Saturday, June 21, 2014

Alternate History SF: So Many Worlds to Explore

Believe it or not, the idea of alternate history, or counter-factual worlds as it’s also known, where historical events turned out differently from our world, dates as far back as the 4th century BC. That's when the Roman historian Livy contemplated an alternative 4th century BC in which Alexander the Great of Macedonia expanded his empire westward instead of eastward, thus meeting up with the Romans and in Livy’s view, losing to them in battle. Had that happened, the geographical realities of our time and who ruled where would have been significantly altered.

Since then, everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Winston Churchill has pondered what might have been. Hawthorne’s "P.'s Correspondence," published in 1845, speculated on a different 1845 where famous people such as Napoleon Bonaparte were still alive. Churchill’s alternate history speculation, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” (part of the 1931 anthology If It Had Happened Otherwise) postulates a Civil War won by the South, which along with the idea of Nazi Germany winning World War Two remains the most frequently written about alternate history scenario. Both of those turnabouts could have happened, which is the point of examining alternate history, recognition that history can literally turn on a dime or on a specific event – such as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which was the main trigger of World War One, or 9/11, whose ramifications are still being felt today. Had either of those events not happened, where would we now be? (Richard Ned Lebow’s fascinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War One offers up speculations on a history without both world wars had the archduke not been assassinated one hundred years ago this week.) But just because there are so many alternate histories being written – new ones seem to come out weekly – does not mean that they are all of equal quality, or equally plausible. How and why alternate histories convince us, or work as literature, have as much to do with the writer’s biases, talents and abilities to believably explain the altered course of history and those who make it.

C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2014, published 2012 in the U.K.), which imagines a fascist Britain in 1952, after Churchill lost out to the appeasers who were prepared to make peace with Nazi Germany, is a scrupulously thought through and utterly believable scenario for a novel. It doesn’t exaggerate the social and political aspects of its created world and provides some nuance to it, too. (England and France have not deported their Jews (yet) to concentration camps nor given them over to their quasi-German masters). It helps, of course, that it’s such a well-written, atmospheric book, as well. Good ideas are no substitute for bad writing. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004) contained fine writing, too – Roth is incapable of faltering in that regard – but its alternate world wherein aviator Charles Lindbergh, an isolationist, fascist sympathizer and anti-Semite becomes President and begins tightening the screws on America’s Jews is, finally, a failure of the imagination. Roth does not have the genre writer’s ability to go all out imagining a fictional science fictional universe – Sansom is a long time mystery writer – so his novel is mostly anchored to the sober, disturbing facts of what a Lindbergh Presidency might feel like, in this case as experienced by a young Philip Roth and his family who would have been alive in the 30s. And while those details are chillingly and realistically rendered on the page, Roth cannot quite figure out how to resolve his situation and where to go with it. The book’s conclusion is thus slapdash and far-fetched in equal measure.

The same problems afflict Len Deighton’s tale of an Occupied Britain in SS-GB (1978). As a spy writer, he, like Roth, is interested in the mundane, day to day facts of how an alternate England would function, particularly in respect to the new-found and understandably uneasy relationship between Scotland Yard and the SS, and succeeds less in capturing the altered atmosphere of that world, or the big picture so to speak. Robert Harris’s debut novel Fatherland (1992) isn’t well written at all, as he is not adept at strong characterization – except, perhaps, for his two lead protagonists and even they’re not as rounded as any of Sansom’s characters in Dominion - but he also fails to convey the small, salient facts of his altered world. His Berlin of 1964, where Hitler’s 75th birthday celebrations are about to occur, is your basic Soviet-style police state with only the slightest sense that it is something different than what we’ve ever experienced in our real world.

