Top Alternate Histories

Alternate History
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.
Making History
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.
Iron Sky
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.

7 responses to “Top Alternate Histories

  1. Alternate history is the ultimate non-falsifiable hypothesis.

    That said, my own take is that Hitler was a beautiful illustration of the contingency of history, its dependence on chance and individual action.

    Some sort of authoritarian, nationalist government in Germany in the 1930’s was very likely; given Mussolini’s example, one that used fascist trappings was also likely. They were as common as dirt in Central Europe in that period.

    Germany actually starting WWII, now -that- was unlikely. The Holocaust, too.

    If you study the period in detail, the striking thing is how utterly reluctant the German military, and even the rest of the Nazi hierarchy, was to start the war in 1939. For the good and simple reason that they were convinced they’d lose. It wasn’t until after the fall of France in 1940, which gobsmacked the German military and people just as much as it did the French, that they began to believe they could pull it off.

    Hitler alone pushed it through — and even then, only after a weird string of foreign-policy successes and internal political developments gave him a quite unprecedented degree of individual power. The closest Hitler ever came to being overthrown was over the Czech crisis.

    The Holocaust likewise. Germany wasn’t a particularly anti-Semitic country at the popular level by the standards of the area and era — not nearly so much so as, for example, Poland. It was Hitler’s inner demons that made it central to the National Socialist movement.

    And, of course, the really weird thing about Hitler’s centrality to the middle 20th century was how very unlikely it was that he’d be alive in 1919.

    He enlisted as a volunteer in 1914, engaged in the “Massacre of the Innocents” at First Ypres, and was a battalion runner for most of the war — one of the most dangerous jobs an infantryman could have. He was the sort of soldier who everyone in his squad hates because he volunteers for -everything-.

    The odds of a man like that surviving the Western Front for four years were infinitesimal. My own grandfather (gassed at Third Ypres in 1917 as a British infantry subaltern) managed a statistically average month and a half before being invalided out.

  2. Another thing to keep in mind about Hitler’s ambitions in eastern Europe is that they were simply a radicalized version of what Germany actually achieved in the First World War.

    The World Wars were sort of mirror images of each other. The First World War was fought and won mostly on the Western Front; it’s there that Germany lost. The Second World War was mostly fought and won and lost in the east.

    But Germany -won- the First World War in the East. They beat the Russian state into collapse (it was essentially out of the war after the Brusilov Offensive in 1916) and made its successor regime acknowledge defeat and agree to Germany’s terms. By 1918, German princes were being given eastern thrones, German troops were as far as the southern Caucasus, the Ukraine was a German satellite, and OberOst was starting to deport Poles and Jews from the areas they intended to settle with German colonists.

    (One of history’s ironies is the free pass Kaiser Bill’s Germany gets because it wasn’t as bad as Hitler’s. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t quite bad. The image of the sadistic, scar-faced, crop-haired Prussian Brute with a monocle and a whip was already present in 1914, and for good reason.)

    Eastern Europe and Russia were rescued by the German defeat in the west.

    Hitler’s plans for ‘lebensraum’ as outlined in Mein Kampf were simply a plan to restore this situation, but in an even more brutal fashion.

