Alternate Histories

Following my review of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank, in which it is imagined that Anne survived her time in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and returned to Amsterdam, I wanted to make a list of alternate history books.  The first book on the list, Stephen Fry’s Making History, is one of my absolute favourite novels, and the others are ones which I would like to get to sooner rather than later.  I have not purposely chosen alternate histories set around the Second World War, but these seem to be amongst the most prevalent, and all really appeal to me as a reader.


3174571. Making History by Stephen Fry
In Making History, Stephen Fry has bitten off a rather meaty chunk by tackling an at first deceptively simple premise: What if Hitler had never been born? An unquestionable improvement, one would reason–and so an earnest history grad student and an aging German physicist idealistically undertake to bring this about by preventing Adolf’s conception. And with their success is launched a brave new world that is in some ways better than ours–but in most ways even worse. Fry’s experiment in history makes for his most ambitious novel yet, and his most affecting. His first book to be set mostly in America, it is a thriller with a funny streak, a futuristic fantasy based on one of mankind’s darkest realities. It is, in every sense, a story of our times.’


2. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 216363
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war — and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.  This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.


184905333. Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
Severin Unck’s father is a famous director of Gothic romances in an alternate 1986 in which talking movies are still a daring innovation due to the patent-hoarding Edison family. Rebelling against her father’s films of passion, intrigue, and spirits from beyond, Severin starts making documentaries, traveling through space and investigating the levitator cults of Neptune and the lawless saloons of Mars. For this is not our solar system, but one drawn from classic science fiction in which all the planets are inhabited and we travel through space on beautiful rockets. Severin is a realist in a fantastic universe.  But her latest film, which investigates the disappearance of a diving colony on a watery Venus populated by island-sized alien creatures, will be her last. Though her crew limps home to earth and her story is preserved by the colony’s last survivor, Severin will never return.  Aesthetically recalling A Trip to the Moon and House of Leaves, and told using techniques from reality TV, classic film, gossip magazines, and meta-fictional narrative, Radiance is a solar system-spanning story of love, exploration, family, loss, quantum physics, and silent film.’


4. Dominion by C.J. Sansom 15770927
1952. Twelve years have passed since Churchill lost to the appeasers, and Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany after Dunkirk. As the long German war against Russia rages on in the east, the British people find themselves under dark authoritarian rule: the press, radio and television are controlled; the streets patrolled by violent auxiliary police and British Jews face ever greater constraints. There are terrible rumours too about what is happening in the basement of the German Embassy at Senate House. Defiance, though, is growing.  In Britain, Winston Churchill’s Resistance organisation is increasingly a thorn in the government’s side. And in a Birmingham mental hospital an incarcerated scientist, Frank Muncaster, may hold a secret that could change the balance of the world struggle forever. Civil Servant David Fitzgerald, secretly acting as a spy for the Resistance, is given by them the mission to rescue his old friend Frank and get him out of the country. Before long he, together with a disparate group of Resistance activists, will find themselves fugitives in the midst of London’s Great Smog; as David’s wife Sarah finds herself drawn into a world more terrifying than she ever could have imagined. And hard on their heels is Gestapo Sturmbannfuhrer Gunther Hoth, brilliant, implacable hunter of men…’


703._sy475_5. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
In an astonishing feat of narrative invention, our most ambitious novelist imagines an alternate version of American history. In 1940 Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is elected President. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler, while the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.  For one boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threatens to destroy his small, safe corner of America – and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.’