Guy Saville’s The Afrika Reich (2011) takes the same alternate jumping off point as Sansom did – after the near fatal disaster of Dunkirk in 1940 the British choose not to fight Germany and thus, perhaps, hold onto their overseas Empire, such as India. The Afrika Reich, however, despite its unique alternate WWII African setting, expects us to swallow the presumption that the Nazis would not use black slave labour to build their sprawling autobahns, massive new cities and other symbols of the dominant worldwide Reich, but would import Slavs and poor indentured Germans to do so instead, after wiping out the local populations. (If the Nazis used Jewish and Polish slave labour in Occupied Europe as they did in reality, there’s no reason to think they would not do the same in Africa and then exterminate the inhabitants). The fatal flaw of The Afrika Reich, which is otherwise well imagined, lies in its pedestrian characterization and lame cliff hanger endings – for each chapter! We don’t need a second coming of Michael Crichton, thank you.

None of the books mentioned above actually suggest that there are parallels to anything going on in our present day world. Philip Roth had to continually insist to interviewer Katie Couric that he wasn’t implying that George W. Bush’s presidency bore any resemblance to a Lindbergh one, which Couric kept suggesting, but simply speculating on an alternate historical possibility that scared him as a child. But Jo Walton in her Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, Half a Crown, 2006-08) gave several interviews where she said Bush’s Presidency prompted her to write the novels as a warning to our present day. (Science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, author of Lathe of Heaven, in a blurb for Walton certainly made that case for Bush = Fascism.) But it's a facile, even ignorant observation and indicative of her (unfounded) political biases. More to the point, it’s a dumb reason to write an alternate history as the motives for it seem to point to the writer playing prophet, compelled to warn us that the British are coming; or in this case, the American Fascists. I also take issue with her depiction of Canada, in the books, as a safe haven for Europe’s Jews. Considering my country took in almost no Jews from Europe during the war (Harold Troper and Irving Abella’s 1983 history book None is Too Many explored that shameful fact), her view is highly problematic since she offers no explanation of why Canada, ever loyal to the Commonwealth, deviated from her fascist mother country in that regard. Even in Dominion, where commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia are chafing under Britain’s increasingly fascist actions, the two countries don’t take in too many Jews; only New Zealand has no such restrictions on Jewish emigration. The Small Change trilogy is one of the more strongly written recent alternate histories, but it does trail off, as Walton seems to get increasingly bored with it – perhaps, she only wanted to write a standalone novel but succumbed to the publisher pressure for a trilogy which seems to be the new normal in SF and fantasy – and the series ends flatly and unsatisfactorily.

An altered world which includes a Confederate States of America (click image to expand)

Walton’s views on present day America, or Bush’s version thereof, where it's being portrayed as akin to any aspect of fascism betrays a simplistic take on America by a non-resident (Walton is Welsh born) that bears no relation to the facts, even as laid out in alternate histories. (Now that Barack Obama is President there are any number of silly alternate histories, masquerading as serious tomes, speculating/warning of his plans to change the U.S. into a socialist version of the old Soviet Union.) I could only stomach a few pulpy chapters of K is for Killing (1978) by Daniel Easterman, the pseudonym of British writer Jonathan Aycliffe, as its view of an alternate fascist America, run by the Ku Klux Klan, no less, with Lindbergh as their puppet, recreates America as an exact duplicate of Nazi Germany, concentration camps and all. Noting that even Fascist Italy and Fascist Spain didn’t hold the same anti-Semitic attitudes as the Nazis did, that’s a gross simplification of what fascism could come to mean in other countries like the U.S. A more believable scenario is proffered by American writer Brendan Dubois, writing as Alan Glenn, in Amerikan Eagle (2011), wherein Huey Long has become the American President and plays political footsie with the Germans. He doesn’t do anything about the Jews in terms of directly threatening them but neither does he shut down, as President Franklin Roosevelt eventually did, or limit the hate filled ravings of (real life) anti – Semitic priest and radio broadcaster Charles Coughlin. Fearing for their lives and future, American Jews in Amerikan Eagle have voluntarily retreated to ghettos in New York, Los Angeles and other large cities, assuming there is safety in numbers. Unlike in K is for Killing, that’s a nuanced portrait of American fascism. (It’s also a clichéd and obviously plotted book which may explain why Dubois, who wrote the very fine 1999 Resurrection Day, about the outgrowth of a dictatorial United Sates in the aftermath of the nuclear war that ensued because of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is using a pseudonym here.)

