05 September 2008

The Yiddish policemen's universe

A while back, there was a three way exchange on alternative history* literature; it got side tracked (I must put up my hand and take the blame for this) into a discussion of history itself, which continues to emerge from time to time. The subject now returns, in a slightly different form, in JSBlog's "Lost in a book" post following the first episode of Lost in Austen on Britain's ITV network (a fiction which also makes a nice link to Unreal Nature's post title in that exchange, "Audience vs Participant", and whose title deliberately nods to Jasper Fforde's influence.)

The first episode of Lost in Austen didn't strongly grab me personally (or, to use Amanda Price's archaism which so puzzles another character, "float my boat"), to be honest, but I emphasise the word "personally". Such things are notoriously personal; and I am notoriously hard to please when it comes to TV. I admire it as a good idea well realised, a courageous blow for intelligent drama, and wish it well. I would not at all describe it as "a retread of Life on Mars", the first series of which I enjoyed and admired immensely (the second series less so, and its sequel Ashes to Ashes not at all). I liked the fact that Elizabeth Barratt was the active agent in the character exchange (to borrow a phrase from Jasper Fforde) is not the Amanda Price but a more intellectually flexible Elizabeth Barratt.

Anyroad ... leaving Lost in Austen and trying to regain my thread ... oh, yes: what all of this has to do with alternative history.

First of all, it is very difficult to separate "alternative history" from "parallel universe". There are certainly many parallel universe fictions which are not alternative histories; it is less clear that there are any alternative histories which could not plausibly be characterised as parallel universes. The main distinction seems to me that an alternative history ran on the same track as this universe until a bifurcation event split the timeline and switched it onto a parallel one.

Jasper Fforde's (definitely) parallel universe novels of Thursday Next (I am a confirmed fan) seem to have been on a different track for quite a long time. Explicit historical differences only go back as far as the Crimean war (which never ended in Thursday's world), though the different ending of Jane Eyre suggest (the books are zany enough to render this a legitimate matter for debate) an earlier bifurcation. Even the positing by Thursday's father to a parallel universe which sounds like our own doesn't preclude it being the result of a temporal bifurcation in the further past. Casual resort to time travel and gravitubes, however, in a world which has never bothered to develop powered flight, suggest that physical laws may be different – which would make it a parallel universe and not an alternative history.

To simplify matters, I'm abbreviating from now on: AH (Alternative History) and PU (Parallel Universe).

However we characterise Thursday Next, the most interesting thing in my present ramble is that she differs (so far as I know - it won't surprise me if Ray Girvan knows otherwise!) from other "entrant text" fictions in this: the entrant is already from a PU/AH. Why do I say "already from a PU/AH"? Because much (perhaps all, depending on how strictly you apply the idea) fiction is itself already, if not a parallel universe, at least a parallel world.

I've argued previously, in a post which perhaps tried too hard to be kind to Dan Brown, that the otherwise embarrassing The da Vinci code is an explicitly PU/AH fiction; but fiction is, by definition, an alternative history universe. Some fictions stick very closely to our world, but are by definition invented; I wouldn't waste time arguing about those. At the other end of the scale, genres like science fiction and (to an even greater extent) fantasy deliberately reject our world in favour of a blank page upon which to construct new ones. But most fictions make huge changes which we accept unquestioningly between their covers although we would never do so outside them.

For example, pick your favourite police or detective drama. I'll pull Inspector Morse out of today's TV listings simply because it's the first example to hand, but you choose your own. Morse is an officer in the (real) Thames Valley Police, based in the (real) city of Oxford ... but in his Oxford, there is a murder rate (and unusual murders with convoluted motivations, at that) which would have the press in a frenzy if it were replicated in "our" Oxford.

Or look at The Bill (a police procedural British cop show, for readers outside Britain and Australia), where last night nobody seemed to think it odd that a detective should be the interviewing officer for a knife wielding kidnapper from whom that detective had just rescued his own wife. This is a parallel world which, through the "suspension of disbelief" convention, we accept as if it were actually our own.

In the case of Jane Austen, time has removed her fictions further from the reader's reality than they would have been when written – so she now represents a PU twice removed and, at the same time, becomes a temporarily separate AH as well.

I've just started reading Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union. This is an AH fiction in which the bifurcation came not (as so often) with German victory in the second world war but slightly later in 1948. In our universe the fledgling state of Isra'el successfully fought off multiple invasion to survive and become a regional superpower. In Chabon's fictional AH/PU the Haganah lost, Isra'el ceased to exist, and the USA reluctantly settled the survivors on a temporarily self administrating federal district in Alaska. Palestinian conflicts have been replaced by conflicts with native Alaskans. The story of The Yiddish Policemen's Union opens as the temporary self administration period expires in 2008. We are presented with a seedy Chandleresque world in which a group of Yiddish speaking detectives (one of them, predictably, alcoholic; his parter a family man; their bureaucratic homicide chief the ex wife of the alcoholic) simultaneously try to solve a murder while coping with dissolution of their department and absorption into the USA.

