Relaunching an Idea: Red Sky At Night

Many months ago, I was struck by an idea. It is one which has been percolating in my mind for some time, but never really occurred to me as a reason to write. But then, I began to get into the whole “Alternate History” sub-genre of science fiction, examining such works as The Man In The High Castle, Fatherland, The Guns Of The South, and A Rebel In Time. It made me think that there was a good precedent for this kind of idea, and room for expansion.

But first, let me explain what I was thinking. Ever since University I’ve been fascinated by Russian history, particularly the interwar years. It was at this time that the most auspicious achievements and crimes took place in the former Soviet Union, after the death of Lenin and the ascent to power of Joseph Stalin, one of history’s greatest monsters.

Shortly thereafter, Russia became involved in World War II, during which time another monster – Adolf Hitler – committed unspeakable crimes against the Russian people. Over twenty six million people died on the Eastern Front, most of them civilians who had already witnessed such terrible suffering at the hands of their own dictator. In addition, many were victims of Soviet wartime oppression, killed by Stalin for the crime of not fighting hard enough or attempting to find liberation from their Nazi invaders.

From the point of view of Soviet propaganda, the years between 41 and 45 were portrayed as a the “Great Patriotic War”, a heroic struggle for the defense of the Motherland. In some respects this was true, but mainly it was a war between two nations being led by very petty and cynical men, with countless good and innocent souls caught in between. Those Germans who died in the East did so because of a fool’s dream of Lebensraum and racial purity, whereas the Russians who died did so in the defense of their families from both the invaders and the reprisals of NKVD officers.

Reading of all this, I often wondered, what if Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s intended successor, had led Russia during the interwar years? What if he had won the leadership race, instead of the scheming Stalin, and became the man to lead Russia against the Nazi invaders? Would things have worked out differently? Would Russia have still stood and ground up the Nazis, but in a way that didn’t lead to the death of so many millions of innocent Russians. The question is not a new one. In fact, historians have been pondering it for some time, and the entire question hinges on a single event.

This is where the concept of my own alternate history came in. In my story, a single event happens differently, thus giving rise to an alternate history. At the 13th Party Congress in Russia 1924, Trotsky had an historic opportunity. Lenin, before his death, had published his “Last Will And Testament” where, amongst other things, he singled out Stalin as a rude and ruthless character who should never be allowed to come to power. During the years following Lenin’s death, Trotsky was seen as the natural successor, which made him the natural rival of Stalin and his followers.

During the 12th Party Congress, Stalin’s allies helped suppress news of the Testament, but by the 13th, Trotsky was in possession of it and could released it, causing irreparable harm to Stalin’s reputation. Why he did not, and instead chose to make a conciliatory speech calling for unity, is something which historians have debated ever since. In so doing, he essentially guaranteed Stalin’s rise to power and his own exile, which culminated in his murder in Mexico some years later.

Red Sky At Night:
This is the basis of my idea. Instead of asking for reconciliation, Trotsky released Lenin’s Testament to the Party and asked for Stalin’s removal. He was successful, which guaranteed that it was he who would become the new leader of Soviet Russia and its chief planner during the interwar years. As a result, Stalin’s crash industrialization programs (aka. the Five Year Plans) were never launched.

Instead, he maintained Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) and even appointed Bukharin (whom Stalin murdered) to oversee reform and expansion of state-owned industry. This led to a degree of slow recovery for the Soviet economy and improved the lot of its farmers and small private enterprises. And when the Great Depression hit in 1929, Russia would still spared the worst ravages of it while similarly showing signs of growth.

What’s more, Trotsky maintained close ties to foreign communist movements, rather than focusing so heavily on matters at home. As a result, in 1933 when the Nazis demanded a non-confidence vote against the Social Democratic Party, Trotsky ordered the KDP (Communist Party of Germany) to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Social Democrats, a move which did not alter the Nazi seizure of power, but which ensured that they were aligned with the anti-Nazi movement from early on.

In China, rather than advising Mao to go along with the Nationalist government (which turned on them) Trotsky advised that Mao and his cadres remain committed to resisting Japanese invasion and not trusting in Chiang Kai Shek. This prevented the massacre of Chinese Communists, which came in handy when the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937.

When the Spanish Civil War began, Trotsky and the Comintern became the most vocal and committed supporters of the Loyalists, sending them weapons, advisers, volunteers and funds. Much as in our own timeline, this had the effect of making the Soviets look like the chief supporters of anti-fascism, but since the effort didn’t suffer from Stalin’s paranoia and cynicism, the efforts were much more effective and popular. And thanks to Trotsky’s focus on foreign affairs, Commissar Maxim Litvinov, the champion of Collective Security, received the support he needed when he made his pitches to the League of Nations.

But most importantly of all, no purges or Great Terror took place during the late 30’s, which had the effect of undermining Russia’s efforts abroad, embarrassing Russia politically, decimating the Soviet officer corps, and devastating Russia’s agriculture. Russia therefore was in a much better position to coordinate alliances with the Czechs, the French, and rally public opinion towards ensuring that the Nazis were contained rather than appeased.

However, things really came down to the 1938 Sudetenland Crisis. For years, the Russians had been railing against coming to an accommodation with Hitler, largely for their own purposes. However, when Hitler demanded that Prime Minister Benes of Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland under threat of war, things finally came together for them. Facing harsh public opinion, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain found that he had little support for his policy of appeasement. French, Czech and League opinion were similarly opposed to any deal with Hitler, having been empowered by Russia’s example. As a result, instead of demanding that Benes give Hitler what he wanted, England and France instead demanded that Poland and Romania agree to allow Russian troops to pass their territory to mobilize against Germany, should the need arise.

These efforts did not materialize, but the appearance of unity on behalf of the League gave Hitler pause. His Generals advised that he back down, facing the likely prospect of war on all fronts, and Hitler was forced to concede. Afterward, Germany suffered from renewed economic problems, and Hitler lost virtually all support. The Nazis fell from power, World War II did not happen, the Holocaust never occurred, and the post-war division of the world between two superpowers not happen.

In the East, Japan found itself trapped as the League closed in to issue economic sanctions and demand that it withdraw from China. Soon, the Japanese Imperial government fell as well, and the threat of war was neutralized. In Italy and Spain, Mussolini and Franco remained in power, but were sure to behave themselves and even rejoined the League of Nations. And of course, Mao and his cadres did not seize power in the immediate post-war years, but instead came to an accommodation with the Nationalists, forming a powerful bloc within the government.

However, there was a downside to all of this as well. For starters, the economic boom caused by the war did not happen. Instead, the global economy recovered slowly throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. What’s more, the accommodation that took place between Russia and mainland Europe after the war, which saw the election of Social Democratic parties in every country and the de-radicalizing of Soviet power at home, caused a rift to form between the Anglo-American world and Eurasia. By 1950, fearing socialist revolution at home, England and America withdrew from the League and formed their own bloc, the Anglo-American Alliance.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, relations began to worsen, as the Alliance condemned what they saw as attempts at subversion in their own sphere while the League condemned the persecution of dissidents and revolutionaries. Both sides became retrenched and a new arms race began, the League and the Alliance scrambling to recruit the best and brightest minds to help them create new and better weapons. By the end of the 1950’s, scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were close to creating the first atomic weapons.

This is where the story opens. It’s 1963, twenty-five years since the Sudetenland Crisis took place, and the world is putting aside its difference to mark the occasion. East and West are coming together in a series of festivals, diplomatic summits, and tourist expos. However, behind the happy veneer of entente, the usual preparations for war continue. And in time, a series of events will trigger a crisis that could very well lead to another war. Much like in 1914, the world is sitting on a powder keg, and all that’s needed for another Great War to take place is for someone to provide the spark.

