Friday, February 20, 2015

An Alternative History Primer

my article on alternative history novels in last week's Guardian. I'm not attempting to be comprehensive here, it's more of a trawl through some of my favourites...
With Ridley Scott’s adaptation of The Man In The High Castle now showing on Amazon and Ben Elton publishing a novel about a time traveller’s attempt to prevent World War 1 the alternative history genre is hotter than ever. The Man In The High Castle was not the first alternative history novel, nor even the first Nazis-win-the-war novel but it is still probably the most influential book in the genre. Anyone who likes historical fiction should be able to enjoy good counter-factual scenarios. It’s fun imagining how things could have been otherwise. As Ray Bradbury showed in his famous story ‘A Sound of Thunder’, one tiny change in the past could have momentous consequences in the future. A “Butterfly Moment” (from the so called butterfly-effect) is the point from which our timeline diverges from the AH timeline. Structuralist historians tend to discount such moments but clearly if Franz Ferdinand’s driver had driven straight on instead of turning right the entire history of the twentieth century would have been different.
           Of course the most successful AH novels are good novels per se with interesting well rounded characters and a plot that moves. Some writers such as Harry Turtledove, SM Sterling, Jasper Fforde and Ken Flint have spent nearly their entire careers writing alternative histories, others such as Kingsley Amis, Iain Banks, Stephen Fry, Stephen King, Kim Stanley Robinson and Philip Roth have merely dabbled in the genre. Wikipedia has compiled a rather daunting list of alternative history novels, here but if that’s too much to contemplate you could do worse than try some of the following:
The first real AH best seller was L Sprague De Camp’s 1939 novel Lest Darkness Fall in which a modern time traveller attempts to prevent the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by introducing steam engines, pencils, double entry book keeping and other exciting innovations.
World War 2 and its aftermath really got the AH genre going in earnest. Spawning many copycats/homages such as Fatherland, SS-GB, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, etc. The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick is still the best what-if-the-Axis-had-won novel. The butterfly moment was the successful assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. Set in the early 1960’s the victorious Germans and Japanese have divided North America between them. Juliana Frink, a judo instructor, discovers that there is a resistance movement to the Axis which has been inspired by a novelist called Hawthorne Abendsen. Abendsen, with the help of the Chinese book of prophecy, the I Ching, has written an alternative history novel called ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ set in a world in which the Nazis lost the war. Subtle, menacing and utterly brilliant this is Philip K Dick’s masterpiece. In a nice touch of crazy Dick believed that he had only dictated the novel which had really been written by the I Ching to prove the existence of other Earths.
Directly inspired by Dick’s novel, The Alteration by Kingsley Amis, takes place in a 1970’s England where the Reformation never happened and where the all powerful Catholic Church is in a cold war with the Ottoman Empire. A talented boy chorister is forced to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful voice, but in so doing his gift as a composer is lost. (Amis believed that sex lay behind all great art.) The fragmented and weak resistance to the church militant is motivated by a novel called ‘The Man In The High Castle’ authored by a certain Philip K Dick who dares to imagine a world in which the Reformation triumphed. Look out for odd cameos from Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Benn in this neglected tour de force.
The Alteration incorporates some elements of the steam-punk genre, one of the most entertaining of the AH sub-genres. The who-invented-steam-punk debate is a surprisingly vitriolic one that I shall neatly sidestep here, instead I’ll briefly draw your attention to some of the best steam-punk authors. Michael Moorcock and K W Jeter really got things going in the late 1970’s and by 1990 William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s wonderful The Difference Engine saw steam-punk reach its maturity with a novel about the brilliant Ada Lovelace (Byron’s daughter), Charles Babbage and a mechanical computer that achieves sentience Terminator style. Other great books in this oeuvre are Leviathan by Scott Westerfield, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair Of Spring Heeled Jack (which contains a  very clever butterfly moment) and Neal Stephenson’s fabulously detailed Baroque Cycle.
I’m not sure that books that contain magic really count as AH novels as the butterfly moment is somewhat ill-defined, however if you want to stretch a point Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series could be seen as alternative histories of the Napoleonic Wars and Britain in the 1990s/early 2000’s respectively.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August the very impressive debut novel by Claire North is an interesting spin on butterfly-wing tinkering over multiple lives within the same time-line.  
What about some big really big canvas AH novels? Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt takes place in a Europe that has been utterly devastated by the Black Death and is being repopulated by Muslims from the south and Chinese from the west. The world gets divided up between China and Islam and a dazzlingly imagined alternative Middle Ages is the result. West of Eden by Harry Harrison takes alternative history as far back as anyone ever has attempted, imaging what would have happened if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs at Chicxulub had missed.
         I hope that you have enjoyed this little run through the AH genre and that I’ve given you some ideas for future reading. Do check out the massive Wikipedia AH list and as usual complaints, suggestions and corrections in the comments below: