in anyway.

In addition to the West Coast Democratic People's Republic, the text also identifies the Southern Confederated People's Republic (which includes a version of Virginia) and the Northeastern Soviet Socialist Republic (which includes Long Island and Maine, and presumably everything in between). There is also a Mexican Socialist Soviet Republic, but the borders are undefined.

See Also[]