This idea got back-benched with my coming to join Writer’s Worth and all our anthology work, but I want to pick it back up. Much like Fascio Ardens (that’s its new title), I’m in the mood to write some genuine alternate history. It requires some staggering research to make these kinds of speculative works seem authentic and plausible, but I want to make it work. Call me crazy, especially since I’ve got it in my head to tackle two separate ideas. But as my grandpa used to say, “Lord hates a coward!”

The Birth of an Idea: Fascis Ardens!

Inspiration is a funny, fickle thing! As I’m sure anyone who’s ever attempted to write knows, ideas seem to come when you least expect them. On the one hand, a person can go months without coming up with an original idea. And then, just like that, inspiration can strike suddenly and without warning. You find yourself not only coming up with an idea, but the concept for a full-length novel!

That’s what happened to me this weekend. Myself and my wife were preparing to head up island to see her family. I was contemplating books that deal with the concept of alternate history, and how ones that deal with alternate outcomes to World War II and the Civil War seem to be especially popular. In the former case, you have The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris, two seminal novels that address what would have happened had Germany won the war.

In the latter case, you have stories like A Rebel In Time by Harry Harrison and The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, which merge time travel and alternate history to examine what would have happened if The South had won the Civil War.

In both novels, the plot revolves around a single or group of White Supremacists who use a time machine to bring modern guns to the Confederate Army. This allows the South to prevail, which they hope will prevent the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the end of Apartheid, and other equality movements.

That’s when it hit me! Why the heck hasn’t anyone done an alternate history story where White Supremacists go back in time to make sure Germany won the Second World War? Sounds like something that ought to have been done by now; but to my knowledge, no one’s tackled it yet. I got to thinking long and hard about it, about the plot, characters and potential twists. Eventually, I had what I felt was the bare bones of an idea. It varies slightly from the premise I just mentioned, but in ways I think work! I plan to call it…

Fascio
For those familiar with the Fascist movement of the 20th century, the concept of the Fascio is probably a familiar one. This was basically just a bundle of sticks with an axe tied on that was set afire at public gatherings. The ritual dates back to Ancient Rome, where the burning of these ceremonial bundles was meant to symbolize lighting the way to the future. Italian Fascists, under Mussolini, especially loved this ancient ritual, which they used to draw a connection to the past as much as to point to the future. Like all Fascist rituals, it was an inherent contradiction, more regressive than progressive in nature. But hey, the Fascists didn’t do logic…

Plot:
The story opens in 2050, where the world is reeling from the worst ravages of climate change and Fascist parties are once again taking hold of Europe and North America in response to numerous humanitarian crises. Two young history enthusiasts, believing that the worst is coming, decide to take advantage of an experimental new technology: Time Travel!

Using a machine they gain access to, the duo plan to travel back in time to Germany in 1920, where they plan to find a despondent young military officer named Hitler. Using futuristic technology, they plan to kill him without leaving a trace, and return to the future where things are surely to be much better.

Unfortunately, the time machine sends them to 1941 by accident. Unsure that they will be able to use the machine again in the future, they resolve to kill Hitler during the height of World War II, before he can enact the Final Solution and invade Russia. Relying on their knowledge of history and advanced technology, they manage to kill Hitler at his headquarters weeks before the Battle of Britain was to end and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) began. After making a hasty retreat, they jump in the return module and set course of the future.

However, once again the machine drops them off in the wrong year. Rather than traveling 109 years into the future, they arrive in 1962, at roughly the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis from their own timeline, and find a world starkly different than the one they read about in history books. Rather than finding a world dominated by the two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, two different but equally menacing empires are in place. On the one side, there’s the Pan-American Alliance, led by the US, and on the other, the Axis Forces.

After combing through some records at the local library, they learn the terrible truth: assassinated Hitler in 1941, rather than ending the Second Word War, led Germany to victory. Without Hitler’s questionable and erratic leadership, Germany avoided making several mistakes which were directly attributable to him. For one, Germany did not give up the Battle of Britain a few weeks shy of victory. By choosing to maintain their operations against the RAF and its coastal airfields, they eventually overcame Britain’s air defenses. This allowed them to come to a cease fire agreement which took Britain out of the war.

Then, in 1942, they invaded Russia and were successful in capturing Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, all within the space of a year. This led to the creation of Germania, an Empire which reached from Northern France to the Ural Mountains. In the Mediterranean, Italy became the dominant power, with possessions in the Balkans and all across North Africa. The US still went to war with Japan in the Pacific, where they were victorious, but in Europe, the Nazis and their Fascist allies were never defeated.

Thus the world was divided into two major power blocs. The US, Canada, Mexico and all of South America joined together and maintained alliances with India, Japan, China and Australia to safeguard against expansion into Asia and the Pacific. Germany, Italy, and their subservient allies came together to dominant Eurasia and set their eyes on the Middle East, Africa, and further East. Both sides developed nuclear weapons, and by 1960, tensions had reached an all-time breaking point.

Hence, the two historians bear witness to a different “Missile Crisis”, which still takes place in 1962, but was between the Axis and Allies, and actually took place. When the bombs begin to fall, they die, since the future they left is now erased from existence. In their last few moments, they realize the folly of tampering with timelines. Such things are just too complicated for people to handle!

And I was thinking about a possible epilogue chapter where the two main characters meet each other in the alternate future they have now created. The world they live in is a post-apocalyptic landscape, roughly ninety years since World War III, where life is hard and people live by a new form or “Iron Rule” – the rule of survival at all costs. Not sure, we’ll see…

So that’s my latest idea, a time traveling alternate future addressing World War II and the rise of neo-fascism in today’s world. I humbly submit to my followers for their approval. So tell me, what do you think?

Time Travel In Sci-Fi

Hey all. Have I said yet that it’s good to be back? Well, truth be told, it feels like I’ve only really got back into the swing of things in the past few days, and after a two week hiatus to boot. I also noticed that it’s been awhile since I’ve done a conceptual post, something dedicated to classic sci-fi and the concepts that make it so freakishly and enduringly cool!

And so I thought I’d tackle a very time (pun!) honored concept in science fiction today, that being the concept of time travel. Despite what many may think, the idea of going forwards or backwards in time is not a recent idea. It did not begin only after scientists theorized that time and space were expressions of the same phenomena – aka. relativity – nor with the development of quantum theory. However, these scientific discoveries did spur the concept on by introducing the idea of temporal paradoxesand the notion that there was such a thing as a space-time continuum resulting in multiple universes.

But I’m getting sidetracked here; and frankly, all this paradox and timelines stuff has been known to give me a headache! Instead, I’d rather look at some of the most renowned and celebrated instances of time travel in science fiction. Sidenote: As usual, I’ll be starting with literature and saving pop culture for another day. And of course, I won’t be covering everything, just the few examples that I think are the best.

Earliest Examples:
As already noted, the concept of being able to see into the past and future, with the purpose of changing the course of it, predates the idea of time travel as a scientific phenomena. In truth, it was often used in novels as a device to advance plot, character development, and offer moral instruction on the importance of choices and making the right ones.

A Christmas Carol:
This was certainly the case in Charles Dickens’ classic tale of selfishness and redemption, where a miserly capitalist is shown both his past and future in order to help him mend his ways. Published in 1843, A Christmas Carol has gone through countless renditions and adaptations over the years, with names like Ebeneezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim becoming household names that are synonymous with greed, pathos, and generosity of spirit.

Taking place on Christmas Eve, 1843, the story opens with a general description of Scrooge’s own life and success in the accounting trade, followed by an assessment of his character. Miserly, stingy, unsympathetic to the plight of the poor, his success is due in part to the fact that his business partner, a man much like him, has been dead for seven years, leaving everything to him.

After reluctantly letting his employee, Bob Cratchit, a poor but happy family man go home for the night, he is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. Marley warns him that for his life of greed, he is suffering eternal punishment, and tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts who will show him the error of his ways and teach him the true meaning of Christmas. These ghosts, which are named the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, all show Scrooge how his decisions to forsake love, family, and kinship for the sake of his money have left him lonely and heartbroken, which is the source of his cruelty. When he sees his future, which is a cold grave with no one to mourn or miss him, he realizes there is still time and vows to change his ways.