Note my use of the word "Chandleresque" in that last paragraph, despite huge differences from actual Chandler fictions. Nobody would argue that Sam Marlowe's world, or that of Film Noir, are accurate depictions of a real criminal underworld; they are fictions, and we know it. Yet, for many who have never read Raymond Chandler's books or watched a "noir" film, they represent a whole fictional world by reference to whose conventions other writers can readily construct new worlds from the 1988 Paris of Roman Polanski's Frantic through Aberystwyth mon amour to the 2008 Sitka of The Yiddish Policemen's Union. There is a whole separate parallel criminal universe more real to most of us than the one which actually exists on our doorsteps.

Ummm ... I think I've finished, now...

*For new readers, and the record, the original exchange of views on alternative history was:

  • Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union. 2008, London: Harper Perennial. [978]0007150939 pbk. (Originally 2007, London: Fourth Estate. [978]0007150397 hbk.)
  • 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.

  • Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach, et al, Frantic. 1988, Burbank CA: Warner Bros.

  • Malcolm Pryce, Aberystwyth mon amour. 2001, London: Bloomsbury. 0747553858.


    Ray Girvan said...

    Oh, there are reams that could be written about this... Midsomer Murders is particularly notable for its high murder rate among middle-class rural inhabitants. And there's the unfeasible speed for getting forensic results from the lab. The convention that virtually all murders are serial (or at least sequentially connected: murder A, then B to remove a witness or because A got the wrong person by accident, and so on). And the convention that with a planned series of N thematic murders, the murderer will only be killed/apprehended after at least N-1 (either victim N is saved; or as in Se7en or Messiah II, the murderer contrives to be victim N).

    As to the difference with Thursday Next as an entrant-text protagonist being "already from a PU/AH", I don't know, but it's certainly the case for some other PU works. For instance, in Keith Laumer's "Imperium" parallel reality series, events are mostly seen from the perspective of a "Zero Zero Line" Earth (where a world government is based in Stockholm) from which our Earth is one of a few close near-alternatives.

    Anonymous said...

    Can I admit that I am not at all sure what you two are discussing?

    Anyway, I *think* it's appropriate to mention Calvino's If on a winter's night a stranger. Books inside of books inside of books. Maybe? Or did I get it wrong?

    [and, Felix, the Bifurcation Police are watching you. Closely.]

    Ray Girvan said...

    Possible borderline example re part 2 of above: Cold Comfort Farm, which places Flora, a person from an alternate real-world (c. 1950 but with videophones, air taxis, and a 1940s Anglo-Nicaraguan war) into a scenario that's a composite parody of various rustic novels from our world.

    Anonymous said...

    Scratch the Calvino. That's all wrong. How about Run, Lola, Run ?

    Ray Girvan said...

    Certainly they're all examples of breaking away from the "single realistic universe" format.

    The NeverEnding Story is another into-the-book one.

    Felix Grant said...

    Detective fiction was perhaps a lazy and poor choice for my point.

    But in any case ... I've realised since writing the post that if (as I argue) all fiction is a parallel world then every text entrant protagonist is a Thursday Next...


    My very favourite text entrant is currently Eric Sanderson, wholly philosophical hero of
    The Raw Shark Texts

    If on a winter's night and Run, Lola, Run are interesting expansions on which I shall cogitate ... both of them wonderful fictions which I love, now to be reviewed in a new context.

    Detective conventions include the one that only murder is really worth investigating ... although child abuse, drugs trafficking, rape, do make an appearance. It's rare to find a fictional detective (outside The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency) bothering her/himself over the sorts of crimes that actually affect most people.

    Thematic murders are a case of what I call "puzzle fiction", which is often detective fiction as well. I read a lot of Ellery Queen, as a teenager, which is blatantly puzzle fiction ... before that, Agatha Christie.

    Felix Grant said...

    I forgot to respond to Keith Laumer's Imperium.

    I read one of those (the first in the series, I suspect, from what I remember, though I can't be sure and don't remember the title) when I was ... probably 13.

    Yes, you're right ... it demolishes my Thursday Next suggestion yet again :-)

    I have another early teens memory of a book in which the protagonist, having lost his wife in this one, figures a way to use migraine as a crossing mechanism to a parallel universe where he can bump himself off and take over his wife there...

    Ray Girvan said...

    if (as I argue) all fiction is a parallel world

    Just so. It's just an issue of how overt. Mostly, invention of a fictitious person in otherwise normal world. But then it gets into invention of multiple persons and more than trivial adjustments to normal world (e.g. soaps - Coronation Street clearly takes place in a universe where Coronation Street is not on television). And then on to major adjustments...

    Felix Grant said...

    > ...Coronation Street
    > clearly takes place in a universe
    > where Coronation Street is
    > not on television...


    I like that.

    But even in such cases, the differences from "our reality" are fairly extensive. I'm talking soaps in general - I haven't seen Coronation Street in a very long time, but in the days when I did know it there was a violent death rate which (even if it doesn't approach that of the Midsomers) would depress house prices in any "real" street. From my more current knowledge, the number of homicidal psychopaths employed in The Bill's Sun Hill police station, the number of chummy conversations between a superintendant and beat coppers known individually by first name, the time available for personnel to focus on each individual case, and so on, are dramatically necessary and easily accepted but divergent from police "reality".

    Felix Grant said...

    Post script to previous message...

    Remembering Julie's comment five days ago, perhaps Sun Hill is regional base for the Bifurcation Police :-)