Though I’ve neglected writing my “book reports,” I’ve been through plenty of books this year, part of an effort to be a little more well-read. Lately I’ve been exploring classic science fiction and one of its sub genres, alternate history. The alternate histories I read this summer and fall are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga by Robert Sobel, and Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore. Along with Fatherland by Robert Harris (which I reported on a few years ago) these stories encompassed a formidable spread of approaches to the genre of alternate history.
The Man in the High Castle is set in a United States that lost the Second World War and is divided into puppet states dominated by Germany and Japan. The book’s historical divergence is pretty plausible. The assassination attempt on President-Elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 is successful. The weak and incompetent presidents of the next decade leave the United States unprepared for the coming world war.
The book deals indirectly with how Americans might be disposed toward such an outcome. The Nazis are still bastards, of course, responsible for a monumental holocaust across Africa. Jews and blacks have largely disappeared from the United States, but most of the characters have accommodated themselves to their occupiers. In fact, many Americans express gratitude for the Axis’ extinguishing of world communism. It’s a good reminder that, if not for certain geopolitical calculations, we could have easily ended up on the other side of either world war. The most interesting turn of the plot is the emergence of a popular but subversive alternate history novel that hypothesizes an American and British victory over the Germans and Japanese.
The Years of Rice and Salt is both deep and sprawling . The historical divergence isn’t really plausible— the Black Death of the 14th century wipes out the entire population of Europe (as in, literally, the land between the Urals, Caucuses, Mediterranean, and Atlantic, as if diseases could confine themselves to artificially conceived geographic designations). The characters don’t dwell much on this puzzle; the mysterious plague is simply a handy device for imagining several centuries where Islamic and Chinese civilizations dominate the world.
Robinson’s stories are pretty erudite, steeped in science and philosophy along with history. This can make his books a little know-it-allish and tedious to read, but he constructs a sturdy fictional world for his characters to inhabit. The plot threads its way down the centuries through main characters reincarnated into different periods of world history. The most enjoyable chapter takes place in 17th century Samarkand and chronicles a Muslim gunpowder manufacturer who, under the patronage of the local khan, develops the scientific method as he investigates various natural mysteries.
For Want of Nail is in some ways the most remarkable of the three books. Rather than relate the alternate history through the plot of novel, the book is the alternate history, presented as an academic work, complete with footnotes, bibliography, even a critique by a dissenting historian. The subtitle, “If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga,” is the only evidence of its self-awareness as a work of fiction. The academic conceit of the book makes it a bit of a slog to read through, but I felt it paid off to stick with it.
The historical divergence of For Want of a Nail, as the subtitle suggests, is the British victory in the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1778. Which is pretty plausible; there was more than a little luck involved in the War of Independence, which the author wryly illustrates through his pro-loyalist persona. George Washington’s tactical blunders, the fractiousness of the colonies, the unpreparedness of the Continental Army to take on the world mightiest power— the Revolution seems an ill-conceived adventure in a parallel universe, doesn’t it?
The war lost, moderates in Congress negotiate a settlement with London which reconstitutes the colonies as part of the empire in a Commonwealth-style association, the Confederation of North America, or CNA (the 13 colonies plus the Canadian colonies and the Old Northwest). The surviving rebels and their fellow travelers decamp to the frontier lands of New Spain (paralleling the flight of loyalists to Canada), where they set up their own republic called Jefferson (our Texas). Their leaders co-opt the Mexican Revolution and establish the United States of Mexico, or USM (comprising the territories of Mexico as they were before the Mexican-American War, including California and Arizona).
Some of the early characters are familiar, like Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Dickinson, John Burgoyne, John C. Calhoun, and most importantly Andrew Jackson. But as the timeline progresses, familiar names and events disappear. There is no French Revolution of 1789, no American Civil War, no Second World War; no Napoleon, no Lincoln, no Hitler
The most peculiar development in For Want of a Nail is the rise of a huge multinational corporation, Kramer Associates, which from the California gold rush to dominate Mexico as an vertical industrial monopoly and becomes a world power as a non-state actor, even being the first to develop atomic weapons.
As the CNA and the USM square off in North America, Sobel uses them to play out the dual personality of the United States. The CNA is progressive, egalitarian, peaceful and isolationist, broadly industrialized and prone to quixotic social reforms. The USM is conservative, racially and economically stratified, militaristic, and expansionist. Slavery persists there well into the 20th century, and occasional draconian measures accompany a devolution into authoritarianism and dictatorship.
I also read this summer, as part of a collection of short alternate history stories, Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, about life in the United States after Confederate victory at Gettysburg. By the early 20th century the United States is decrepit and impoverished, at the mercy of predatory foreign interests, including the Confederate States. The main character, an expert on the Battle of Gettysburg, takes his academic investigations to extraordinary. I don’t want to say any more about the plot because I wish you would read it, along with some of these other stories.