Posts Tagged ‘alternative history’

Keith Roberts: Pavane

November 14, 2020

     Here’s one I’ve liked for a long time, and just re-read. I hesitate to call it a novel, as it’s really a series of loosely-connected short stories, set in an alternative time-frame, which was what originally attracted me to it some forty years ago. Elizabeth I was assassinated, the Spanish Armada was successful, the Protestant Reformation in England was undone, following which it was seriously curbed throughout Europe and the hegemony of Rome was re-established. Strict control is maintained over all aspects of science and technology, which means that late twentieth-century England, when the tales are set, is a very different place, without the internal combustion engine and electricity… But trouble is building up, the natives are dissatisfied.

Keith Roberts creates an incredibly detailed alternative vision, which convinces the reader through that detail. Within his picture of a strange England, he embeds a series of vignettes of different individuals and their lives in this unfamiliar world. There’s the driver of a steam-powered road-train, beset by highwaymen; a trainee semaphore signaller; a monk who is an artist and illustrator, so traumatised by images of the Inquisition at work that he’s ordered to make, that he has a breakdown and leads an initial, failed rebellion against the Church. We return to the family of the road-train driver and see how much more repressive the Church has become; the links between the stories and characters are fairly tenuous over time, though unified by their common location in the West Country. Things come to a head in the character of the heiress to a fortified castle, who heads what develops into a national revolt against Rome in a final powerful story.

What is so fascinating and gripping – to this reader at least – about such tales, set in times and places that can never be? I suppose they appeal to the thinker in me, who realises that our choices and decisions at every level do shape the future. In my own lifetime, for instance, I might reflect on what the world would be like had the Soviet Union not collapsed and disappeared… And so, we ought to be thinking seriously about the things we do, and their effect on the future, much more than the vague questions and largely irrelevant choices that we are offered in ‘democratic’ elections every few years. Why do most of us express great concern about climate emergency, while we continue consuming vast quantities of energy and consumer goods? Just asking…

Ward Moore: Bring the Jubilee

August 8, 2020

613q34K95KL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_     Here is a curiosity, written in the year I was born, and which I have just read for the fourth time: a counter-factual, or alternative history, in which the Confederacy wins the Battle of Gettysburg and thus the American Civil War, which becomes the War of Southron Independence.

The novel tells the tale of a strange, rootless and wandering character, Hodge Backmaker, who lives in the backward and rundown northern part of the continent, seventy years after the end of the War. One of the best things about this novel is the sense of atmosphere: the economic and social decay and depression is sketched out initially and never stops being gradually fleshed out into a very convincing picture, and because the Confederacy is both wealthy and remote, we learn relatively little of life there. The northern states operate a system of indentured labour, where the poor basically sell themselves into serfdom in order to survive.

The alternative history genre is a curious one, and one that has attracted me because of the ‘what if’ question, which, in many ways links to the broader genre of utopias: would our world be a better place if x had happened instead of y? And there is an interesting proto-utopian element in this story, a commune of scientists, researchers and intellectuals who escape the grimness of life in the north in their settlement at Haggershaven, and to which our hero eventually finds his way by a long and circuitous route, as a serious academic historian of the era of the Civil War.

What is also intriguing about the novel is the wealth of interesting and eccentric characters and the philosophical conversations they have. The plot itself, and its development, is so very unusual and unexpected that it hooks and grips, even though it’s not particularly action-packed, suspenseful or exciting. Each time I’ve read it, I’ve fairly quickly forgotten all about the book except for a memory that it’s really good and I’ll read it again one day.

The denouement isn’t particularly original, either, depending as it does on the now-famous, so-called ‘butterfly paradox’ in time-travel tales, but again, it’s very skilfully done as our hero historian travels back to see how, exactly, the South came to win at Gettysburg.

It’s a minor classic of its type and well worth your attention.

Harry Harrison: A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

August 2, 2020

91ZDD32iqlL._AC_UL320_     I’m not sure what made me return to this slim novel that I last read 27 years ago. I have a fascination with the genre called alternative history and recently picked several out from my shelves to come back to. Here, the American colonies’ revolt against Great Britain failed and George Washington was executed as a traitor; one of his descendants is an engineer involved in a project to build a tunnel to carry trains under the Atlantic in a world that has atomic power but no internal combustion engine…

We are in 1973, and trains can only manage 150mph. Britain leads the world in technology, including nuclear-powered trains. It seems almost quaint, in our current post-industrial wasteland, that a writer in 1972 could have pictured our country like this in the future, such was the promise of those long-gone days when we had developed the TSR2 and also Concorde…

It’s almost possible to see where the steampunk vision of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s amazing The Difference Engine (a far, far better novel set in an alternative Victorian era) came from, in this science-focused tale, with its Boy’s Own Paper-style heroes and the rivalry between the American engineer Washington and the British Brunel as they strive to build the tunnel and Washington strives also to win Brunel’s daughter.

