The OF Blog: Alternative Histories

Monday, July 07, 2008

Alternative Histories

I received a review copy of Harry Turtledove's about-to-be-released WWII alternate history, The Man with the Iron Heart, which speculates what if Reinhard Heydrich, second-in-command of the SS, had survived his 1942 assassination and had managed to lead a resistance movement in the German Alps after V-E Day. Being that this is very near my era of historical study, I likely will read it some time, despite my longstanding reluctance to read alt-histories, but I was left with a nagging question after I read the press kit:

Are alternate histories about the past, or (even more so than actual histories) about our perceived present?

Thoughts?

13 comments:

Gabe said...

This might be way off-base, but I tend to think that alternate histories are more about the author than about the world. I can't point to any specifics; just that I get that general feeling whenever I look over the alternate histories. In my opinion, very few of them rise above that. Keith Roberts' PAVANE being one good one. But to be honest, I haven't read enough of them to have any firm opinion.

Daniel Ausema said...

Is science fiction about the future, our perception of the future, or about the present?

I can't say I've read widely in alternate histories, but a decent smattering, I guess. In a broad sense, alt-history is about how a tiny change can have vast differences. Or with some writers about how what seems a huge change would have very minimal effect. But that's a very surface matter, one that it doesn't take an entire book to explore usually.

So I think once you get into the details of the story, beyond the gee-whiz of playing with different what-ifs, then it's all about the present in the same way that science fiction is about the present, despite the futuristic surface. LeGuin has a great essay about that, titled something like, "Do SF writers predict the future?"

Just like the gadgets or alien cultures or vast wonders can be fun in SF, or the magic or wondrous societies in fantasy, so too the little details of how culture is different, like what roles famous people in our timeline have in that one, can be very entertaining. But I think any look at what's really going on in such a story has to come back to today.

Jonathan M said...

I think that particular book is "about" nazi porn.

Liviu said...

Actually I've read this one and it's good but not excellent; follows current headlines from 9/11 and Iraq and transposes in the Germany 1945-8 context, with happenings here too - "mom's organization to bring soldiers home", generals grilled in Congress...
The book has no real characters and story otherwise and makes no moral judgments about who was right in its context - Truman and the generals who wanted to keep ocupying Germany at all costs or the people who after several years of mounting casualties and terrorism - there are some spectacular examples - wanted to bring them back and leave the local German police deal with the former Nazis...

If you want a very imaginative catalog of terrorist acts and gruesome retributions, the book is for you, but I expected better overall

Turtledove dipped his toes in these waters with a novella that transposed Pearl Harbor and the following events with headlines that are from the present in Asimov's July 07. That was darkly funny and short enough - ended with Roosevelt preparing to be impeached in 1942 and the USA preparing to sue Japan for peace...

Liviu said...

And as it happens the Nazis are presented as evil terrorists - the main character as there is, is a Jewish US intelligence officer and Turtledove is Jewish himself - so just read the book before making snap judgments...

Larry said...

Yeah, alt-histories rarely appeal to me because they seem so shallow and transparent. Why this, if only to connect it to this other event in the author's present? It's really frustrating to me because most alt-history writers rarely go beyond surface analyses, leaving me wondering why I even bothered.

As for Turtledove's book, like I said, I'll glance through it some, but I fear I won't care much for it, since I'm at least as familiar as the author (and likely more so) with many of the historical personages and I'm wary of any approaches that try to tie in current conflicts to past ones without sufficient evidence. Longstanding bias of mine, but one that has served me well.

Liviu said...

Turtledove - whatever his faults as a fiction writer - someone who puts 4-6 novels a year consistently cannot write superb prose after all - is very meticulous, does his research well and if for example in this book the premise is quite far-fetched since Germany was really passed through "fire and sword" in the war so it's very, very unlikely any resistance could have formed, Heydrich or no Heydrich, he still does a credible job.

After all he did relatively credibly a book with Nazi win, long regime, exterminate most Jews, and a Gorbachev/Yeltsin like figure comes along in the 70's or so In the Presence of Mine Enemies, and then the famous WW 2 Invasion Colonization 7 volume saga which is entertaining in a campy way - but in all those he had reasonably interesting characters which he does not have here and that is the main failing of this one...

But still there are moments like President Truman "This day we are all French" which function very well as satire that the book is worth at least browsing for - if you can take the litany of atrocities of course...

Regarding alt history vs other genre, it's fiction and I am not sure that the fact that it parallels Earth history to a point makes it less valid than a pure historical fiction work, or an epic pseudo-earth fantasy... As long as the story is entertaining, consistent, and has interesting characters, I just see no difference between the above kinds of books...

Larry said...

While I'll agree that your points are valid, Liviu, my issue is more of a personal one, being that I majored in the cultural history of this era and locale and I can't help but to wonder if that'll color things a bit. I'm admittedly much tougher on works that parallel or touch upon "historical" elements and it's best for me to state that directly rather than to read and possibly review the book, pretending otherwise.

Gabe said...

Larry, you make an interesting point: that a reviewer should be aware of his/her prejudices and should make those clear. Though I've often been harsh against epic fantasy, it isn't because I *dislike* epic fantasy. But for the same reason as you cite, it would be dishonest for me to review, say, a graphic splatter horror novel, as I dislike them intensely.

Larry said...

Yeah, there are certain types of writing that I just will not read, much less review - Whig versions of history being written by 20th/21st century historians, most histories being written by non-historians (outside of general surveys that admit that they are only surveys and don't pretend to be anything else), most paranormal romance, Westerns, and other such things that tend to irritate me upon first contact. Since there's no possible way that I could be fair to those works, I just admit it and move on.

Dark Wolf said...

I think you're right. If you dislike one genre than it is hard to write a proper review without being affected by prejudice.

Liviu said...

I've just finished The Ten Thousand by P. Kearney - got it yesterday quite unexpectedly and despite that I was enjoying the books I was reading, I opened and could not put it down - and while it is the 2nd modern - and best retelling of Xenophon' Anabasis, and the best of all 3, original including since Kearney is just the best writer of them, it could classify as alt-history for its modifications, fantasy trappings and so on, slight as they are, and the story follows the Anabasis quite faithfully with the heavy infantry battles extraordinary well described. Or you can call it an epic fantasy. Not that much difference in my opinion...

So while I completely agree with having kinds of books I do not read unless there is some very strong compelling reason to, alt-history seems to me something too close to historical fiction and epic fantasy to dismiss out of hand while enjoying one or the other...

Larry said...

I'm 2/3 into Kearney's book and I'm of two minds on it. I find his prose to be to the point and suitable for the moods he wants to capture and as a story, it is working out well. However, I recognize the trappings of the original tale within it and part of me loses interest, since I would rather read the source material. That is the problem I have with most historical fictions and epic fantasies that stray too close to the "real" material - I find myself rather reading the original primary source material than anything else.

 
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