Two Paths Diverged… (TBR: Farthing)
Jenny Davidson at Light Reading recommended Farthing by Jo Walton, so I picked it up at the library. It’s a classic English country manor mystery, with the twist that it’s set in an England where the Hess mission was successful and England has made peace with Nazi Germany. It’s a clever twist that pumps fresh air into a somewhat stale genre, and Walton does a nice job with it. Nothing spectacular, but a good read. The politics (warning of how fragile democracy can be) are a bit heavy handed, but certainly timely.
Davidson explicitly links Farthing with some other recent, more literary alternate histories — The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Of the three, I think Plot is probably the best, not as clever as YPU, but better executed. But the comparison set me thinking about alternate histories, and wondering about a) why alternate histories are often considered a subgenre of science fiction and b) why so many of them take WWII as the point of divergence. So that’s really what I want to write about.
I think the main reason that alternate histories are often considered sci-fi is that the authors who write them are often primarily associated with sci-fi, with Philip K. Dick as an early example and Harry Harrison as a more recent example. My personal judgment is that if an alternate history story involves time travel or movement between parallel universes, it qualifies as sci-fi, but otherwise it’s probably not.
In looking up links for this post, I ran across the wonderful listing of alternate histories, ordered by the data of their convergence, at UChronia.net. This list, which includes essays and newspaper articles as well as fiction, suggests the divergence points are more evenly spread out than my subjective impressions would have led me to conclude, but I still think that most of the memorable alternate histories I’ve read diverge either at World War II or at the Civil War. Those are times when the course of history clearly changed — and mostly for the good. As a rule, writers are far more interested in divergences where things could have gone horribly awry than in divergences where things could have gone right for a change. In alternate histories, even when good things happen — Lincoln survives the assassinated attempt — they turn out to have horrible consequences.
I don’t think it’s because writers are inherently cynical, but it’s hard to turn things going right into a story. Let’s say those chads didn’t hang, and Gore was elected in 2000. I think 9/11 would still have happened. I could write a story in which the US didn’t invade Iraq and Hussein was still in power but we captured Bin Ladin somewhere in Afghanistan and the government had a reasonable response to Katrina, but unless there’s some ironic twist somewhere, this may be good propaganda, but not much of a story.