14 August 2013


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.

Japan occupies the West Coast, to the Rockies, Germany the East Coast, to the Mississippi. A weak buffer state exists between them. The engine of the story is the struggle of the two great Axis powers against each other, worldwide, a Cold War that's about blow wide open, and there are also factions and succession rivalries, inside the Reich. The conspiracies, though, are the backdrop to more intimate and familiar characters, and the mechanisms they develop for living in a police state---the Japanese hegemony is nowhere near as brutal, on a daily basis, as the German.

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.


  1. History is accident, passion, coincidence, obsession, madness, and, of course, the pursuit of happiness. I love alternate histories, and one of the assignments my students got was to pick from a list of alternative histories and write (1) what really happened, (2) what would have happened if this (Hitler got accepted to the Vienna Art Institute) really had happened, (3) and would it really have made a difference in what we see around us today? It was one of the most popular assignments, and I got some great papers out of it.

  2. A fun post!

    Two of my favorite novels in the "alternate reality" genre are Ward Moore's 1953 Bring the Jubilee, which re-imagines the south winning the Civil War based on it's defining win at Gettysburg, and Heinlein's Job, which (seriatim) re-imagines almost everything with reality changing every chapter.

  3. I've liked some of the alternate realities too, and as you say several hinge on Hitler winning the war. One of the most chilling ones (I've forgotten title and author) hid German technology under the polar ice cap, whence came UFOs, etc. And I wasn't smoking anything, either.

  4. Your excellent post reminds me of an intriguing story or novella I once read.

    The story was a mystery set in post-war America, but Allied forces stationed on Pacific islands (due to war-time necessity) had encountered, and learned to practice, Black magic performed by island witch doctors. In fact, the Allies (in this version) won the war by wielding some really heavy bad ju-ju they’d picked up there against the Axis powers.

    After the war, soldiers, sailors and marines returned state-side, bringing their new knowledge of black magic with them, revolutionizing the way things were done, much the way industry had done so previously.

    I’m not usually an enjoyer of “sword and sorcery” stuff, and “a dash of magic” in a story usually leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But this one was done very well.

    Wish I could remember the title and author of this fascinating story.


    P.S.: I love P.K. Dick stories/novels, but hadn't encountered this one. I'll have to find it!

  5. A Broad Abroad14 August, 2013 17:44

    A list of alternate history fiction neatly laid out here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_alternate_history_fiction

  6. I wrote a long comment on this piece this morning and the internet ate it. Oh, well.

    Alt-Hist is my favorite form of SF (and both my published SF stories are more or less A-H.)

    Harry Turtledove has a PhD in history and his THE GUNS OF THE SOUTH is my favorite book in the field. (Timetravelling Afrikaaners decide to solve the whites v blacks problem by supplying the confederacy with AK47s.)

    Not quite the same subject but close enough is this hilarious essay. The good part starts in paragraph 5. http://squid314.livejournal.com/275614.html

  7. To Robert Lopresti: I just read the WWII "critique" at the live journal you listed, and my face hurts from smiling and then grinning ear to ear and then bursting out laughing. Truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction! But to see it laid out like this... Thanks for pointing me to a great read I really appreciated! :-D

  8. The alternate history collection that got me when I was younger was the Resnick/Greenberg-edited "Alternate Presidents." It was the first of several "Alternate" anthologies they put out about 20 years ago Including alternates on "Tyrants," "Warriors" and even "Kennedys." (The last one surprisingly good!)

  9. Dixon, that story sounds like it might be Robert Bloch (from the style of humor.) I thought I knew most of DeCamp's stuff but it sounds like him too...no specifics, alas!


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