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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?

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‘Mythos’ by Stephen Fry *****

Anyone who knows me is aware of my fondness for Stephen Fry; even as a child, I loved to watch him on television, and was lucky enough to see him speak live around a decade ago after winning tickets to the iTunes Festival.  I have read all of his previous books, and have been wanting to read his take on Greek mythology, Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold, for an awfully long time.  I received the book for Christmas 2017.  It seems shameful that it took me around nine months to get to it, but I wanted to save it for when I had finished my thesis, and was therefore able to devote a lot of time to it.  I am pleased to report that I loved the book just as much as I had anticipated, and it felt like a real treat.

9780718188726In his introduction, Fry notes: ‘No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly and brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses.  They are like us, only more so – their actions and adventures scrawled across the heavens above.’  He goes on to explain his love of mythology, which he discovered when he was very young.  In his foreword, Fry justifies his choice of Greek mythology as a focus here: ‘Much as I went on to enjoy myths and legends from other cultures and peoples, there was something about these Greek stories that lit me up inside.  The energy, humour, passion, particularity and believable detail of their world held me enthralled from the very first.’  The sense of history, and of beginnings, also contributes to this decision; he writes that the stories ‘were captured and preserved by the very first poets and has come down to us in an unbroken line from almost the beginning of writing to the present day…  The Greeks were the first people to make coherent narratives, a literature even, of their gods, monsters and heroes.’

Mythos is aimed at everyone, and the way in which Fry has approached the stories makes his a highly accessible tome.  He writes: ‘There is absolutely nothing academic or intellectual about Greek mythology; it is addictive, entertaining, approachable and astonishingly human.’  Fry acknowledges those who are already familiar with Greek mythology in his introduction, and ‘especially welcomes’ people who are new to the stories.  ‘You don’t need to know anything to read this book,’ he tells us, ‘it starts with an empty universe.’

In this manner, Fry begins Mythos by setting out the very start of Greek mythology.  He writes, with his usual knowledge, warmth, and sparkling humour: ‘Mythos begins at the beginning, but it does not end at the end.  Had I included heroes like Oedipus, Perseus, Theseus, Jason and Heracles and the details of the Trojan War this book would have been too heavy even for a Titan to pick up.’  (Heroes is, of course, the focus, and the title, of his second volume of Greek mythology, which was recently published.)

As Mythos progresses, Fry revises a wealth of the original stories, and provides a commentary upon them.  His prose style is controlled, but always fulfilling.  Fry certainly puts his own spin on things, particularly when it comes to the stylistically modernised conversations which he imagines between certain characters.  When Gaia and Tartarus are discussing Gaia’s son Kronos, Tartarus, for instance, says: ‘I wish you’d tell him to leave me alone.  He does nothing all day but hang around looking at me with his eyes drooping and his mouth open.  I think he’s got some kind of man-crush on me.  He copies my hairstyle and leans limply against trees and boulders looking miserable, melancholy and misunderstood.  As if he’s waiting for someone to paint him or something.  When he’s not gazing at me he’s staring down into that lava vent over there.  In fact there he is now, look.  Try and talk some sense into him.’

Each section in Mythos has been split up into smaller parts, and this approach makes it even more accessible for the general reader.  Throughout, Fry relates the Greek myths to other cultural points, both in order to give more contextual focus, and to chart the links between Greek mythology and popular culture.  In this manner, he shows just how important and pervading mythology is.  He says, for instance: ‘Had Kronos the examples to go by, he would perhaps have identified with Hamlet at his most introspective, or Jaques at his most self-indulgently morbid.  Konstantin from The Seagull with a suggestion of Morrissey.  Yet there was something of a Macbeth in him too and more than a little Hannibal Lecter – as we shall see.’