Encapsulating Dickens’ view of industrialization, class distinction, poverty and the exploitation of the English working class, Carol remains one of the best known examples of social commentary in English literature. It is also the first widely-known example where time travel was used as a plot device.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:
Published in 1889 and written by the venerable humorist Mark Twain, Yankee employs a great deal of Twain’s characteristic wit in order to dispel the 19th century notion that the Middle Ages were a time of romance and chivalry, instead showing them to be a time by ignorance, superstition and brutality.

The story begins when an engineer named Hank Morgen from Hartford, Connecticut suffers a head wound and finds himself inexplicably transported back in time to the court of Camelot. After realizing that he is living in the 6th century and, for all intents and purposes, the most technically proficient man on Earth, he begins using his skills and knowledge of the future to convince the people that he is a powerful magician.

As a result, he replaces Merlin as the chief sorcerer of the court and begins growing in fame and power. He then embarks on an industrialization program for England, establishing trade schools to teach modern concepts and English, thus elevating them from the Dark Ages. At his prompting, Arthur begins to travel the land and is convinced to make several enlightened reforms, including abolishing slavery and improving the lot of the peasants.

In the end, Hank is lured to the continent by the Papal authorities who naturally fear him. While he is gone, the Church issues an Interdict on his followers and activities, and Arthur and Lancelot go to war over Guinevere. As foretold by legend, Arthur dies at the hands of Sir Mordred before Hank can save him. Upon his return to England, a Papal Army comes for Hank and his followers, who end up fortifying themselves in Merlin’s Cave behind an electric fence and minefield while employing Gatling guns.

However, disease begins to set in and Hank himself is wounded and falls prey to illness. While lying in bed, his assistant sees Merlin casting a spell over him, one which he claims will make him sleep for 1300 years (putting him back in his own time). The story ends with the narrator, a man who is writing the tale down in the present, saying that Hank is lying unconscious on the floor of his factory, leading the reader to question whether or not it was all a dream.

An endorsement of rationalization, industrialization and Americanization, Twain’s tail not only challenges the notion that the Middle Ages were a time of ignorance, brutality and persecution, but shows how attempts to remedy the past, however well-intentioned, were doomed to fail. In a way, this proved to an ironic commentary on those who were reinterpreting the Middle Ages to suit their current woes about industrial civilization. To them, Twain would insist that it’s easy to glory a past you don’t have to live in!

The Time Machine:
As already mentioned, the concept of time travel was not new by the time that H.G. Wells wrote the book on the same subject. However, Wells was the first to approach it as a scientific phenomena and inspired just about all subsequent interpretations. Written in 1895, The Time Machine was one of several stories written by Wells that involved time travel. Much like his earlier story, The Chronic Argonauts, the story revolves around an inventor who builds a time machine for his own personal use.

Told from the point of the view of a man known only as “The Time Traveller”, the story consists of his account of his journeys into the distant future and what he encounters there. In his first journey, he travels to the year 802, 701 AD, where he discovers a world divided between two races of people – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

The former are a beautiful, elegant people, though they appear to have no real drive or curiosity, who live in Edenic communities. The latter are a race of brutish troglodytes who live underground and work the machinery that makes the Edenic world above possible. Every now and then, these people emerge to the surface at night to capture and eat one of the Eloi, an act of revenge against their oppressors.

After escaping from a near-death encounter with the Morlocks and retrieving his time machine, he travels ahead to roughly 30 million years from his own time. There he sees some of the last living things on a dying Earth, which appears to be covered by red lichens and populated only by crab-like creatures and butterflies. He jumps forward further by small increments and sees the Earth’s rotation gradually cease and the sun die, leaving the Earth a frozen heap where no life can live.

Clearly meant as a social commentary on class distinction in Britain of his day, The Time Machine was also a potential warning about the state of man. Taken to its extreme, the concept of industrialization and rationalization would lead to the production of two races of people – a leisure class with no discipline or survival skills and a class of brutalized, downtrodden workers who had gone backwards in terms of evolution. A fitting commentary on an age when the gap between the rich and poor was enormous, the former becoming rich of the work of the workers while they in turn lived in horrendous conditions.

The Modern Classics:
By the onset of the 20th century, time travel was becoming an increasingly popular concept for science fiction writers. Thanks to writer’s of the previous century, the purpose of using it for the sake of social commentary, allegory, or as a literary device for the sake of character development had become well established. Many of these were used effectively by authors to warn contemporary readers about the path human civilization was on. Another major development was the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” in 1905 and the proposal of multiple universes (as an interpretation of Quantum Theory). These added a certain degree of scientific merit to the idea. As a result, books involving time travel also began to be used to describe such phenomena as temporal paradoxes and circular time.

By His Bootstraps:
Written in 1941 by Robert A. Heinlein, this short story was amongst the first to introduce the concept of a time circular paradox, where the past and future becoming intertwined. This idea is something which Heinlein would return to several times over the years, where time travel creates a self-fulfilling scenario that the character must repeat, either in the past or in the future.

The story begins when a man (Bob) who is working on his doctoral thesis on time-travel is met by a time-traveling interloper named “Joe”. Joe looks familiar and shows him the small gateway that he used to travel back, and invites Bob to come with him 1000 years into the future. Suddenly, a man who looks just like Joe shows up and begins fighting with him, during which Bob is knocked through the gate.

He awakens in the future, and learns from an old man named Diktor that aliens were the one who built the time machine so they could fashion humanity into slaves. Joe realizes a 20th century man could become king in this world and that the man who invited him was his future self. As such, he travels back through the gate to meet himself in his apartment, this time using his own name to convince his past self to time travel. As before, another version of himself which shows up to fight him and his past self is knocked through.

This time around, his past self meets with Diktor, but this time goes  back into the past to procure all the items a 20th century man will need to be a ruler. He procures these, then goes back for the third time, but sooner so he can arrive at a time before Diktor is around. When he gets there, he sets himself up as chief and begins tampering with the time travel device so he can see its makers. Once he does, he’s shocked by their appearance and his hair turns white. After years of waiting, he meets his past self which comes through the gate to meet him. The circular paradox is now complete, with Bob realizing that he IS Diktor (the future word for “chief”) at that he must send himself back to ensure his own future.

At once complicated and containing several overlapping elements, the story introduced audiences to the very cool and timeless concepts of time loops and paradoxes. On the one hand, we see a future which seems fated to come true, but could not possibly exist without the intervention of the main character. Hence the concept of the circular time paradox. After learning the truth, the main character must conspire to ensure that everything that has happened happens again… otherwise the future which he inhabits will no longer exist.

A Sound of Thunder:
A short story which was first published by Ray Bradbury in 1952, A Sound of Thunder introduced readers to the concept of the “Butterfly Effect”. Beginning in 2055, the story opens on an era when time travel has been invented and is used for hunting safaris. The main characters are talking politics, remarking about how a fascist presidential candidate was defeated by a moderate.

The party then gets into their time machine and travels back in time several million years to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. Once they arrive, the travel guide (Travis) warns the hunters about the necessity of minimizing their effect on events, since any alterations to the distant past could snowball into catastrophic changes in the future. The hunters must also stay on a levitating path to avoid disrupting the environment and only kill animals which were going to die anyway.

When they find the T rex, one of the hunters (Eckels) loses his nerve and runs away. The two guides then kill the dinosaur seconds before a falling tree was meant to kill it, and go off in search for Eckels. After finding him and realizing that he ventured from the path, Travis orders him to remove the bullets from the T rex’s body (a necessary precaution) as penance. When they return to the present, they immediately notice subtle changes.