    • There are two different ways of looking at this: either from a “Hitler was a very nasty guy” perspective or the “Hitler was merely the Hitler that Hitlered the most” scenario. I don’t claim any kind of historical inevitability to the rise of the NSDAP, the second world war or the atom bomb: what i would argue is that in a world where Germany hadn’t initiated the road to war, another country would have, and would have done so in a broadly similar style. First off – the power struggle of the Anschluss, the annexation of Czechoslovakia and the expansion of Lebensraum are merely symptomatic of a larger process going on. We can argue that if there was no Hitler, Germany would have made the transition to a free democratic republic, but that by itself means little. The aspects of Nazism existed already- the British were the ones to invent concentration camps, after all, and Italy was already developing a militarised fascism – so the world at that time presented the perfect opportunity for things like the holocaust, fascism and antisemitism all occurring under one banner. Case in point: Japan had already perfected all the techniques associated with Nazism years before Hitler arrived on the scene. Mussolini was operating under similar principles. Stalinism presents many of the prima facie aspects of Nazism (slave labour, centrally planned economy, secret police, torture, antisemitism and concentration camps) In this case, the reason we associate Hitler with such atrocities is because, as I said, Hitler is the Hitler who Hitlered the most. With no Hitler, we might be talking about Hirohito, Mussolini, or Stalin in the same hushed tones.
      Secondly, the world state was ideal for the rise of a nutbag and it just so happened to occur in a country that had need of a strong leader. The German situation was so desperate that the “miraculous” ascension of Nazism isn’t quite so miraculous when you look at the economic situation of that country in particular. It’s been argued that Nazism was about ready to arise in America before it happened in Germany. The rule of weighted averages dictates that in optimal situations the most probable outcome (specific to that situation) will occur . Germany had use of a dictator and there happened to be a guy who was only too ready to be it. most of history is dictated in this way: by chance.
      “History is nothing but random horror,” as one character says in The Difference Engine.

  3. The resemblance between National Socialism and Marxist-Leninism is not accidental; it was largely a result of deliberate copying.

    However, I’m arguing that -the second world war- was very unlikely; it was “accidental” in the sense that if you unwound the world to 1914 and ran it 1000 times, you wouldn’t get a WWII resembling the one we had more than, say, 10% of the time or less.

    You’d get a dictatorship in Germany in the 1930’s more often than not, but you wouldn’t get -that particular-, NSDAP dictatorship.

    And even there, if Hitler had died in 1938, it’s very unlikely that there would have been war in 1939; nobody else had the personal authority to override the generals.

    It’s also very unlikely that the NSDAP regime would have remained as radical for long once Hitler was gone. It would have still been very nasty, but much of what it actually did (particularly the stranger things) was the result of a process known in Nazi Germany as “working towards the Fuhrer”.

  4. Also, beware the labels. “Concentration camp” did not mean before the 1930’s what it means now. The camps the British set up for Boer civilians in South Africa were neither for forced labor, nor intended to kill people. A fair number of people died in them, for exactly the same reason that 90% of the British soldiers who died in the same period did so of disease; the British army’s medical wing was grossly incompetent.

  5. As for Italy’s “militarized fascism”, Italy was militarily a joke, and nearly everyone knew it. Even the Spanish Loyalist forces regarded them as a joke. They were just about up to conquering Albania, but the Greeks kicked their asses in a spectacularly humiliating fashion.

    For World War Two to happen, someone capable of fighting a vast offensive war had to start it; and there was exactly one candidate with the capacity, namely Germany.

  6. And Japan was never a totalitarian state, just your standard brutal expansionist Imperial power with a conviction of its own God-given (or more technically, Amaterasu-given) superiority.

    An important thing to remember about the 1930’s is the impact of fashions in political theater. Fascist symbolism and terminology was fashionable, so a lot of people used it whether they were actually fascists or not, just as a lot of lefties used Stalinist imagery (hence the WPA style of mural, frex) whether they were Stalinists or not.

    Franco used a lot of fascist symbolism and rhetoric, but he was no more a fascist than he was a Methodist; just your standard Iberian right-wing caudillo. He used the actual fascists (the Falange) as ‘useful idiots’, carefully kept their leaders away from any real power, and then shipped off their militants to die in Russia in the Blue Division, which saved him the trouble of killing them himself.

    Hitler once said he’d rather have two teeth drilled than talk an hour with Franco, and he had excellent reasons. He thought he’d bought the man, and found he couldn’t even be rented for more than a couple of hours.

    As for it being argued that Nazism was about to rise in the US, it’s also been argued that the world is flat. The second is only a little more demonstrably silly than the first. There were a number of “colored shirt” movements in the US in the 1930’s, and the only people who got excited about them were equally loopy lefties.

    The -Klan- was more serious business, but it had about run its course by then, not least because it had been exposed as a massive scam ripping off the clueless and chinless wonders who made up its own ranks. By FDR’s time it was just another sartorial choice for rednecks who wanted to do nasty stuff to black people, which in that period they would do whether they were wearing sheets or overalls.

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