Monday, January 14, 2013

Do you like alternate history stories?

I'm quite a fan of alternate history stories. It all started for me when I read Fatherland by Robert Harris back in '92, but I've come to discover that this sub-genre of storytelling has been a part of popular culture for a great long time, stretching as far back as medieval times. Alternate history and alternate reality sometimes go hand in hand, so I guess I'm treating them as the same thing.

My first encounter with the whole 'alternate' idea was from reading the excellent 'Zenith' comic book series, which featured in British comic 2000AD. The story centres around a self-absorbed and lazy English superhero who is reluctantly enlisted to help overcome inter-dimensional beings intent on destroying earth. Making a point of being set in an alternate reality, Zenith begins by featuring a flashback to the end of World War Two when Berlin is destroyed by a nuclear bomb. When I first read it, I didn't 'get' the whole alternative history thing and thought the writers has made some sort of mistake, knowing that the first atomic bomb targeted Hiroshima in Japan. In fact, some anally-retentive reader wrote in to Tharg the editor, explaining in great detail the facts surrounding Hiroshima and smugly pointing out how the writers were incredibly stupid for getting it wrong the only for Tharg to patiently explain that it was an alternate history story.

With a story arc that covers three series (or 'Phases'), the alternative reality idea is explored further and further revealing several different realities of Earth (including one where dinosaurs and humans co-exist). I really enjoyed this series and regard it as a clever re-imagining of a tired superhero genre with a British twist to make it interesting. Needless to say, there were plenty more alternate reality stories to discover.

I remember watching the American TV series 'Sliders', which I only managed to catch the occasional episode of. The premise was simple: a small team use a device to 'slide' between alternate Earths via a wormhole vortex. Upon their arrival, they learn about how things are different to their home reality (Earth Prime) and overcome various plot challenges before jumping through the vortex into the next world. Because the slider device is faulty, they don't know where they'll end up next and are ultimately trying to find their way back home to Earth Prime. From what I can tell, the show was a bit of a shambles production-wise and over time veered away from the original premise (which focused on the different alternate histories of worlds visited). I remember enjoying what I saw, but always got the impression that the vision and the budget never quite squared up to each other.

When I read Robert Harris' book, I was intrigued by the concept that imagined a world where Hitler had won WW2 and the 'Final Solution' remained a terrible, dark secret. I thought this way of writing was new, but later discovered that countless alternative history novels had been written, including HG Wells 'Men Like Gods' and Philip K Dick's 'The Man in the High Castle' (of which, at the time of writing, I've not yet read).

It seems the idea of Hitler winning the war is nothing new. Len Deighton's 'SS-GB', published in 1978, is about a Detective in Nazi-ruled Britain investigating a murder in London that sparks interest from the highest echelons of the Nazi SS. Evidence of a conspiracy begins to unfold involving the British resistance and a plot to free King George VI from his prison in the Tower of London.

Back in 1964, just nineteen years after the war ended, 'It Happened Here' imagined what it would be like to see Nazi Stormtroopers roaming the British countryside. I've only seen clips, but what makes this film so terrifying is that it's so close to the time of the conflict that it's almost like watching a contemporary documentary. You can see a clip here:

I've only read a couple of alternate history books in the last few years. One is The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss, which imagines a world where America never gained independence from the British Empire. Set in the 60s, it's a very steampunk-ish world of biplanes and airships featuring a seasoned cop on the trail of Nationalist terrorists. I very much enjoyed this story, which had pace and ingenuity. It was fun to read about Americans drinking warm beer and using shillings for currency. I did feel, however, that is was missing a decent map (which I think is an essential for alternate history books, to help orientate oneself as a reader), although the book's Wikipedia page has a basic one to look at.

The other book I've read recently is The Mirage, which came out last year. Imagining a world where the Arab nations are the superpowers, it depicts the US and Europe as breeding grounds for Christian fundamentalist terrorists intent on attacking the arab states. Bagdhad is the equivalent of New York – a muslim cultural metropolis home to the world trade towers which are destroyed by the aforementioned terrorists in 2001. Washington DC is much like present day Baghdad with a 'Green Zone' occupied by Arabian and Persian troops after the attacks. What makes this story interesting (a secret service agent investigating a Christian suicide threat) is the notion that, essentially we are all the same (obvious, I know) and given the right circumstances, anyone could find themselves part of a global terrorist network.

I hope to read more alternate history titles in the future when I get the chance, although looking at the Uchronia website (a website dedicated to alternate history / reality fiction), there seems to be an overwhelming number of stories to choose from, so I'm not sure where to start!

The good thing about this particular genre is that the possibilities are truly limitless. If two parallel universes can be distinguished by the different locations of a simple atom (so the theory goes, I believe), then I can't imagine authors will be running out of ideas anytime soon.

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