Words are spelt differently, people act differently, and the fascist candidate who had lost the election in their own time has been announced as the winner. Eckels removes his boot and discovers the culprit, a crushed butterfly that he stepped on while straying from the path. He begs the others to let him go back and make things right, but all that is heard in reply is the “sound of thunder” alluding to the fact the Travis shot Eckels.

In addition to being one of the most republished science fiction stories in history, this short story also introduced the concept of what would later be known as the Butterfly Effect, so named because of the butterfly featured in the story. As such, the story would go on to inspire countless similar science fiction tales over the course of the ensuing decades, serving as a cautionary tale about tampering with the laws of nature.

The End of Eternity:
Written by Isaac Asimov and released in 1955, Eternity is considered one of his best works, due to the way it dealt with the subject of time paradoxes. Striking a starkly different tone from his Robot and Foundation novels, the story is a mystery/thriller that deals with the subjects of time travel and social engineering.

It begins with the introduction of an organization known as Eternity that exists outside of time. Staffed by people from various time periods (known as Eternals), this group enters the temporal world at different points in time to make small alterations (called Reality Changes) that are designed to minimize human suffering over the course of history. They are also made up of “Technicians”, the people who execute those changes.

As the story opens, the main character, a Technician named Andrew Harlan, is tasked with going back and ensuring Eternity’s creation. His mission involves taking a young Eternal (Cooper) back in time with the “kettle”, i.e. the time machine, where he is to meet the historic inventor of Eternity (Vikkor Mallansohn) and teach him the principles of time travel so he can make it happen.

However, Harlan, embittered by Eternity politics and the fact that he is being denied contact with his lover (a non-Eternal named Noÿs), scrambles the time settings and sends Cooper to the wrong time. After his superior reasons with him and tells him of his own love affair with a non-Eternal, Harlan realizes he’s made a mistake and begins trying to find Cooper, whom he thinks he sent to the 20th century. Working on the theory that Cooper would have left an SOS behind in the past, he begins going through old artifacts. He discovers a message in a magazine from 1932 showing a Mushroom Cloud with the acrostic A-T-O-M. Since this predates the development of nuclear weapons, he determines that it must be a message.

Harlan then agrees to travel back in time to find Cooper, provided he can take his lover Noÿs with him. When they get there though, she reveals that she herself is an agent of Reality Change, from the centuries where Eternals cannot enter. She reveals that her own people prefer to watch time and not get involved, and that Eternity is denying human creativity and the development of space travel through their tampering. As such, they want to deny the creation of Eternity.

She tells him that all he need do is give up on finding Cooper and let her perform her mission, which is to help stimulate the development of nuclear science. Due to his own experiences with the Eternals, Harlan agrees that his organization may not be the best thing for humanity. He agrees to help her and the kettle disappears, indicating that Eternity no longer exists.

Slaughterhouse Five:
Written in 1969, Slaughterhouse Five is considered Kurt Vonnegut’s most influential work. Taking place during World War II, the story incorporates aspects of time travel and the larger questions of free will versus determinism. In addition, the themes of war and senseless slaughter run through the whole thing like a vein, with the setting, tone, and events aligning perfectly to convey a noire message to the reader.

The story opens with a disillusioned man named Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who is taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge. He and other POW’s are taken to a slaughterhouse in Dresden which has fallen into disuse since the war began. During the subsequent fire-bombing of the city, in which the entire town is destroyed, both the POW’s and German soldiers take cover in the basement.

While in the basement, Billy becomes “unstuck in time”, moving forward and backward and experiencing events out of sequences. In one time jump, he is kidnapped by aliens and placed in a zoo with a B-movie actress who is meant to be his mate. He learns from the aliens, known as the Tralfamadorians, that they can see in four dimensions and see the full progress of their lives. As such, they cannot change the course of them, but can focus on individual moments.

As he continues to travel, he witnesses different moments from his own life and relives various fantasies. He sees himself in the snow before his capture, experiences moments from his post-war life in the US as a mundane family man during the 50s and 60s, and even witnesses his own death at the hands of a petty thief named Paul Lazzaro in the late 70’s.

He learns that his death is the result of a string of events which have already begun. The man who kills him turns out to be the friend of another POW named Weary, who died of gangrene as a result of his capture. This, he blamed on Pilgrim, who he hates for his anti-war attitudes and thinks was responsible for their capture. By the 70’s, when the US has become Balkanized and Billy joins a movement dedicated to warning people about the alien threat, Lazzaro shoots him in front of an audience. In this way, Billy realizes he has become just like the Tralfamadorians, in that he too can see his fate and now must decide how to go about changing it.

In many ways, Vonnegut was on the ground floor of the post-modern trend, thanks to his use of a non-liner narrative where things happen out of sequence and time seems jumbled and confused. The book was also hailed for its multi-layered nature, combining the ideas of fate, free will, cause and effect, with a fatalistic sense of human nature and war in the same narrative. The fact that it takes place inside a slaughterhouse when outside, fire bombs are consuming a city, also demonstrated a thematic consistency that did not go unnoticed.

Recent Examples:
With time and our evolving understanding of history has come many new and exciting examples of time-travel in sci-fi. For one, writers began to incorporate ideas from the growing field of alternate history, as well as refining their ideas of what time travel would involve from a scientific standpoint. From this point onwards, time-travel novelist would either maintain a sense of paradox with their writing, showing how tampering in the past led to the future, or would use the idea of altering the past to show just how easily can diverge from what we know today.

A Rebel in Time:
Written in 1983 by Harry Harrison, the author of Make Room! Make Room! (which became the basis of the movie Soylent Green), Rebel is one of several science fiction novels that presents an alternate history of the American Civil War in which the Confederacy won. However,this novel was the first to combine this idea with the concept of time travel, where it was intervention from the future that led to the divergence.

The story opens with a racist Colonel named Wesley McCulloch who is being investigated by a special military committee for buying up large quantities of gold. Troy Hamon, the black soldier charged with looking into his activities, determines that McCulloch also murdered three people to cover his plans, which includes the theft of an antique Sten gun.

In time, he realizes that McCulloch’s plans involve the use of an experimental time machine, and that he hopes to deliver the Sten gun and the gold to Confederate forces in the past. With this easily-producible automatic weapon and plenty of gold to fund the war, the Confederacy will win. Hamon pursues McCulloch into the past and must fight his way through Civil War America, braving prejudice and the war in order to stop the plot from achieving fruition.

Because of the way it combined time travel and attempts to alter the past with alternate history, Rebel went on to inspire such renowned stories as The Guns as the South by Harry Turtledove, as well as the entire Southern Victory Series. Though not as popular as straightforward alternate histories, it was demonstrative of how easily some of history’s most pivotal events could have played out very differently.

Outlander:
Written by Diana Gabaldon and Published in 1991, this novel is the first is a series of seven that are known as the Outlander Series. In addition to winning the RITA Award for “Best romance novel” of 1992, the series is renowned for merging historical fiction and romance with the concept of time travel, though in a way that is arguably more fantasy than sci-fi.

The story takes place shortly after WWII and centers on a British Army nurse named Claire Randall and her husband Frank, an Oxford history professor who briefly worked for MI6. Reuniting after the war, they decide to take a second honeymoon in Scotland, during which time they plan to research Frank’s family tree. While there, they hear of the local standing stones of Craigh na Dun and decide to attend an evening with some of the locals.

The next day, she returns to the stones and experiences a strange sense of disorientation. Upon waking, she hears a battle nearby and goes to investigate. She sees an English army fighting with the Scots and comes across the very ancestor Frank has been researching, Captain Randall. Convinced that this is a reenactment, Claire plays along and pretends to be a robbed Englishwoman.

Before she can go with him, a Scotsman knocks out Randall and takes Claire prisoner. They claim to be fugitives from the Red-Coats and ask for her help in tending to their wounded, and her skills as a nurse earn her their trust. Afterward, they begin running again, and Claire comes to the realization that she must be in the past given the brutality of the situation and the fact that the lights of Inverness do not appear where they should. This causes her much grief, and the man she helped heal, Jamie, begins to comfort her.

