An Alternate Look At The Way Things Did Not Go

December 29, 2009 | By | Reply More

Alternate history is a subset of science fiction.   Stories and novels of this sort have been written for a long time, but in the last three decades or so the form has come into its own.  Many of them are playful What-Ifs that look at how things might have gone had a detail or two gone differently.  They are then excuses for adventure or thriller plots that quite often have little real poignance, not least because often the point of departure for the changed history is quite unlikely.

The best ones, however, play with changes that actually might have happened given just a nudge in one direction or the other, and the unfolding drama gives a glimpse of worlds that could easily have come about, often forbidding, thoroughly cautionary.  We tend to assume, unconsciously at

Image by Zaphod2008 at (with permission)

Image by Zaphod2008 at (with permission)

least, that things work out for the best, even when there is evidence to the contrary.  An understandable approach to life given the limited power any of us possess to effect events, change the course of history, or otherwise fight perceived inevitabilities.   But unlike in fiction, it is rarely up to one person to fight evil or correct wrongs.  It is a communal responsibility and the only tool we possess collectively is the wisdom accrued over time from which we might draw clues what to do.

Word War II provides a wellspring of speculation on what might have been done differently if.  It seems occasionally that the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  Seen purely from a military standpoint, perhaps so.  For all its formidable abilities, Nazi Germany was ultimately limited by available resources, something certain generals tried to address on multiple occasions but ultimately failed to successfully repair.  But politically?  The world at the time offered faint comfort to those who thought the democracies could win in a toe-to-toe fight with the tyrants.

Allow me, then, to recommend a trilogy of novels that represent the better aspects of alternate history and effectively restore the chilling uncertainties of those times.

As Jo Walton’s newest novel, Half A Crown, opens, it is 1960 and Chief Inspector Peter Carmichael has a very difficult job.  He’s head of The Watch, Britain’s very own secret police, and there is to be a global peace conference in London.  Among the heads-of-state attending will be Adolph Hitler.  Carmichael must oversee security for the affair.

As if this is not enough to trouble him, his ward, Elvira, who is scheduled to make her debut soon, gets caught up in a police sweep during a riot and becomes identified as a political activist.  When Carmichael uses his authority to get her released, he opens the door to his enemies to discredit him and affect the outcome of the upcoming conference.  Elvira herself is an apolitical as a teenaged girl can be.  But by the end of her harrowing trip through the system, she begins to recognize that the system under which she lives is horribly wrong.

Half A Crown is the third novel in Jo Walton’s excellent and disturbing “Small Change” series, which began with Farthing, continued in Ha’Penny and now seems to conclude with the present volume.  It is alternate history done with a surprising seamlessness.  The truly disturbing quality of these stories is how utterly plausible they feel, how natural.  Given a few simple changes—the primary one being that Winston Churchill is thrown out as prime minister in 1941—the world Walton depicts is all too recognizable.

Britain fights a holding action against Germany and a new government makes a treaty with Hitler, ceding the continent to Germany.  The Farthing Group, so named for the constellation of British movers and shakers involved that centers on the country estate of one member, Farthing, has engineered the move and intends going further by seating their own prime minister.  Along with their other ambitions is the gradual institution of some of the features of the Nazi fascist regime, including “sanitary” laws concerning Jews and other undesirables.  This is, however, Britain, and it takes a long time for such things to come about and when they do they are in far more diluted versions than what is extant on the continent.  However, group oppression exists and is proceeding apace.

The three novels are constructed as murder mysteries, but set against a highly-charged political background that allows Walton to indulge her speculations on the what-ifs of altered history.  It is an uncomfortable fact that Britain in the 30s had a powerful fascist movement, most prominently embodied by Sir Oswald Mosley, who thought fascism would end the Depression in Britain.  (His British Union of Fascists boasted 50,000 members by 1934 and Mosley himself stage-managed his presentations in imitation of both Mussolini and Hitler, with armed uniformed body guards, the Roman salute, and cadres of Black Shirts to conduct demonstrations in the streets.)  While in fact Mosley lost support almost as quickly as he gained it, there was a vein of it that appealed to certain parts of British society, and Walton exploits that to show how it might have gained popular appeal through a back door.

Spurred of course by a kind of Reichstag fire in the form of an assassination of a popular politician and its subsequent blaming on a prominent Jew.

Carmichael is the inspector assigned to investigate that murder in the first novel and finds himself compromised because he is a homosexual.  Walton gives us a perfectly plausible and heart-breaking scenario in which Carmichael caves in, yielding to the predetermined outcome even though he knows absolutely who committed the crime.  Carmichael is too useful, afterward, as a cowed operative to simply discard.  Combined with the fact that he is an excellent policeman, he ends up being handed the position of head of The Watch.  Those who so elevate him believe he can be controlled.

Carmichael then plays Canaris and begins setting up avenues for smuggling Jews out of Britain, mostly to Canada, Ireland, and Zanzibar, working against the encroaching policies of persecution the prime minister and his minions have established.  In this way, he hopes to mitigate some of the worst abuses of his government.  He ends up having to shunt Elvira into this very shadow system to protect her.

The strength of Walton’s construction is the tingle she manages to evoke along the spine.  The casual bigotry espoused throughout the series, culminating with the predictable public demonstrations of minority abuse in the final volume, read in such a way as to stir the conscience and elicit a kind of cold-sweat relief over how things actually transpired.  The social attitudes she reveals are interwoven in such a way that the context appears on the surface perfectly normal.  Our next-door neighbor could think this way, the people we work with might support these ideas, the next election could see the fear slate voted in to the detriment of people we may not know and can’t see why we should care about.

Partly, this works because of the relative confines of the mystery device employed.  There is a victim, there are suspects, the inspector must solve the crime.  The ordinariness and closeness of the procedural formula allows her to show the world and all its uglinesses without lecturing about them.  There are but few passages of exposition about the vast changes that have created this world.  Walton’s sharp eye for the telling detail renders such set-pieces irrelevant and unnecessary.  We see this world as it is lived in and the background seems to fill itself in without need of a Baedeker.

There is a certain pleasure in taking a good alternate history and running it through the skeptic’s mill to see where the weaknesses are.  She never mentions Pearl Harbor, but Charles Lindbergh beats FDR for the White House.  The United States never enters the war, but of course Churchill isn’t in office to ask for help.  Why the Wermacht actually stops at the coast of France is never really explained (yes, the British won the Battle of Britain, but there is no reason to presume Hitler would not have tried again later, as he did continue to bomb London).  Nor is there any discussion of how Hitler continued to avoid assassination.

Ultimately, though, these are beside the point.  Why things happen in the first place the way they did is not always amenable to analysis and this is not the reason for an alternate approach.  The alternate history is concerned with what things might be if they had gone a different way, and in this Walton has more than enough basis for sound speculation, and she executes it well.

Given the tendency of people in groups to pick enemies by association, especially in hard times, this trilogy offers a sobering look at the consequences of easy answers and devil-deal compromise.  An altogether admirable, if disquieting, work.


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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

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