The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick **
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth ****
(Time And Time Again – Ben Elton ****; 11.22.63 – Stephen King ***; Fatherland – Robert Harris ***; Dominion – CJ Sansom ****; The Children’s War – JN Stroyar *****)
Regular readers of this blog will have figured out by now that I like history. One of my favourite things about it is the spine-tingling realisation that, on the turn of a knife edge, it could all have gone so very differently.
This is why I will read pretty much any ‘alternative history’ I can get my hands on. Most of the ones I’ve read seem to be along the lines of ‘What if the Germans had won World War II’; I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the people who write them. Last year I read one which broke that mould, Time And Time Again by Ben Elton, which focused instead on World War I. I’ve (rather snobbishly) always thought of Ben Elton as a bit of a populist writer, but Time And Time Again made me eat my words; it was completely different to what I expected, in a really good way. 11.22.63 I found to be less well executed, but made from the same sort of mould.
Towards the end of 2015, I became temporarily fixated by Amazon’s series, The Man In The High Castle. If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend it very highly – although be warned, Rufus Sewell will give you nightmares. In mourning after watching the last episode, I downloaded the book, and read it over Christmas. Well, what a disappointment – I found it to be fragmented, linguistically uninspiring, and with really poorly-drawn characters. I haven’t read anything else by Philip K Dick, so I have no idea whether that’s characteristic or not – but to be honest, after that experience, I’m not particularly inclined to find out. (I am, though, looking forward to Season 2 of the TV series. I know, I’m a heathen.)
To rectify the situation, I picked up The Plot Against America, which I last read when it was first published, which somehow – horrifyingly – was more than ten years ago. This is also an alternative history, although it doesn’t go quite so far as to show Germany winning the war – rather, it is an imagining of how the early 1940s may have gone, had the US elected an anti-Semitic president in 1940. This was almost the complete opposite of The Man In The High Castle – the story is told through the eyes of a young boy, and the characterisation of him and his family and the rest of the neighbourhood is almost perfect, at times to the point of being heartbreaking. Because this isn’t only an alternative history story; it’s also a coming of age story and a snapshot of a ‘real’ social history which makes the ‘alternative’ stuff seem all too plausible.
To finish, a brief shout-out to three other alternative WWII novels which I read a number of years ago, but which I remember as pretty good (Fatherland), very good (Dominion), and one of the best books I’ve ever read (The Children’s War). All three focus on a post-WWII defeated Europe, with Nazi atrocities proceeding unchecked and conquered people trying to live their lives as best they can. Dominion gets an extra star over Fatherland because of the writing, especially the first scene (a gripping and memorable reimagining of the British Cabinet meeting in 1940 where Churchill took power…or didn’t). The Children’s War gets 5 stars for its unflinching plot (seriously, there is one scene in particular where I had a Joey Tribbiani moment and almost put the book in the freezer), complex characters and sheer richness of detail. It’s not that easy to get hold of, but if you only read one book about what life might have been like if the Nazis had won the war, it really should be this one.
Any other alternative history recommendations gratefully received!