January 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Time… and again… and again

It was, I swear, a problem with the post. Over the summer a number of packages of review books being sent to me from across the Atlantic went astray. So when, in time, another journal asked me to review one of the missing books, I naturally agreed. You guessed! The day after the copy of the book from journal two showed up, the copy of the same book from journal one emerged from postal limbo.

I don’t normally like reviewing the same book twice, but in this instance I felt duty bound. It helped, of course, that Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley was a good book, one I enjoyed reading, and I had a number of things I wanted to say about it. And it seemed curiously appropriate that it was an alternate history novel, which seems to have been one of the themes of the year.

Nobody can keep up with all the science fiction published in any particular year, especially not when their reading speed is as slow as mine. And when you review, what you are aware of can be dictated as much by what other people choose to put in front of you as by your own tastes or by serendipity. So I am probably the last person to ask for any overall sense of the year in science fiction. Nevertheless, my very partial and limited view of the genre suggests that this was a year in which there were an unusually high number of alternate histories of one type or another. And they were easily among the most memorable of the books that came my way.

Cowboy Angels is a (fairly routine) thriller, but what makes it work is that it is set across a whole raft of alternative Americas, which means that to the standard paranoia of betrayal and counter-betrayal McAuley has added all sorts of doubts about the solidity of the world and the security of individual identity. One of the nice little conceits in the book, which I liked so much that I mentioned it in both reviews, is that reality TV now has shows in which celebrities are confronted with their non-celebrity alter-egos in other Americas. If you think about it, that’s exactly what our fame-besotted media would do if it got its hands on such wonderful technology. And while I was reading that I fell to musing that in these alternative versions of our world they would be reading novels set in yet other alternative versions where they would read… well, it doesn’t take long before your mind starts to quiver and hide away in corners.

Only this year, our version of reality seems to have produced enough alternate histories to suit all those parallel worlds.

Now I wonder why that might be. Are all these authors, and their hungry readership, simply tired of the direction our own history is taking? But it’s not as if, with the exception of Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times, they imagine worlds that are significantly better than our own. Nazis rule, the H-bomb is dropped, terrorism is rife; are they just saying it could all be so much worse?

What alternate histories do is look at the process of history as something rational and comprehensible, a sequence of identifiable turning points where we might calculate: if x happened then y would result. Historians are as fond of this procedure as novelists (where was it I learned that every time military historians wargame the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon wins? And why aren’t we hip-deep in alternate histories examining the consequences of this?), it helps us understand how and why the world is as it is. Of course, in real life this is no help at all, since we are never going to recognise one of these turning points until it is already in the past. But I suppose we can always kick ourselves and say: if only!

And if the process of history is the point of it all, then a novelist who highlights the one small change that would have led to Hitler winning the Second World War, is also implying that one small change might have made things better than we have known them.

For the writer, alternate history is a form of science fiction that requires technical knowledge of history, but none of that nasty science stuff, which may be why it’s an attractive option for writers not normally associated with sf. This year, for instance, there were a couple of outstanding examples that came my way. I probably don’t need to say much about Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, since it is surely going to feature on just about every books of the year list going. Though I will parenthetically ponder the fact that so few reviewers have mentionedthe sly and subversive comment on 9/11 that lies at the heart of the novel. But I suspect that nowhere near as much attention will be paid to Resistance, a first novel by Owen Sheers that is, to my mind, every bit as good. Sheers is a young Welsh poet, and his novel has all the lyricism that might suggest; it is one of the things that makes this book work beautifully. Its story is so conventional -- Hitler wins World War Two -- that I thought it had already been done to death; Sheers changed my mind. The setting is a narrow, remote Welsh valley, and it concerns the interaction between a small troop of war-weary German soldiers and the independent farmers’ wives they find there. Sheers dispatches the menfolk in his very first sentence: "In the months afterwards all of the women, at some point, said they'd known the men were leaving the valley." Thereafter the absence of the men (it is presumed they have joined the resistance, but we never learn their fate) is tangible throughout the rest of the book, but the focus of the novel is on the way the two groups of characters must confront the implacable nature of the landscape.

Both these books are excellent, but their focus is very much on what is unchanged, on the persistence of human character and how it must adapt in the face of circumstance. Writers who approach alternate history from a more science fictional direction tend to focus more on the difference, on how easily our social, cultural, political circumstances might have been overturned. Jo Walton’s Farthing (and its sequel, Ha’penny, which I haven’t yet caught up with) show how easily the British ruling class might have engineered a pro-fascist government in the 1930s; Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl, set in Liverpool at the time of the emergence of the Beatles, shows the dire consequences if the Cuban Missile Crisis had not been resolved; Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels presents a series of worlds in which America lost to Germany in the Second World War, fell to communist rule, or in which peaceniks forced the downfall of Richard Nixon. They are each fascinating examinations of change, and if the intent of alternate history is to make us look more closely at our world for being made aware of its fragility, they succeed wonderfully.

Actually, this last may be why I am less certain of Kathleen Ann Goonan’s In War Times and those (very rare) alternate histories which present a better world, for they seem to suggest that the fragility is something we should welcome, and I am not at all comfortable with that. For different reasons, I am equally uncomfortable with the way Ken MacLeod uses an alternate history element in his otherwise excellent The Execution Channel, since it seems to me shifting the story sideways into a world that is not our own defuses what is otherwise a devastating and spot-on critique of the war on terror. Suddenly it is not our war on terror, and hence the polemic cannot hit any targets in this world.

Which is, I suppose, the dilemma of alternate histories: by turning to a history that never happened, they seem to make us see more clearly the history that did. But if the history is too close, too immediate, it has the opposite effect.