I found Mythos utterly compelling, and it retains a feeling of freshness throughout.  Fry’s approach has made the stories both scholarly and highly accessible, and the balance between the two has been handled with skill.  It feels as though every reader will get something out of Mythos, and I would highly recommend it, both to those who are new to Greek mythology, and to those who are familiar with various interpretations, by the likes of Edith Hamilton and Robert Graves.  I loved the commentary which Fry gives throughout, and found that it allowed me to view myths which I was already familiar with in a different way.

I shall end this review with a paragraph that Fry humbly notes in his afterword: ‘I cannot repeat too often that it has never been my aim to interpret or explain the myths, only to tell them.  I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative…  If anyone tells me that I have got the stories “wrong” I believe I am justified in replying that they are, after all, fictions.  In tinkering with the details I am doing what people have always done with myths.  In that sense I feel that I am doing my bit to keep them alive.’

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‘More Fool Me: A Memoir’ by Stephen Fry *****

Reading Stephen Fry’s memoirs is like catching up with the oldest and very best of friends.  One of Britain’s most loved celebrities, Fry has just published his third volume of autobiography, which follows Moab is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles.  The blurb of More Fool Me: A Memoir heralds it ‘a brilliant, eloquent account by a man driven to create and to entertain – revealing a side to him he has long kept hidden’.

More Fool Me tells of Fry’s life during the 1980s and early 1990s.  At this point in time, Fry had ‘made it’ as a bestselling author, and was the star of television programmes such as Jeeves and Wooster and A Bit of Fry and Laurie.  As Fry warmly tells us, ‘There are all kinds of ways of looking at me and my story’, and then modestly goes on to state the following: ‘It must be confessed that this book is an act as vain and narcissistic as can be imagined: the third volume of my life story?  There are plenty of wholly serviceable single-volume lives of Napoleon, Socrates, Jesus Christ and even Katie Price.  So by what panty-dribbling right do I present a weary public with yet another stream of anecdote, autobiography and confessional?’

As well as retrospective views of his life in this period, More Fool Me contains extracts from Fry’s original diaries. Rather than present things in a strictly chronological order, Fry has chosen to ‘bounce from theme to theme’, a technique which works marvellously.  From the very beginning of More Fool Me, Fry’s warmth and sense of humour shine through: ‘I flatter myself, vainly perhaps, that I have been having a dialogue with you…  But truly do I hear what I consider to be the voice of the reader, your voice.  Yes, yours.  Hundreds of thousands of you, wincing, pursing your lips, laughing here, hissing here, nodding, tutting, comparing your life to mine with as much objective honesty as you can’.

Each part of More Fool Me is split into varied essay-length sections, which deal with things ranging from the dark – Fry’s cocaine addiction: ‘I can’t begin to explain it, but I can at least attempt to describe it’, his friends succumbing to HIV, and his struggle with Bipolar Disorder, to the cheerful – being chairman of the Criterion Theatre in London, his writing habits, and recommendations of books to read.  In terms of its themes, More Fool Me is darker and far more adult in terms of what is discussed than Moab is My Washpot and The Fry Chronicles.  Fry does rather helpfully recap his previous autobiographies and earlier life, so it is not of paramount importance to have read his work already.  More Fool Me is also filled with facts and information which clarify or further explain points which are made.

It goes without saying that More Fool Me is incredibly well written.  Fry is so honest about himself, and owns up to the mistakes which he has made.  He also continually pokes fun at himself, and asserts that he is incredibly grateful for the kindness which fame has afforded him.  As ever, he is rather profound, and so understanding of those around him and humbled by the help which they have given to him.  The structure which he has made use of makes it feel as though Fry is having an intimate conversation with each reader, addressing them directly as he does throughout.  It feels almost as though he is letting every single person into his most intimate secrets.

More Fool Me is so easy and rewarding to read, and it is both heartening and inspiring to see how Fry has triumphed over some of the darker episodes in his life.  Whilst it breaks away from the safety and warmth of most of the things described in his previous volumes of autobiography, every fan of Mr Fry’s is sure to very much enjoy this book.

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