Monday, June 13, 2011

The Way It Might Have Been

The Nazis enter Paris in 1940 - for real
I have long been fascinated by the potential of using counterfactual or alternative history in fiction. To quote from Wikipedia, “‘Alternate History’ looks at ‘what if’ scenarios from some of history's most pivotal turning points and presents a completely different version, sometimes based on science and fact, but often based on conjecture.”
Historians have made quite a genre out of positing alternative outcomes of historical events – what if the South had won the Civil War, what if JFK hadn’t been assassinated, what if the Japanese hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor. However, this hasn’t been explored much in fiction, except to some extent in science fiction by writers like H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov.
But what I have in mind is realist fiction set in an alternative historical scenario. Only two prominent examples spring to mind. In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagined that the aviator Charles Lindbergh beat FDR in the 1940 election. The novel follows the fortunes of the fictional Roth family in Newark, New Jersey who observe and experience firsthand America’s growing isolationism and anti-Semitism under Lindbergh’s presidency.
The other example is the bestselling thriller Fatherland by the British writer Robert Harris. It is set in Berlin in 1964 in a world where Nazi Germany won WWII.  King George VI (he of The King’s Speech) has been deposed and is living in exile in Canada, as is Churchill. Hitler has restored the abdicated King Edward VIII to the throne with Wallis Simpson as his queen, and Britain is run by a pro-German puppet government much like the actual Vichy government in France in the 1940s. And in 1964, who should be President of the United States but Joseph P. Kennedy.
I’m surprised that this form of fiction hasn’t been attempted more often. First of all, if you’re the least bit interested in history, it’s just plain fun to imagine how things might have turned out differently. But also, counterfactual historical fiction has the great advantage of dealing with the familiar within an imaginary scenario that is still recognizable. It allows the novelist to give free rein to her imagination but within a well-known and understood context – realism with a twist. One click to the right or left and the whole fabric on which the story is painted changes from deeply familiar to passing strange.   
If I ever get as far as the last novel in my Albion’s Millennium sequence, I intend to experiment with this technique. At the end of a narrative that will otherwise have stayed very close to the facts of the 20th century, I plan to introduce a twist when we reach the 1990s – in the form of a Labour Prime Minister who declares a State of Emergency in response to an uprising of left-wing militants in a northern city. In reality, the Labour administration of that era was headed by Tony Blair, and the uprisings in Liverpool of the 1980s were well and truly over by then. But by using the liberty of fiction to bring that conflict to a more dramatic climax than was afforded by reality, I hope to show how the Prime Minister’s action - and the country’s reaction to it – reflects how the British resolve conflict and, in the process, often fail to see where the next big threat is coming from.  
Meanwhile, in another idea for a novel which I have thought about for many years, the whole backdrop would be counterfactual history. I would go back to World War II and imagine how the lives of my four main characters would be affected if the Nazis had succeeded in invading Britain – as they came so close to doing in reality. This would give me the chance to explore the vexed and difficult issues of resistance and collaboration and how the consciences of different individuals can lead them to behave in diametrically opposite ways.
Now if I only had the time to write all of these novels that buzz around in my brain!
Does anyone else know of other examples of novels that use alternative histories to tell their tales?

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