6. The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville 41017647._sy475_
It’s 1941. In the chaos of wartime Marseille, American engineer – and occult disciple – Jack Parsons stumbles onto a clandestine anti-Nazi group, including surrealist theorist André Breton. In the strange games of the dissident diplomats, exiled revolutionaries, and avant-garde artists, Parsons finds and channels hope. But what he unwittingly unleashes is the power of dreams and nightmares, changing the war and the world forever.  It’s 1950. A lone surrealist fighter, Thibaut, walks a new, hallucinogenic Paris, where Nazis and the Resistance are trapped in unending conflict, and the streets are stalked by living images and texts – and by the forces of hell. To escape the city, he must join forces with Sam, an American photographer intent on recording the ruins, and make common cause with a powerful, enigmatic figure of chance and rebellion: the exquisite corpse.  But Sam is being hunted. And new secrets will emerge that will test all their loyalties – to each other, to Paris old and new, and to reality itself.’


6506307._sy475_7. Blackout by Connie Willis
Oxford in 2060 is a chaotic place, with scores of time-traveling historians being sent into the past. Michael Davies is prepping to go to Pearl Harbor. Merope Ward is coping with a bunch of bratty 1940 evacuees and trying to talk her thesis adviser into letting her go to VE-Day. Polly Churchill’s next assignment will be as a shopgirl in the middle of London’s Blitz. But now the time-travel lab is suddenly canceling assignments and switching around everyone’s schedules. And when Michael, Merope, and Polly finally get to World War II, things just get worse. For there they face air raids, blackouts, and dive-bombing Stukas–to say nothing of a growing feeling that not only their assignments but the war and history itself are spiraling out of control. Because suddenly the once-reliable mechanisms of time travel are showing significant glitches, and our heroes are beginning to question their most firmly held belief: that no historian can possibly change the past.


8. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis 11371
The only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith, It Can’t Happen Here is a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America. Written during the Great Depression when America was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a President who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, rampant promiscuity, crime, and a liberal press. Now finally back in print, It Can’t Happen Here remains uniquely important, a shockingly prescient novel that’s as fresh and contemporary as today’s news.


Have you read any of these?  Which are your favourite alternate history books?


‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth ****

Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth seems to be a little hit and miss for many readers; I have heard comments which call his work pretentious, and others which state that his characters are unrealistic.  I had read a couple of his other books before picking up a copy of his novella, Everyman, from the library, and very much enjoy his prose style, hence my reasoning for writing a full review.  First published in 2006, Everyman won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

9780099501466The novella is described as ‘a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that it ‘shimmers with the mysteries and regrets of a whole life…  poignant, droll and eloquent.’  The Observer grandly declares that it is ‘capable of altering the way you see the world.’

Roth’s Everyman is never named.  We follow his life backwards from his funeral, at the outset of the story, and meander through various childhood memories, his marriages, and his troubled relationships with his children.  The novella aims to explore ‘the common experience that terrifies us all.’

I find it such an interesting plot device when an author chooses to begin a work at the end of the central character’s life, and in this case, it really captured my attention.  The opening, in which various people who had connections to Everyman have gathered, is striking.  Roth writes: ‘Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.’  Everyman is then eulogised both by Nancy, and his brother, Howie, who says: ‘We can say of him what has doubtless been said by their loved ones about nearly everyone who is buried here: he should have lived longer.  He should have indeed.’  After the funeral, Roth comments: ‘That was the end.  No special point had been made.  Did they all say what they had to say?  No, they didn’t, and of course they did.  Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary…  [and] no more or less interesting than any of the others.’

Roth, in a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Everyman, builds a full portrait of his protagonist.  He considers how this particular individual deals with tragedy, and how he discovers his own mortality.  We learn about his interactions with those around him, his three marriages, and the professional relationships which he formed during his career.  Roth also places attention upon the medical issues which Everyman had, writing: ‘… he was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seems threatened all the time.  He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

A.S. Byatt calls Everyman ‘a story for our times’, and in a way, it is.  There are very particular scenes in here, which of course not a great deal of readers will be able to entirely relate to, but I felt that Roth’s presentation of his central character was fully thought out, and his actions of interest.  I found the novella really easy to get into, and enjoyed Roth’s prose and turns of phrase.  His writing is intelligent, and whilst one does need to concentrate on his style at first, it is well worth the effort.  Roth’s approach is introspective, and he explores, with a lot of depth, his Everyman, in this satisfying story.


