20 July 2008

Alternative histories

This was written over a week ago but, alas, food poisoning overtook it. It's not complete, but the thread has been lost now; on the other hand, it seems a shame to abandon it so...

Over at JS Books, Ray Girvan writes of Alternative Histories , those fictions which extrapolate their containing worlds from a “what if?” about some putatively crucial point in past time. These have always fascinated me, too.

The arrival of quantum mechanics (or, rather, one interpretive aspect of quantum mechanics) gave them a literary framework and rationale. Schrödinger's box is opened and we find not a dead cat or a live one but both: reality has bifurcated at the moment when a particle did or did not fire the gun, and both possibilities are now manifest, with us on one track and an alternative version of us on the other.

There was a time, and it included my formative years, when such alternative histories were firmly genre locked to science fiction. Quantum mechanics, of course, did nothing to discourage this association. More recently, however, the idea has become mainstream; I personally date this transition from the release of the film Sliding Doors in 1998, although others will disagree.

Ray and I have had several discussions in the past about this business of genres in general, SF in particular, alternative history as a specific, and their relation to the larger body of fictional literature. The spectrum of opinion on this has as its two poles a vision of genre as ghetto on one hand and enriching subculture on the other; SF has either successfully become part of the mainstream or been drowned by it. As with most spectra, there is probably no one true point.

There is a debate to be had about where “alternative history” begins and “simultaneous timeline” or “parallel universe” ends; Sliding Doors is a simultaneous timeline fiction, but to my mind the distinction between the three (like that between history and current affairs) is arbitrary – only the principle of different reality with equal validity is important.

Then again, you can argue that Sliding Doors was preceded by much earlier crossover of alternative history into the thriller genre with the likes of SS GB and Fatherland . as cited by Ray. Incorporation into a light, popular, box office success romantic comedy, nevertheless seems to me the definitive marker.

A crux point somewhere between Operations Dynamo and Barbarossa, Hitler pressing ahead with Sealion and successfully occupying Britain, is a popular departure point for alternative histories. It's also used in one of my favourite parallel universes, that of Jasper Fforde's special agent Thursday Next. It has a number of virtues, prominent amongst which is elegance: it would involve only a small tweak to history (Luftwaffe success in the Battle of Britain, for instance) as we know it.

As an eleven year old I was very much influenced by Philip K Dick's The man in the high castle, which rested on the similar but far less feasible thesis that the USA is occupied by Germany from the east and Japan from the west. The fiction is not so robust here, and since a greater mass of history must be moved multiple fulcra are distributed over a longer time period. The two key components are a US failure to emerge from the 1930s depression (explained, like Keith Roberts' Pavane which worked with an even longer timescale, by a "Great Man Theory" assassination crux – in this case, of FDR) and the success of Barbarossa, though others (such as Heydrich surviving the Prague assassination plot) play their smaller part.

My father was part of the Pacific war, my mother the European one; parts of my childhood were spent in middle America, other parts in the USSR. Little wonder, perhaps, that The man in the high castle made an impression on me – and left me open to other histories and universes, alternative or parallel.

  • Peter Howitt, Sliding Doors. 1998, London: Intermedia.

  • Len Deighton, SS-GB : Nazi-occupied Britain, 1941. 1978, London: Cape.

  • Richard Harris, Fatherland. 1992: Hutchinson.

  • Jasper Fforde...

    • The Eyre affair. 2001, London: New English Library.

    • Lost in a good book. 2002, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

    • The well of lost plots. 2003, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

    • Something rotten. 2004, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

  • Philip K Dick, The man in the high castle, a novel. 1962, New York,: Putnam.

  • Roberts, K., Pavane. 1968, London: Hart-Davis.

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