One of my favourite alternate history stories also involves Long. In Barry Malzberg’s Kingfish, appearing in the (excellent) 1992 Alternate Presidents anthology, President Long invites Adolf Hitler to Washington and has him killed. If you know anything about Long, who was assassinated when he was governor of Louisiana after announcing he would be running for President in 1936, and his political tactics, it’s a strangely believable scenario. Alternate history anthologies such as Alternate Presidents and Hitler Victorious (1986) whose American edition sports a dramatic cover shot of Hitler touring Washington, D.C. are often the best bets for such what-if speculations. They’re short and sweet and less likely to fall apart or be hobbled by lame characterization, which is not of such importance in the novella or novelette form. (Hitler Victorious also includes Brad Linaweaver’s terrific novella Moon of Ice, later expanded into a good 1989 novel, with a Libertarian America and a deft use of Nazi occultism to underpin its fascinating, original alternate world. Linaweaver also wrote the novelization of Sliders, an awful alternate history based TV series but we won’t hold that against him.) Other alternate WWII anthologies, more academic in nature and often edited by historian Peter G. Tsuouras such as Rising Sun Victorious: The Alternative History of How the Japanese Won the Pacific War (2007); Third Reich Victorious: Alternate Decisions of World War II (2007) and Hitler Triumphant: Alternate Decisions of World War II (2006) are of historical interest but can be awfully dry, too. A small sidebar to check out is Harry Turtledove’s short story "The Last Article" (1988), which you can download here, wherein non-violent pacifist Mahatma Gandhi learns, too late, that a Nazi Germany, which has conquered India cannot be successfully opposed in the same manner as the democratic British were. It’s a smart take on the naiveté of some of our greatest figures – based on fact, incidentally – and a reminder that politically correct comparisons between Nazi Germany and any of the Allied powers cannot apply in real life.

As a political and history buff (I have a bachelor, majoring in the former with a minor in the latter) and a Jew, I naturally have a specific interest in alternate World War scenarios. (How could I not?) but that’s not all I am compelled to read. I’m also fascinated by nuclear war scenarios, which pop up in any number of alternate worlds, such as Resurrection Day and Professor Eric G. Swedin’s When Angels Wept: A What-If History of the Cuban Missile Crisis (2010), which though it takes too long to get to its main point offers a devastating and memorable picture of what a nuclear war, emanating from that crisis would have looked like. Jo Walton’s’ latest novel My Real Children (2014), about a woman who lives two lives in two different worlds but remembers them both postulates it as the Nuclear Missile Exchange wherein the Soviets bombed Miami and the Americans retaliated by destroying Kiev, prompting President John F. Kennedy, who survived in one of the two worlds, to decline to run for a second term out of remorse for what happened. Those books are a timely reminder of how close such as an exchange came to actually occurring. Less believable in My Real Children is Walton’s contention that that nuclear exchange would be followed by several others over the years, which is not that plausible to countries’ learning form past mistakes. After all, we’ve avoided that grim reality since Hiroshima and Nagasaki were nuked in 1945. (Walton’s other world in My Real Children is more utopian and just as far-fetched. Again, not being internally plausible, whatever their other strengths, is why so many alternate history novels come a cropper.

Other alternate history books stem from similar deep conviction as Swedin’s book and in the case of Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (2013), which came out in time for the 50th anniversary of his assassination, are also based on his knowing the martyred president when he covered him as a journalist and like so many bemoaning that he died as he did. (Greenfield also wrote Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan (2012), another discerning book on alternate Presidential election results) Greenfield’s book does not exaggerate the accomplishments of a two-term Kennedy Presidency, but neither does it suggest that he would not have made a difference as in Vietnam, for example. One man can make a difference but in the U.S., exceptions like Franklin Roosevelt aside, in incremental fashion only. That’s why Mitchell J. Freedman’s A Disturbance of Fate: The Presidency of Robert Kennedy is such an utter failure. His meticulously written and lengthy book imagines Robert surviving Sirhan Sirhan’s attempt on his life and going all out to turn the U.S. into a socialist paradise. I’m not being hyperbolic here as Freedman has RFK and his Vice President, Liberal Texan Ralph Yarborough (who existed in real life) transform the U.S. for the better in every way possible, despite (supposed) Republican and conservative Democratic opposition. (Well, except for gun control; no one can hope to succeed in that endeavour, real or imagined words alike.) I say supposed because they lose every time like Perry Mason’s opponents in the old TV series. Freedman then postulates a Second American Civil War in the 80s after Kennedy has left office. I get that Freedman’s book is therapy for him, the ultimate wish fulfilment, but though I got through it I barely believed a word of it.