‘The Human Stain’ by Philip Roth ****

The Human Stain (2000), which is the third novel in Philip Roth’s American Trilogy, is the first of his books which I have read.  It may sound odd to begin with the final book in a series, but the novel is a standalone one; together, the three books, which also include American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), are said to make marked comments upon post-war American society and politics.

9780099282198The majority of reviews of The Human Stain, as indeed of Roth’s other novels, have been highly favourable.  The Mail on Sunday deems it a ‘novel with an almost Victorian range of scope and characters, all powered by one vast secret and a frenetic and exciting plot.’  The Sunday Telegraph calls it ‘an extraordinary book – bursting with rage, humming with ideas, full of dazzling sleights of hand.’

The novel is set in 1998, against the backdrop of Bill Clinton’s impeachment.  It ‘shows us an America where conflicting moralities and ideological divisions result in public denunciations and houndings, and where innocence is not always a good enough excuse.’  This was the summer in which, writes Roth, ‘… for the billionth time – the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality.  It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.’

The protagonist of the piece is a retired college professor named Coleman Silk, and the novel is narrated by his neighbour, Nathan Zuckerman, who lives around the mountain in the Berkshires.  Coleman, a widower, is closely guarding a secret, which has always been hidden from his four grown children, and from his late wife.  ‘But,’ writes Roth, ‘it’s not the secret of his affair, at seventy-one, with a woman half his age.  And it’s not the secret of his alleged racism, which provoked the college witchhunt that cost him his job.  Coleman’s secret is deeper, and lies at the very core of who he is…’.  This claim of racism is an unfounded one, with a comment which he made taken out of context, and causing a college-wide furore.

The woman with whom Coleman is having an affair is a thirty-four-year-old janitor named Faunia Farley.  She works at Athena College, where he spent much of his career, first as a Classics lecturer, and then as Dean.  Faunia has had her fair share of tragedy, and exists as a complex character, hard to pinpoint.  Roth observes: ‘… whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness.’  Coleman, too, has the air of a composite and authentic being, particularly as the novel goes on.  Roth describes him variously as ‘an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator…’.  Some elements of his past feel a little problematic and unlikely, but taken as a whole, his backstory is largely a believable one, which gives weight and understanding to the decisions which he has made.

Nathan has had nothing whatsoever to do with Coleman, until the period directly after Coleman’s wife, Iris, passes away.  He knocks impatiently at Nathan’s door, demanding his help in penning his biography.  ‘I had to write something for him – he all but ordered me to,’ Nathan reflects.  ‘If he wrote the story in all of its absurdity, altering nothing, nobody would believe it, nobody would take it seriously, people would say it was a ludicrous lie, a self-serving exaggeration…  But if I wrote it, if a professional writer wrote it…’.  This decision has lasting consequences for Nathan; he says: ‘I did no more than find a friend, and all the world’s malice came rushing in.’

I found The Human Stain immediately compelling.  Roth’s writing style often feels a little complicated, or even overdone, but I very much admired the way in which he writes such extended sentences with a great deal of clarity.  This is not the kind of book to choose if you are looking for something easy to read, or a novel which you can pick up and put down after reading just a few pages.

By its very nature, The Human Stain deals with complex themes, threads of which run throughout the whole novel, connecting Coleman’s personal story with the wider context of academia, as well as with sexual, familial, and governmental politics.  Roth explores and captures facets of the human condition, taking into account a variety of varied characters and differing situations, with such insight.  His writing is shrewd and acerbic, and always interesting.  A real strength is the unpredictable and assertive dialogue which he crafts between characters, and the monologues which feature from time to time.  There is such a strength to his narrative throughout The Human Stain, and I definitely feel as though it was a good novel with which to begin reading his oeuvre.

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