Confused and disoriented, she is brought to the seat of power of the Clan McKenzie and questioned by the laird. She in unable to convince them of her story, but is allowed to stay with them on the condition that she not try to leave. Having come to terms with her situation, she tries to find a way to return to Craigh na Dun where she hopes to be able to return to the present. Around the county, Claire comes to be known as an “Sassenach”, an “Outlander”, but earns some trust through her knowledge of medicine. In addition, it is becoming clear that she and Jamie are beginning to take a shine to each other.

She learns that the McKenzie’s are Jacobites who are resisting English rule, that Captain Randall is the one oppressing them, and that he is still looking for her. The laird’s brother, Dougal, proposes that Claire marry Jamie, as a means of making her a Scotswoman and ensuring her protection. She agrees, thinking this is the only way to ensure her safety for the time being, and also because she thinks Jaime is the most suitable man there. As a gesture of trust, he reveals to her that he has been using an alias since he’s a wanted man. Not a McKenzie by birth, his real name is James Fraser.

They marry and have sex for the first time, but Claire finds herself tormented by thoughts of Frank, who she knows must be worried sick over her. After a near-disastrous escape attempt in which Captain Randall nearly rapes her, she returns to life in Castle Leoch and grows closer to Jamie. However, due to local superstitions and the jealousy of others, she and a fellow healer named Geilis Duncan are accused of witchcraft and sentenced to public whipping. Naturally, Jamie comes to their rescue and they ride out into the wilderness. Claire realizes that Geilis is also from the future when she notices a vaccination scar.

Once safely away, Claire finally tells Jamie the truth and he decides to return her to Craigh na Dun. However, she cannot bring herself to leave and decides to stay with Jamie, realizing that her love of him is greater than her love of Frank. Jamie then returns with her to Lallybroch where he secretly reclaims his role as Laird. However, things turns bad when Jamie is betrayed by one of his own to Captain Randall who sentences him to hang for his Jacobite activities. Claire and her kinsmen organize a rescue, during which Captain Randall is killed. She and Jamie escape to a monastery in France to contemplate the future, and Claire learns that she is pregnant with their first child…

The novel remains a favorite amongst fantasy and historical fiction fans alike because of its interweaving of real history with fantasy and romance. As the series goes on, Gabaldon dabbled in further examples of crossing historical fiction with romance, with Claire going back and forth through time and completing the loop her travel has initiated. In this way, her travels are shown to be a paradoxical phenomena, creating the very future she comes from and necessitating that she go into the past again.

Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus:
Orson Scott Card, the same writer who created the Ender’s Game series, released this complicated tale of time travel and historical tampering in 1996. As the first in the Pastwatch Series, this installment deals with the most controversial historical figure and subject in history: Christopher Columbus and European contact with the Americas in the late 15th/early 16th century.

The book contains two interwoven narratives which converge towards the end of the book. The first opens in the late 15th century where Christopher Columbus is preparing for his long voyage across the ocean, while the second takes place in the future where the planet is doomed and civilization is on the verge of collapse. Entering into this is a group of researchers who haves developed a machine called the “TruSite II” which gives them the ability to view and record events in the past.

In time, their work leads to the development of time travel and the group decides to send back agents to alter the past. Focusing on Columbus, who’s actions led to centuries of genocide and exploitation, the group concludes that if he did not arrive in the New World, history and technological development would have proceeded more slowly and evenly, leading to a better future.

However, the team soon realizes that they are not the first to tamper with history. In an alternate timeline, Columbus was never obsessed with going westward and instead led a final crusade to Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Aztec Empire fell and was replaced by an iron-wielding Tlaxcalans, who went on to establish a more modern, centralized state in central Mexico and pushed their influence far beyond the old Aztec borders.

When Portuguese traders finally did make contact with the New World, the Tlaxcalans kidnapped them and acquired the knowledge of firearms. Though exposure to smallpox did have a dire effect, the sparse amount of contact did not lead to full-scale pandemics and the Tlaxcalans were able to develop a natural immunity. By the 16th century, the Tlaxcalans used their knowledge of improved ship technology to sail to Europe and conquer it at a time when it was politically fragmented.

This timeline led to the development of its own Pastwatch, to whom the conquest of Europe by the Tlaxcalans was seen as the most dire event in history. As such, they traveled back in time and fed the ambitions of Columbus in order to act as a buffer against this conquest. However, their own tampering produced an equally dire, but opposite outcome: the conquest of the New World by Europe. With this in mind, the main characters begin to strive for a balance, a timeline in which neither hemisphere was conquered and both Europeans and Native Americans could acheive contact peacefully.

Ultimately, they succeed and Columbus’ wife, one of the agents, reveals to him near the end of his days what would have happened had they not intervened. After learning of the terrible events he would have had a hand in, Columbus weeps for days. His name and his title have thus been “redeemed”. By the end, Card gives readers a glimpse of a 20th century that resulted from this balance, a harmonious world where East and West came together for trade and mutual benefit, leading to the creation of an advanced utopia. In this future, scientist unearth the skulls and the time capsule of the three agents and hear their warnings about possible futures.

As a historian, this book appealed to me on many levels. Not only did it address one of the most contentious and controversial issues in all of recorded history, it also dealt a reality that is rarely ever addressed. For centuries, historians and social scientists have been trying to decipher why modernity turned out the way it did, with certain civilizations superseding others and colonizing the known world. Many modern scholars remain trapped in the past on this subject, with several still subscribing to outdated and even racist theories of “culture” and ideology being the cause.

However, it should be plain to anyone who looks closely enough that one pivotal event, aside from various geographical and environmental factors, was the real cause of this disparity. This was none other than the discovery” of the New World in the late 15th century by the Spanish. Thanks mainly to smallpox, Europeans managed to embark on a  program of conquest, genocide and plunder and would meet minimal resistance in the process.

And thanks to the introduction of countless tons of gold, silver, pearls, cotton, coffee, tobacco, spices, tomatoes, potatoes, avocados, chocolate, vanilla, pumpkins, beans, rice, squash, and more to the European economy and diet, Europeans grew fat and rich and shot ahead of their previously more advanced neighbors (the Arabs, Indians and Chines). This fueled further expansion into Africa and Asia, and also led to the discovery of more resources that would fuel industrial growth – i.e. the Americas vast stores of coal, minerals, and oil.

By examining the what ifs of history, and positing that another outcome was possible and just as undesirable, Scott creates a narrative that is not only realistic and deals with extremely relevant subject matter, but also instructive in that it demonstrates the importance of cooperation over conquest, trade and understanding over genocide and assimilation. I often wonder what would have happened had Columbus died of a heart-attack before venturing, or his ships had been destroyed like Cortez’s. Better yet, if Cortez had been killed in battle and never made it back to Cuba. That man was a royal douche!

Timeline:
A tale of historians who travel back in time, Timeline, released in 1999, contains Michael Crichton’s usual combination of fact, action and adventure. In this case, he combines aspects of real history and questions about quantum and multiverse theory with scenes of medieval warfare, as told through the eyes of modern historians who travel back to the time which they are studying.

After a series of strange events in the Arizona desert and an archaeological site in France, the main characters –  a group of medieval historians – are summoned to the headquarters of ITC (the company that is funding their research) and learn of a startling fact. After building a quantum time machine, one of their professors used it to travel back to the 14th century. Apparently, he went to the very site they have had under excavation, but then failed to return.

The researchers  – Chris, Kate, and Marek – all agree to go back and search for him, dressing in period costume and taking a security detail with them. However, they are attacked as soon as they arrive in the past, which leads to an accident in which a grenade rolls through the space-time aperture and their time machine is destroyed on the other side. What’s more, the local lord takes Kate and Marek prisoner.