The reverse applies to Christian Nation (2013) by Frederic C. Rich, a lawyer and author who wants to warn America against the dire thereat of Christian fundamentalism, by conjuring up a world somewhat similar to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale, only here explaining the political basis of how his theocracy came to be. Vice President Sarah Palin, who becomes President when John McCain dies soon after attaining that high office in 2008, starts the ball rolling, but it’s a fictional Chief Executive named Steve Jordan who brings America fully over to the dictatorial dark side. Rich is a descriptive writer and some sequences are truly horrifying as what if ideas but I’ll never be convinced that the U.S. could turn fully fundamentalist simply because too many Americans are individualistic. Besides, unlike the alternate WWII and Southern victory books, which are based on real possibility, a Sarah Palin presidency was almost always unlikely and writing a book about it so long after she ran for office is redundant, unless you’re convinced, like Rich obviously is, that America’s future could someday be this darkly (ir)religious.

Much better is Stephen King’s excellent 11/22/63 (2011) with his protagonist Jacob Epping discovering a way to go back in time to 1958 and then endeavouring to prevent JFK’s murder five years on. It’s a beautiful amalgam of alternate history and time travel tropes (one of my other SF favourites) and apropos since time travelers have the ability to change the future if they’re not careful. The only weak link in the book, which overall is one of King’s best, is his depiction of a world where Kennedy survives; it’s genre overkill in this case as King lets loose with so many imaginative and wild leaps into dystopian SF that he neglects to build a nuanced, subtle alternative world in a novel that is otherwise scrupulously so.

I had high hopes for Matt Ruff’s The Mirage (2012), an alternate take on 9/11 wherein the Twin Towers are located in Baghdad, UAS (United Arab States) and the terrorists are Christians from a backwards U.S. targeting the dominant Arab superpower on 11/9. I liked some of its jokey ideas, such as a modern Israel being located in Germany, as recompense for the Holocaust, and occupying the West Bank of the Rhineland and facing an existential threat from a Holocaust-denying British Prime Minister (real life Holocaust denier David Irving). But the book does not gel for a reason I could not pin down until I read the novel’s postscript where Ruff talks about wanting to present an alternative to the Arab terrorist stereotype and humanize the Arab world in the process. But because, as he freely admits, he was less interested in depicting the American world of The Mirage –  and it’s sketchily drawn at best – the book falls apart as a fully realized SF vision.

Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) is another alternate history which skimps on the interesting details of its fabricated world. Chabon builds a world where the Israel we know was defeated and destroyed by the Arabs in 1948 and a new Jewish state unofficially set up in Sitka, Alaska, when America let in many more Jews in 1941 than were ever allowed into the country in our real world. But though there are hints of momentous alternate historical events – an American invasion of Cuba, World War Two ending with the nuking of Berlin in 1946, Marilyn Monroe marrying one of the Kennedys (presumably Robert) – Chabon is more preoccupied with writing a detective story, one so hard boiled it seems to be set in the 1950s instead of 2007. The book is very well written, but this science fiction fan was not satisfied with Chabon’s (barely) speculative efforts.

