Writing an alternate history novel is high on my list of priorities. The trouble is that most angles have been covered – there’s only so many times you can write about Nazis living on the Moon (as you shall see). Most alternate histories fall into the category of “lazily find a point of historical contention and extrapolate from it” – for example, Britain loses the Second World War (yawn, see: Fatherland, 1945, Swastika Night, The Sound of His Horn, The Ultimate Solution, SS-GB, The Afrika Reich, etc) or the Confederacy wins over the Union (again, yawn: Sideways In Time, 1862, Bring The Jubilee, Gettysburg: Grant Comes East, Gray Victory, A Rebel In Time). These two are the most picked-over of all possible divergence points. But history is not that simple. Knowing a very little about Chaos Theory, it’s arguable that any possible alternate outcome can exist. This, interestingly, is not true of the Second World War: the Axis Powers were always going to lose for one simple reason: they were fighting Russia. I’ll put this in context: compared to Napoleon, Hirohito and Hitler were dunces, and even Napoleon couldn’t win in Russia. It’s that simple. The Second World War was never going to be anything but a crap shoot for Germany – that it happened at all, and happened so fast, is the basis of Hitler’s early victories. Nobody expected him to be that stupid.
So, as you can tell, I’m a bit of a geek for alternate histories. Here are a few I hold in high esteem. Spoilers ahead.
Superman: Red Son
Superman is a point of contention for me. I’m going to be blunt for a second: I think Superman is a monster. Superman is an alien overlord, enforcing his own particular brand of justice on the world. The fact that his morals tally with Western Society is just blind luck.
And that’s just what Red Son illustrates: in this history, Superman is ejected from Krypton a full twelve hours earlier, meaning that instead of crash-landing in small-town Smallville (come on, you know the story) he lands in small-town Ukraine. And grows up a good communist, enforcing Stalin’s law. As time goes by Superman applies himself more and more to the Soviet ideal, enforcing his own particular brand of totalitarian injustice until the whole world is Communist. Dissenters are brainwashed, nobody has accidents and nobody has any choice.
What’s special about Mark Millar’s comic is that it reveals Superman as what he is – an enforcer of “his way”, not “the American way”. If Superman had landed in Nazi Germany he would have become the Aryan Ideal. If he’d landed in Cambodia he would have been a faithful supporter of the Khmer Rouge. Truth, freedom and justice are all subjective. Worth remembering, I think. Plus Batman totally kicks Superman’s ass.
The Man In The High Castle
Philip K Dick probably deserves a statue for being the science fiction writer after Arthur C Clark to have such a lasting effect on culture. The number of movies made from his works dwarf any other sci-fi writer (Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly) yet nobody has the balls to adapt what might be regarded as his greatest: The Man In The High Castle.
PKD takes the established trope (Nazis win WWII) and spins it totally. The US is divided into a two-state continent (Japanese West Coast, German East Coast) with a buffer zone between. Rather than discuss the geopolitical effects this has, PKD focuses on the individual and how they feel towards their oppressors. So you get Californians bitching about the Japanese for being stiff, formal and lacking in imagination, East Coast jews disguising themselves as Aryans with plastic surgery, and the liberal, real America existing precariously between the two. And then things get weird. One of the characters discovers the existence of a plot called Operation Dandelion, where the Germans will blanket-bomb the Japanese Empire with nuclear weapons in their insane attempts to rid the world of imperfection, while another character discovers the writer of an underground novel about their oppressors losing the war used the Chinese oracle, the I Ching, to write it. Consulting the I Ching, the characters discover that their world is the divergent one- that they live in an alternate universe not supposed to happen. And then the book just …ends. On the most mindfucking cliffhanger possible.
Why is this novel so significant? One, it paints the post-war scenario in realistic terms – in the day-to-day living of real people. Two, it does what PKD did best- take an established trope or familiar scenario and turn it into a bizarre, open-ended scenario. There are no easy answers here.
Stephen Fry is these days known for being a comedian and ubiquitous television icon (over the christmas period he apparently appeared in 177 hours of programming, which is MAD) but at one time he was quite an impressive author, with works like The Stars Tennis Balls (The Count of Monte Cristo for the dotcom era), The Liar (English schoolboy buggery) and his best novel, Making History. In it, a time-travelling hero stops Hitler from being born, only to return to the present and discover that everything is even worse than it was already. For one thing, he’s now in Princeton instead of Cambridge. The absence of Hitler led to another maniac bent on world domination rising to power in Germany, precipitating a cold war in which nobody knows about the Holocaust, there was no civil rights movement and no social development in the West.
What’s clever about this is that it a) assumes that Hitler was a best-case scenario (Fry, who is part-Jewish, lost family members to the Holocaust, which must have made it hard writing) and b) that a maniac was always going to rise to power in Germany. His theory runs this way: a post WWI Germany, discontented with the Versailles treaty, suffering the repayment and the economic crash, was always going to fall in line behind a man who promised so much in exchange for freedom. I can see this happening because it has, or nearly has, happened in many places (including the UK) in times of strife. Hell, at this very moment Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing UKIP, is making a name for himself in British politics. Scum always rises, as one of the characters in the book notes. Create a monster-sized hole in the political spectrum and a monster will fill it. Hitler, or his other-world counterpart, Gloder, were almost fated to be. And I find that idea interesting, because it provides a counterpoint to the “history is random” theory.
Time to come clean – Iron Sky was rubbish and it was awesome. My opinion of Iron Sky is conflicted by many different aspects. Was it funny? Yes. Is Julia Dietze the hottest nazi ever? Yes. Did the satirical aspects of Iron Sky fall flat? Yes. Was it ultimately unsatisfying? Yes. Is it amazing they made it from Kickstarter money? Yes. You see? It’s very complicated. On one hand I applaud the filmmakers for making something watchable without studio backing, but at the same time I’m aware that if it had been made with studio backing I would have considered it total crap. And that’s all I can really say. The trope of Nazis on the moon has been done so, so many times it bores me to tears. It’s a conflicting film. So whatever, here’s Julia Dietze.
The Difference Engine
The masterpiece of alternate history: an original idea written by two of the greatest cyberpunk writers, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. A genius miesterwerk, stunning in breadth, depth, and implication. A Victorian world where Charles Babbage completes the Difference Engine, a clockwork computer. Within two decades the world is changed irreparably. People are monitored, immense calculations are made, the US is prevented from forming as one country, the British win the Crimean War in a matter of days, and open Japan up to a Anglo-Nippon alliance with immense potential.
The Difference Engine is all of these things: a social commentary, a science fiction story, a pot-boiler detective story, an intrigue, a philosophical text, an alternate history, a discourse of mathematics ( specific and cryptic references are made to Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem ) and a mystical essay on the places technology will take us. The far future, as glimpsed by Ada Byron, is a world of smoke and oil, with human beings constantly under the scrutiny of an all-seeing eye, a living machine of clockwork gears which dominates future London. If you don’t read this book you are missing out on something truly spectacular – a work beyond anything you’ve read before.