by David Edgerley Gates
We were just walking out of CASABLANCA, the new picture starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan....
I always thought this would be a cool opening line for a story, setting up the alternate history angle from the get-go. (There are plenty of these might-have-beens. The original casting Peckinpah wanted for THE WILD BUNCH, for example, was Lee Marvin and Brian Keith.) In the case of CASABLANCA, though, this was a misleading Warners PR plant: Bogart always had a lock on the part.
Alternate history is an interesting genre, usually lying somewhere on the outskirts of SF or even fantasy. The first one I remember reading was packaged in an Ace double novel, and I've forgotten the title, to my chagrin, but the premise was that the Spanish Armada had successfully invaded England, so Spain became the dominant European and New World power for the next four centuries. Often the key to alternate history is just such a defining event. If typhus hadn't ravaged Hannibal's armies in Italy, Rome would have remained a provincial backwater, and Carthage taken control of the Mediterranean trade routes.
What if the Germans had won WWII? This being an enduring subset of the genre, and a fascinating one. Len Deighton's SS-GB takes place in an occupied Great Britain, after the RAF loses the air war. Robert Harris hit the ground running with FATHERLAND, an enormously spooky thriller, hinging on the plausibility that all evidence of the Holocaust could be destroyed, and the memory of mass murder erased from the historical record. The precursor of both these books is Philip K. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.
Three dramatic devices surface and resurface all through the book. The first is historicity, the quality an object or an artifact has to absorb and embody the past, a Zippo lighter Franklin Roosevelt may have had in his pocket, say, when he was assassinated in 1932. The play between the counterfeit and the authentic mirrors the storyline. Are we imagining all this? (And there's a huge black market in fakes, such as Zippo lighters.) The second meta-device is a novel within the novel, an alternate history, in which the Allies turn out to have won the war. But this fiction isn't quite the world as we now know it, either. It's skewed in other, odd ways, so again, 'reality,' or authenticity, is slippery, a construct, really, and not immutable. This idea is doubled on itself with the third device, which I think is utterly inspired. Every character in the book consults the I CHING, and the fall of the yarrow stalks or the coins establishes fate. In fact (or, in 'fact'), the novel within the novel is written using the I CHING, each fictional historical development a roll of the dice, in effect. Or to put it another way, pay every attention to the man behind the curtain.
None of this is meant to suggest THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is self-indulgent, or some elaborate post-modernist prank. It's mischievous, and often deceptive, but always highly entertaining, and entertains the unexpected. Nobody in the story is flat, or arbitrary. Everybody holds their own as a fully-fleshed person, and each of them holds their own future in trust, however the yarrow stalks may fall. The great strength of the book is probably that character is fate, and nothing is fated. There will always be defining events, but history is accident. The choices we make are only inevitable in hindsight. For there to be an alternate reality, we have to decide first which fiction we believe.