Alone and cut off from the future, Chris heads for Castelgard to confront the Lord Oliver and meets a boy along the way. Apparently, this “boy” is actually the Lady Claire in disguise, a woman who has escaped from  Lord Oliver’s custody. Once they reach the castle, Chris is taken and he and Marek are challenged to a joust, which they prove victorious in. However, this leads Lord Oliver to order their deaths, and they are forced to plan their escape.

It is also revealed that Lord Oliver is holding Johnston in his fortress at La Roque, mainly because he believes Johnston knows of a secret passage that is its only weakness. With an army led by the infamous French mercenary Arnaut de Cervole approaching, he is desperately preparing for the siege. Johnston helps Oliver develops Greek Fire, even though he knows Oliver is meant to lose the siege, while Chris, Marek, Kate and Claire use clues from the future to search for the secret passage themselves.

Chris also realizes that someone else from the future is tracking them, a knight named Robert de Ker. Eventually he is revealed to be Rob Deckard, an ITC employee and former marine driven insane from too many time trips. This is apparently a consequence of traveling to different possible universes, which can result in the displacement and mismatching of different cells in the body. In Rob’s case, it is his neurons which have become mismatched, causing him to have psychotic episodes.

In the end, they all break into La Roque and do battle with hum and Deckard, killing them both. Back home, the ITC manage to finally repair the device and try to bring the team home. However, Marek chooses to stay behind with Claire, having realized that he always wanted to live in the past. When the others return and realize that the company head, Mr. Doniger, has no regard for human life and plans to use the time travel device commercially, they send him to 1348, the year of the first Black Death outbreak. In the end, Chris and Kate get married and find the graves of Marek and Claire in France marked with a familiar epitaph.

The Time Travellers Wife:
A slight twist on the classic story of time travel, this 2003 novel by Audrey Niffenegger explores the idea of time-travel as a genetic disorder. Inspired by Niffenegger’s own frustration with relationships, this novel is essentially a metaphor for the trials of true love. Classified as both science fiction and romance, the story is based on the themes of love, loss, free will, and communication, it also contains some rather interesting commentaries on existence and the nature of memory and experience.

As the title suggests, the story focuses on the life a man who suffers from Chrono-Displacement, a condition which causes him to involuntarily travel through time, and his wife, who is forced to endure stretches of time without him. The man, Henry, has been time-traveling for most of his life and apparently has no control over the process, though his destinations are largely places and times related to his own history. The trips are apparently tied to stress and other stimuli, making them unpredictable and undesirable.

His own timeline naturally converges with that of his wife, Clare, but at seemingly random points in her life. In each visit, their ages are mismatched, as are their memories of the other. Whereas Clare meets him in a natural chronological order, the visits are mismatched from Henry’s perspective. On one of his early visits (from her perspective), Henry gives her a list of the dates he will appear and she writes them in a diary. During another visit, he inadvertently reveals that they will be married in the future.

Once married, Clare has trouble bringing a pregnancy to term because of the genetic anomaly Henry may presumably be passing on to the fetus. After six miscarriages, Henry wishes to save Clare further pain and has a vasectomy. However a version of Henry from the past visits Clare one night and they make love, causing her to become pregnant with their daughter Alba. She too is diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement, but appears to have some control over it. Before she is born, Henry travels to the future and meets her when she is ten years old and learns that he died when she was five.

When he is 43, during what is to be his last year of life, Henry experiences a time slip which deposits him in a Chicago parking garage on a frigid winter night. Unable to find shelter and clothes (he always appears naked during a time slip) he suffers hypothermia and frostbite and has to have his feet amputated when he returns to the present. Henry and Clare both know that he will not survive many more time jumps. Then, on New Year’s Eve, 2006, Henry time travels into the middle of the Michigan woods in 1984 and is accidentally shot by Clare’s brother, a scene which was foreshadowed earlier in the novel. Henry returns to the present and dies in Clare’s arms.

Clare is devastated by Henry’s death and later finds a letter from Henry asking her to “stop waiting” for him, but which describes a moment in her future when she will see him again. The last scene in the book takes place when Clare is 82 years old and Henry is 43. She has been waiting for Henry, as she has done most of her life, and when he arrives they clasp each other for what may or may not be the last time. The story ends with it being implied that Clare dies in Henry’s arms, as he did in hers before.

Through the use of a non-linear narrative, Neffinenegger was able to effectively demonstrate the sense of yearning and loss that so often accompanies true love. In addition, her use as separate narratives was also an effective tool in that it demonstrated how different people can be in different places in a relationship at different times. Ultimately, every instance that Clare and Henry spend together is made sacred by the fact that neither of them knows how long they will have together, which illustrates beautifully the temporal nature of love itself. Or to put it another way, that story’s a sad, sad tale! Go hug the one you love right now! I’ll wait…

Summary:
And that’s all I got for now and my brain is fried from all this writing. Hence, I think I will leave the summaries and commentaries for another time (was that a pun? That sounded like a pun!) Besides, with this many examples, does anything really need to be said in the way of conclusions? Of course it does! The more examples you have, the more complex the patterns become. So expect some more on my time-travel series, coming real soon!

Nazis on the Moon?

Well, that seems to be the premise of this new dark sci-fi comedy. Based on the idea that the Nazis have been hiding on the Dark Side of the Moon since shortly before losing the war, the movie opens with their long-awaited offensive to retake Earth. The movie is called Iron Sky, and premiered in Europe back in April. Since then, the movies been making the round, going to cities and theaters wherever fans have requested it be shown.

And judging from the promos and teaser trailer, this movie is a seriously bad film! And I mean the kind of film that’s so bad, it’s awesome! It puts me in mind of more respectable science fiction, such as the alternate history classics of The Man In The High Castle and Fatherland, except those wre actually realistic portrayals of what thw world would be like had the Nazis won. Still, this premise seems much more fun!

Dystopia in Popular Culture

Picking up where I left off last time, I thought I’d get into some examples of how dystopian fiction has influenced popular culture. And given all the feedback I got on my previous post, I also wanted to incorporate some suggested titles as well. But, just to be clear, I still haven’t read Hunger Games, so please don’t ask about it!

Alright, so last time, I mentioned just about every examples of dystopian literature I could find. From the earliest examples of Candide and Gulliver’s Travellers, onto the more modern interpretations of The Time Machine and We, and culminating with classics like BNW and 1984, I essentially ended before I could get into how these novels have had an influence on film and other media. In addition to inspiring the written words, these classics have inspired an entire culture of iconography, symbolism and motifs.

Not surprising, really. Every work of dystopian fiction and satire has sought to create images in the reader’s mind, using highly specific descriptions in order to paint a scene and inspire the right mood. Whenever these novels have been adapted to film, or directors were simply trying to convey similar themes, the task of properly conveying it all visually has always been a hefty one. The same is true for graphic novels and any other visual medium. So today, just for fun, and perhaps to complete my romp through the realm of this inspired genre, here are some examples of dystopia in modern media:

Blade Runner:
Granted, Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?, a dystopian story in some respects, but not in the same way that the movie was. Whereas the novel took place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (circa 2019) which is sparsely populated and where a living animal is seen as a status symbol. In the movie, the year and location are the same, but the setting is starkly different. Here, it is a stuffy, polluted, mega-city made up of massive skyscrapers and giant animated billboards, where the streets are dirty and packed with people who spoke a strange dialect known as Cityspeak (check out my post on Cityspeak for on that).

And what made it all so awesome, aside from the plot, was the attention to detail. Director Ridley Scott, the same man who brought us Aliens, brought his usual artistic touch and a team of first-grade set designers to the table. Overall, they produced some pretty awesome concepts, ones which are still being praised to this day. Here are just a few:

The Tyrell Corp. building, which was kind of the focal point of the movie. Early on, we get a birds-eye view of it as Detective Deckard Cain (Harrison Ford) is being flown there in a Spinner (flying car). Later on, the leader of the Replicant party, Roy Batty, travels there as well seeking answers to some of life’s most basic questions.