It’s poor stuff, I’m afraid, almost embarrassing. The characters are thin, cardboard cutouts reminiscent of the worst SF from the early days. Plot drives everything, along with pseudo-science, and there’s precious little plot to engage the reader, with almost no suspense, tension or uncertainty; technology overcomes everything without much effort and the evil saboteurs – French? German? no, merely a blackmailed capitalist – easily thwarted. And Washington is knighted for his successes and gets the girl, and surprise, surprise, the American colonies are granted their independence when Washington asks the Queen… Gordon Bennett!!

ed Niall Ferguson: Virtual History

October 26, 2019

41w7zIAhyvL._AC_UY218_ML3_   As a lifelong reader of SF, I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve known as alternative futures, although some now call them counterfactuals: works where writers imagine what the world would be like if things had gone differently at some point in the past. I suppose the current classic example is Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers were victorious in the Second World War, but there are numerous other examples. A couple of my favourites are Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, in which the Confederacy won the American Civil War, and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, a dark tale set after seven centuries of Nazi power in Europe.

So I came back hopefully to this book which I last read twenty yers ago, only to be seriously disappointed. Niall Ferguson is a historian, albeit one with a far too right-wing take on things for me, and he provides a wide-ranging introductory essay to the subject, offering a taxonomy of counterfactual history, rubbishing Marx along the way, of course. Ultimately I found it impenetrable stuff, with its – no doubt simplified for the general reader – theories of history, and probably of no real interest to anyone except academic historians. In a paperback aimed at the general reader, it was incredibly self-indulgent.

None of the following chapters is fiction. Various historians tackle various moments which they have deemed crucial in history and survey the evidence and reflect on how things might have gone differently and what the consequences might have been. I found that the further they went back into the past the less relevant or interesting they were, so alternative outcomes to the English Civil War or the American revolution or the history of Ireland and Home Rule were tiresome. When they got on to the First and Second World Wars they were more interesting, but I did find myself wondering what historians would make of such musings.

The chapter on what the world might have been like if the Soviet Union had not collapsed was silly, because it was written far too close to the actual events, and the canter through an alternative past three centuries as an afterword failed because it was too telescoped.

I found myself thinking about how fiction does all of this so differently: history has happened, so re-imagining it is a futile exercise in many ways, whereas the fictional imagining of how it might actually have been to live in such alternate universes is creative and entertaining, as well as having the power to make readers think. Rather than being blinded by a snowstorm of hypothetical details in which historians have to locate names we know in order to remain anchored in their subject, we follow real people and daily lives and relationships in those altered worlds. Life in a world that has been under Nazi rule for centuries is grim, yet people have to live, and they still have minds and imagination, still think and act and desire. To hear in passing in that novel that there was once a race called the Jews, and then for the speaker to move on to something else straight away, has a chill-factor that no historian can generate… How Americans live their daily lives in a California occupied by the Japanese is an interesting, entertaining and thought-provoking act of the imagination.

The most interesting thing in this entire book was Dostoevsky’s comment on Brexit:

‘A man can wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid and even completely idiotic… in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things.’

Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.

Counterfactuals, or alternative histories

February 20, 2015

We are reading about our own era, our own time, but the world is not ours: it’s slightly different, or greatly different, but things have changed, and we are mesmerised, drawn in to see what happens, why it is like this. There has been a fair amount written about alternative histories recently; it’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed, so it’s time to share my thoughts and recommendations…

At the obvious level, such writings are fantasy: that world is never going to exist. The novel is entertainment, often very good entertainment – and yet it is more. It is thought-provoking in the reader because it reflects the consequences of a different choice at some time in our past, and as humans we make choices all the time. It may reflect a different outcome to an action or an event, an effect of chance, and we are reminded that we are at the mercy of events, at the mercy of our own flawed decisions. On the micro level this is the story of our life, and on the macro level it becomes history.

There are some wonderful novels which consider ‘what if’, such as a successful Spanish Armada conquering England in 1588 (Pavane, by Keith Roberts), the Reformation never happening (Kingsley AmisThe Alteration), the Confederacy wins the American Civil War (Ward Moore’s Bring The Jubilee), the Nazis succeed in building their thousand-year Reich (Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin), the Axis Powers win the Second World War (The Man in the High Castle by Philip Dick), Christian fundamentalists take power in the USA (The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I also have a whole collection of short stories written a century ago imagining the various possible outcomes of the coming Great War between Britain and Germany.

Historians have mocked the value and significance of alternative histories. I don’t see why; it’s hardly encroaching on their territory. But they have made the valid point that there are many factors involved in a chain of events, that no one, single change can be that powerful in isolation – for instance, the First World War would have happened even if Princip’s bullets had missed their target, the Second World War would have happened even if Hitler had been assassinated…

On that last question, I’m reminded of a fascinating novel La Part de l’Autre by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, which I don’t think has been translated into English. It’s about a young Austrian would be art student; it begins as a single story but forks into two different tracks and becomes two parallel novels in the same book. One track follows Adolf Hitler (for it is he) through failure as an artist, experiences in the great war, into politics and the rest is history. The second track imagines that same student a successful artist who serves in the Great War and comes home to develop a successful career as an artist; events gradually diverge from the ones we know: Hitler’s life as an artist has a public effect, the Second World War still happens though without his help, but still provoked by the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles… It’s not a brilliant novel, but it is fascinating and compelling precisely because the author has written the two diverting stories in parallel so we can see the gradual unfolding and diverging of the alternate history before our eyes.

For me, such writing is entertaining, and it’s valid as an exercise in humans reflecting on themselves, their choices and their errors and the consequences of these, and, as a citizen, I could wish that certain people did an awful more of that.

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