Alternative histories: not rocket science

This article appeared in Filament Magazine in 2010 | 

‘We’re so counter-culture even our history is alternative’, I overheard a black-clad, tattooed writer say to her friend at the Arthur C Clark Awards earlier this year. She pretty much summed up how I feel. But everyone loves science fiction these days, right? Of course, but we still feel it is somehow not quite serious. How many times have you heard someone say they hate science fiction but adore A Clockwork Orange, Starship Troopers or The Time Traveller’s Wife?

To highlight the significance of science fiction to how we think about ourselves and our chequered past, I am going examine the science fiction sub-genre of alternative histories.

The Man in High Castle

Philip K Dick, 1962

Nowadays the line between science fiction and the mainstream is increasing blurred. Some say the sci-fi/fantasy shelves are nearing obsoletion as the genre distances itself from the pulp of the 1950s. But in 1962 when Philip K Dick’s The Man In The High Castle was published, there was pretty much nothing an author with literary aspirations could do to make themselves less likely to be taken seriously than to write science fiction.

Yet that is what Dick did, after two years of failing to sell any of the three mainstream novels he’d written, The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award and remains today one of the best loved alternative histories.

In the 1960s, with the atomic age, space travel and the Cold War in the headlines, science fiction was exploring difficult questions about the effect of all this on ordinary people. In 2009, What if the Axis had won World War II? is a well-explored question, but in 1962 the war was recent, and its relevance far more apparent. But also, the fundamental question of The Man In The High Castle is not about Germany and Japan winning World War II, but rather, what is reality, and how do we know for sure?

The women of Philip K Dick

With war as a consistent theme and assumptions that women are not interested in science fiction anyway, in the past this genre has been something of a man’s world.

If I wanted to read a book where the female characters are inspirational and well-rounded, it wouldn’t be one by Philip K Dick. In his lifetime he had five unsuccessful marriages, and the dedication in The Man In The High Castle reads, ‘To my wife Anne, without whose silence this book would never have been written.’ This attitude seems to shape his development of all his female characters.

The women in Dick’s novels generally fall into one of two categories:

  1. The free-spirited teenager who leads the protagonist away from a safe and boring life, or
  2. The mean, uncaring wife who drives the protagonist to follow a free-spirited teenager into adventure.

The Man In The High Castle is no exception. Juliana, the main female character, is powerless and living in the margins of society, outside governed space. She is introduced in the first chapter as Frank Frink’s ex-wife. Frink is told through the I Ching that one should ‘not marry such a maiden’ and that she is ‘powerful’. The reality, however, is that Juliana is passive, indecisive and dependent on others.

The novel-within-the-novel

In The Man In The High Castle, Dick introduces us to a post-war world where Germany and Japan are the major political forces co-existing uneasily. Nazis have taken control of the eastern states of North America and Japan controls the west coast. A neutral zone acts as the buffer between the two super-powers and in this margin reality begins to fray. It is here where the title’s man in the High Castle, writer of the novel-within-the-novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy lives.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is a banned book that presents another version of history, one where the Allies won World War II, uniting the storylines and driving the plot to both crisis and revelation. And though the novel-within-the-novel is set in a similar world to our own, it doesn’t quite mirror, giving us another version of what could have been.


by Desmond Warzel, Abyss & Apex 2007

Abyss & Apex is an online magazine of speculative fiction. The short story Wikihistory communicates through the medium of a World War II discussion thread in a time travellers’ forum. Newbies post after returning from the past where they have altered history by either killing Hitler, ensuring he gets into art school rather than politics or killing his father. They are then berated by the old hands who correct the alterations, leaving us to imagine how different the world would be without the major events of our past. Here is a quick excerpt:

At 14:52:28, FreedomFighter69 wrote:
Reporting my first temporal excursion since joining IATT: have just returned from 1936 Berlin, having taken the place of one of Leni Riefenstahl’s cameramen and assassinated Adolf Hitler during the opening of the Olympic Games. Let a free world rejoice!

At 14:57:44, SilverFox316 wrote:
Back from 1936 Berlin; incapacitated FreedomFighter69 before he could pull his little stunt. Freedomfighter69, as you are a new member, please read IATT Bulletin 1147 regarding the killing of Hitler before your next excursion. Failure to do so may result in your expulsion per Bylaw 223.

Though not strictly an alternative history, it works in a similar way by pushing the reader to think about the causes and effects of our actions on a grand scale. It also tells a new kind of story through the context of technology – one where we gain an understanding of the world we live in and the things that shape us.

But is it always the big things that change the world more than the small? Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto viewed family structures as inherently exploitative, with families run like businesses and capitalists treating wives and children like property. He argues that the family structure needs to change in order to abolish the class system. Yet if an alternative history is written about communism, I’m sure it would focus on the outcome of one of the dozens of wars and revolutions that have taken place in the name of communism and not one would focus on what the world could be like if we changed the family structure – and though readers all find stories about people they can relate to the most interesting, it seems that politics is a better driver for action and plot than the sphere of the home.

What really happens in this genre and why we keep coming back to it, is that it shows us up for what we really are. It can comment on how evil, stupid or just plain wrong some of the beliefs of past generations were from the relative safety of being in the position of knowledge.

CSA: The Confederate States of America

One perfect example of this is in the 2004 film CSA: The Confederate States of America. Set in a contemporary alternative world where the confederate states won the American Civil War, and filmed in the style of a British documentary, it examines attitudes towards slavery and racism. Much of the humour of the film comes from TV commercials for explicitly racist products, satirising the advertisements we see daily. At the close of the film we are informed that many of these products really existed, and while we laugh at them now, it wasn’t so long ago that being explicitly racist was normal. The film works not just by showing us what could have been, but also by showing us what really was.

These books, stories and films give us a real opportunity to unpick history. Through them we can analyse why things happened the way they did and how they can potentially be avoided the next time around. The genre encourages us to think of history not just as something that happened once, but as something that is happening still – that we can’t avoid the past and it is never really behind us.

Sara Passmore is a comic-loving, Battlestar Galactica-watching writer, blogger and one of the esteemed organisers of Sci-Fi London: The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastical Film.

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