Much more tantalizing and satisying is Steven Barnes’ highly provocative Lion's Blood: A Novel of Slavery and Freedom in an Alternate America (2002), wherein the slaves are Irish and the masters black Muslims. (He also wrote a sequel Zulu Heart in 2003 which I have not read.) Barnes, who is African American, makes the obvious but not always admitted point that skin colour as the basis of slavery was as much an accident of history as a racist outgrowth of it. (Many of the blacks sold into slavery were done so by their own people). Contrast that complex view with Kevin Wilmott’s simplistic 2004 film C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a rare foray into cinematic alternate history. (TV series usually tackle that subject.) That ‘mockumentary’ seriously postulates that slavery would still be a reality in a present day 21st century Southern-run America, highly unlikely as every other slave owning society has historically jettisoned that barbaric system sooner or later. I haven’t yet waded through Harry Turtledove’s CSA series of books (eleven in all, published from 1997-2007) but from what I know of them, they strike me as much more intelligent and nuanced than C.S.A.

Sometimes alternate histories, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s masterful The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), generate controversy within the SF field. His depicted world where the Black Death wipes out 90 per cent of Europe (instead of the 30% it did in our world), allowing Islam and Hinduism to be the dominant world religions (and implacable enemies) prompted Harry Turtledove, whose oeuvre is mostly made up of alternate history (his latest series, the six-book The War That Came Early (2009-2014), imagines a WWII that began in 1938, one year earlier; that’s a little too narrow an alternate perspective for me) to assail Robinson for political correctness, maintaining that a Islamic dominated world would be more backwards than the one portrayed in The Years of Rice and Salt. Well, actually Robinson does suggest that his created world is a generation behind ours in technological terms and also imagines a 67-year-long war between the Islamic world and China that cost many more lives than in our world wars but he does not bring into the book any of the Islamic fundamentalist elements we might expect, based on our own modern history. But as Islam in our 15th century was highly progressive, who’s to say Robinson’s fairly generous view is a faulty one?

Another worthwhile read is Terry Bisson’s post modernist and satirical Any Day Now ( 2012), an alternate counter-cultural novel where the positive, left-wing developments of the 60s unfolded at an increased pace, affecting the U.S. and the world’s political trajectory and impacting in a very different way on the lives of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, among others. Think of it as an acid trip by a die-hard leftist but one possessing real wit and talent. Another highly altered America pops up in The Two Georges (1995), co-written by Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss (yes, the actor!). Its version of a world where the American Revolution never happened and North America is still under the sway of the British Empire is more fun than you might think.

I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the world of alternate history books – check out the good uchronia web site ( if you want to know more, including information on the winners of the Sidewise Award, given out annually to the best novels and short stories in the genre – which encompass so many more must reads from classics like Ward Moore’s seminal alternate Civil War book Bring the Jubilee (1963) and Philip K. Dick’s superb alternate World War Two novel The Man in the High Castle (1962), which like The Mirage has its inhabitants get wind of a world (our world) where history turned out differently form theirs; to the entertaining Miek Resnick edited alternate series of books such as Alternate Kennedys (1992), with has John and Robert in one story as stars of a Star Trek like TV series and in another as members of a Beatles like rock group. Alternate Warriors (1993) and Alternate Outlaws (1994) transform perceived icons of good as Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Elvis Presley and Nelson Mandela into villains, a gutsy but thought provoking take on the subject of what might have been. Going back historically are Robert Silverberg’s novel The Gate of Worlds (1967), kind of a young adult novel which also posits the Black Death destroying most of Europe, significantly delaying the Industrial Revolution and ensuring that the Aztecs and Incas rule to the present day; Harry Turtledove’s Ruled Britannia (2002), with one William Shakespeare trying to write a subversive play in a Britain occupied by Spain when the Spanish Armada defeated England in 1588; and Keith Robert’s Pavane (1968) where Queen Elizabeth I was assassinated and the Protestant Reformation never happened, a theme also explored in Kingsley Amis’s fine The Alteration (1976).

Actually, as long as people remain intrigued by history and why specific events turned out as they did, talented (and less talented) writers and historians will turn out books on that speculative subject. There will be, as there are now, more hits than misses but if you like SF, you’ll find plenty of quality reads to occupy your time. At their best, alternate history books are as good as SF ever gets.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on iconic cinema. He is currently teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9 at Ryerson.

No comments:

Post a Comment