For starters, the building is clearly based on a the design of a Ziggurat, the breed of ancient Babylon temple that inspired such legends as the “Tower of Babel”, and which serves as a clear representation for the almost godlike power Tyrell wields. The interior design, with its large columns, soft lighting, candles, an owl (a possible reference to Athena’s owl) and the way Tyrell can block out the sun at will all serve to further illustrate this point. That scene near the end where is dressed in lavish white robes also seemed pretty symbolic, I’d say!

And for those who read 1984, there is a possible encoded reference to the four ministries as well- Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty – all of which were pyramid-like in design. Coincidence? Who knows? All that matter is when it comes to massive structures that harken back to ancient Egypt and Mesapotamia, the symbolic value is clear. Much like the civilizations that built them, these things stood for power and dominion, both over lesser subjects and the afterlife itself. They were the ruler’s way of achieving immortality by creating something that embodied their power and would stand the test of time. As Shelley said in his poem “Ozymandias”: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

And when it comes right down to it, this old-world kind of mentality, updated for the modern age, is indispensable to any dystopian story: Absolute power, wielded by the few over the many and represented in conspicuous and obvious ways! In many cases, it comes in the form of totalitarian governments (a la The Party) who runs things with an iron fist and build massive government buildings to remind everyone of who’s in charge. But in other cases, it takes the form or corporate dominance, where the wealthy rule society like feudal barons while the rest live like serfs. And much like their bureaucratic peers, they choose to lord this by building lavish buildings to themselves and covering themselves with ornate symbols!

Another trademark bit of dystopian set design were the massive skyscrapers, complete with giant video-billboards. No doubt, these too were designed to give the impression of the control corporations had over the people of LA in the future. As if regular sized billboards ads weren’t enough, (or televised, print, bench, flier, blimp, and radio ads) now it seemed that corporate monopolies were splastering their logo’s on screens the size of buildings!

And just to make it realistic, Ridley Scott and his designers were also sure to use logos that were already big in the early 80′s and seemed destined to get bigger – Atari, Coca Cola, Pan Am Air, Cuisinart, Bell System. But interestingly enough, all of these companies suffered heavy losses after the movie’s release. The phenomena came to be known as the “Blade Runner Curse”. Strange, one would think audiences began associating them with dark imagery or something ;)

But personally, I think one of the most effective aspects of the movie’s look and feel came through in the construction of the streets. Here, Scott’s design team made sure that every shot was crammed full of people who whore plastic jumpers, dark glasses, cool headgear, and carried what looked like umbrellas with neon handles. Then came the street vendors who peddled food or exotic pets in the same neighborhoods, facades that were ashen grey in color, and all kinds of neon signs written in various languages. It painted quite the scene, one which can only be described by the words “Future Noire”.

Brazil: 
Directed by Terry Gilliam, an old-time member of the comedy troupe Monty Python and director of such movies as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, Brazil was a rather humorous take on the classic 1984. In it, we are presented with a dystopian society that is ruled by a totalitarian regime, but which is buffoonish and incompetent rather than exacting and brutal.

In addition, the people in this world are also overly-dependent on machinery which is rather unreliable and poorly maintained. And last of all, there is the main character of Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who works in a mind-numbing government job, lives in a small apartment, and is having prescient dreams about a woman and a man in mask who is torturing him.

The movie shared many plot and thematic elements with 1984, but much of its genius comes through in the set design and direction. Given that the aim of the movie was to present a world in which the machinery is as undependable as the bureaucracy, Gilliam decided to go with a look that would call to mind the kind of over-the-top aesthetics of past sci-fi films. While everything was admittedly grey, dark, and shot in wide and tilted angles, there was also a sort of comic, retro feel to the whole thing. This helped to establish the central premise of the movie, in which incompetence and mind-drudging inefficiency were what was destroying humanity, not a specific agenda.

In addition, Gillian had much to say about artifice and vanity in this film. Lowry’s mother, who plays an important role in the plot, is obsessed with plastic surgery which she hopes will make her look younger. Towards the end of the movie, Lowry dreams that his mother is attending the funeral of a friend who died as a result of too many invasive procedures. And in what can only be described as an moment of oedipal confusion, his mother even looks like Jill, the much younger woman he has fallen in love with!

An interesting take on 1984 isn’t it? Rather than following a philosophy like the one espoused by O’Brien, where the Party wields absolute control over reality and people’s minds, want to eliminate all emotion except hatred, and has destroyed any activities that do not serve their interests, the totalitarian regime in Brazil is instead motivated by laziness and a desire to cover its own ass. Not being wrong literally means more to them than the lives of their citizens. What better commentary is there on a bureaucratized society?

Judge Dredd:
Yes, the movie didn’t so well, and the script and plot were so simplistic that Stallone himself called it a “no-brainer”. But that doesn’t change the fact that the source material is actually one of the better graphic novels in existence, especially when it comes to depth and irony. Set in a post-apocalyptic world of the not-too-distant future, the comics take place for the most part inside “Mega City One”, one of several megalopolis’s that have sprung up in the US after a nuclear war which left it and Soviet Union utterly devastated.

Within this city, just about everything is automated and unemployment is almost universal. Every city block contains over fifty-thousand people, amounting to a population of about 400 million people per city. Due to overcrowding, massive unemployment and uncontrollable violence, the leaders of this future society created a quasi-fascist justice system whereby individual “Street Judges” (policemen) were charged with dispensing judgement and punishment on site. This had a stabilizing effect on society, but the problems remain…

Automatically, one can see a few things at work here. For starters, there’s the Hobbesian idea of man in the state of nature; how because of nuclear war, life became “nasty, brutish and short” and a tyrannical system was needed to put things back in order. In addition, there’s the whole “who polices the police?” side of things, where audiences naturally fear that the judges will abuse their power or fight to the death to hang onto it.

And last, there is the very real sociological concept of the “megalopolis”, the Northeastern mega city running from Virginia to Maine which was originally coined by French geographer Jean Gottmann. In the course of the comic’s history, it is made clear that Mega City One was not actually designed, but grew out of natural urban sprawl that predated the nuclear war. It was only after the war that it became a self-contained place where automation, unemployment and chaos become so rampant.

Now one might also get the impression that this was all meant to illustrate some preachy, “we made a mistake” kind of message (which is in fact what happened in the movie). But in truth, these issues are presented with a fair degree of subtly and irony in the graphic novel.

Knowing full well how his audience would react to fascist symbols and ideology, John Wager (creator) presented readers with a story that is loaded with both. For starters, the Judge’s symbol is an eagle, which bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi black eagle. The Judge’s uniform is also highly ornate and calls to mind the classical imperial motifs of Centurions and Gladiators. And the fact that Dredd’s face is never seen can only be seen as highly indicative. He’s a faceless law-giver, much like Stormtroopers or the SS.

What’s more, the people who sport these symbols and preach these values are presented as heroes. Judge Dredd, for all intents and purposes, is a social fascist who is bereft of  sentimentality, doubt or remorse over what he does. Unlike the other Judges, there’s no crime he won’t ignore, and he never stops for more than ten minutes at a time to rest in a sleep chamber, then he’s back on the job. He also has little sympathy for people who believe in enlightened reform or who criticize the Street Judges for their abuses of power.

The purpose of this always seemed to be for the sake of ironic social commentary. Rather than condemning the Judges and the system they represent (or endorsing them) we are meant to see how – under the right circumstances – something like this could very well happen!

THX 1138:
You know, its movies like this that remind us all that there was a time that George Lucas had talent, when he cared about thing like plots and inspired story-telling, and not special effects and merchandizing. But I’ll leave my riffs about the Star Wars prequels for another day. Right now, I will admit that there is plenty about this directorial debut worth praising, and not the least of which was the faithful dystopian tone it struck.

Set in a dystopian future where the human race is required by law to take drugs that suppress emotion and sexual desires, are controlled by android police, and all inhabitants worship a godlike being known as OMM 0910, the story is clearly a commentary on how rationalization and automation threatened to destroy humanity. In addition, there are clear and obvious parallels to novels like We, Brave New World and 1984.

For example, the people in this future are all given designations instead of names, the state sanctioned religion is reminiscent of Big Brother, and the mandatory use of mind altering drugs calls to mind Soma. And of course, the stark, clinical portrayal of society in the future is very similar to descriptions of the One State and Oceania in We and 1984. And let’s not forget the scene were android police torture and abuse the main character? Tell me that didn’t come directly out of the scenes where Winston was languishing in the Ministry of Love!

And of course the overall moral of the story, that love is precious and will fight the odds against the forces of cold rationality, this too was practically lifted from Orwell’s and Zamyatin ‘s classics! This is not a criticism, mind you. If anything, Lucas demonstrated a keen ability to adopt freely from novels and franchises in a way that really worked. Much as he would do with Star Wars just a few years later, he seemed to know where to borrow from and how to put it all together!

The Watchmen:
Now this was one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Lucky for me, it also falls into the realm of dystopian fiction, hence I can talk about it here! In addition to taking place in an alternate universe, the setting is one which is quite dark and gritty. Set in the 1980′s, which is the same period in which it was written, the story is of an alternate reality where the existence of superheroes has caused history to diverge quite a bit from our own. Technically, superheroes have been in existence for many decades, which helps to give the story a real sense of historicity.

However, it was with the service of superheroes in actual wars and government programs that caused history to shift. Beginning with Doctor Manhattan’s intervention in Vietnam and culminating in the development of cheap, renewable energy by Ozymandias (with Manhattan’s help), the Cold War took an unexpected turn. Russia was systematically beaten back to the point where it was becoming desperate and nuclear war seemed inevitable. Meanwhile, society began to decay as war began to occupy more and more of society’s attention and the inner cities were neglected and left to rot.

Told for the point of view of Rorschach, a borderline social fascist with deep-seated issues, the darkness and impending sense of doom really come through! As he investigates the death of the Comedian, a fellow superhero who’s death incites the whole plot, we learn how both he, the Watchmen, and society came to be the way it is. His own tragic story, and that of the Comedians, serves to illustrate how the American Dream failed and cynicism and fear took over.

But of course, the point with dystopian stories is not just to speculate, but to make a point about the time in which it was written. Looked at from this angle, the Watchmen was really telling us about the real world of the 1980′s, a world which had come very far since the post-war era in terms of technological, social and cultural development. And like many other cultural commentaries, a sense of failure and betrayal is at work. What happened to the post-war dream? What happened to the American Dream? How did poverty, crime, licentiousness and cynicism become so rampant? From Rorschach point of view, the Cold War is largely to blame, but so is human nature. And given that he is such a dark and messed up character, I don’t think his opinions were meant to be taken too seriously!

V for Vendetta:
Yet another awesome graphic novel, and one which also inspired a hit movie adaptation. A piece of speculative fiction, this series was produced in the 1980′s and was set in a near-future dystopian England. Over the years, this series’ thematic elements and symbolism have been compared to 1984. However, in truth, the story has much more in common with The Iron Heel and It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (which should have made my list of dystopian literature, dammit!) In these two novels, especially the latter, a fascist regime takes power by appealing to the people’s sense of moral purity and a desire for order, and in the end the people got more than they bargained for!

But alas, the story in the comic book version involves nuclear war and the transformation of the UK into “lifeboat Britain”. Given that the movie was made in the early 2000′s, the story had to be updated somewhat. There, the focus shifted to terrorism and the exploitation of fear – echoes of The Handmaids Tale and “Loose Change” there, but I digress. After being passed over by the nuclear holocaust, Britain found itself being flooded with refugees and victims of the war. Bit by bit, authoritarian measures were put into place to deal with the crisis, until eventually, the fascist government of Norsefire took over, and that’s when the real changes happened!

They’re motto: “Strength Through Purity, Purity through Faith” pretty much sums it up! In addition to pushing a religious agenda, they were also very much concerned with purging British society or minorities and “undesirables”. A police state was put into place where a series of departments – the Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Hands – were tasked with controlling and monitoring all aspects of society. The Eyes handled surveillance, the Ears listened to people’s by tapping their phones and bugging their homes, the Mouth disseminated propaganda, and the Hands investigated criminal activity. And of course all minorities, be they racial minorities, homosexuals, or just political dissidents, were sent to concentration camps where they were exterminated and experimented on.

Into all this enters the character of V, an anarchist revolutionary who is the product of one camp’s twisted experiments. As a result of their invasive procedures, he became an enigmatic genius/amnesiac with a serious chip on his shoulder who is now on a quest to pay the government back for its crimes. His famous disguise, the Guy Fawkes mask and robes of black and red, are as intrinsic to establishing his character as his monologues and affinity for blowing up government buildings!

Judging by the color scheme alone, one immediately can tell that this man is an anarchist by his use of the color black (or anarcho-syndicalist seeing as how he combines it with red). The mask is a further indication of this, given that Guy Fawkes was a radical who tried to blow up parliament because he believes any vestige of government to be anathema to freedom. So in the end, we can see that this a man who wants to bring down the system and is reaching into Britain’s forgotten past to resurrect the idea of civil liberty.

In contrast, Norsefire’s logo was pretty straightforward too. In the comic, Norsefire represented itself on its “motivational posters” with a set of white wings with a space in the middle that was in the shape of a cross, and behind it lay flames. This is obviously meant to conjure up images of religious propriety, or holy war, and of action, all of which are clear allusions to fascist and religious-right iconography. It was also meant, in my opinion, to call to mind Britain’s Action Party, a fascist political group that played a small but influential role in British political life during the 1970′s.

In any case, one can see several staples of dystopia at work in this series, hence why it earned a loyal following and garnered so much critical acclaim. In addition to the idea of a nuclear war breeding totalitarian regime in Britain (right out of 1984), of “Lifeboat Britain” giving rise to a fascist regime (which may have helped to inspire the novel Children of Men) and countless allusions to Nazism and how it really could take root in Britain – which calls to mind Orwell’s essay “England Your England” where he basically asserted that it couldn’t.

Final Thoughts:
Wow, this sort of stuff makes me feel head-heavy and tired! It seems that when you get into a subject as rich as dystopian literature and its various offshoots, there’s no shortage of material! But I think I’ve learned something from all of this and it’s important that I get it right. So bear with me…

As I said in my last post, utopian literature predates dystopian by a couple centuries at least. And I also focused on the differences between the two, how utopian lit shows our failures by using a prefect society as a comparison while dystopian societies show the logical outcome of our most worrisome flaws. However, I’ve now come to think that the issue is far more complicated than all that. For starters, one can find elements of the former in the latter and vice-versa. What’s more, utopian novels and treatises were often loaded with irony, at times truncated themselves to make the point that perfect societies were not so perfect, or perhaps unattainable.

On the other hand, all dystopian novels take as their starting point the idea of a failed utopia. Whether it was a willful lie (as O’Brien revealed in 1984) or an attempt at perfection gone wrong, all dystopians arose out of attempt to create a “perfect society”. In the case of the classics written after the 18th century, the inspiration for this is clear. Beginning with the French Revolution, then the Russian, and countless other revolutions who’s aim was to radically transform society, it seemed that every attempt to create “real equality” and an “earthly paradise” was doomed to result in tyranny and abuse. Sometimes horribly so!

But the earlier utopian writers didn’t have these failed social experiments to point to. In their case, saying that utopias were unattainable would have had to have been purely philosophical. And examples abound! The very word Utopia, for example, is Greek for “no-place”. And the narrator of this book, the man who is an apparent specialist on this fabled society, is named Raphael Hythloday. This last name has a Greek root which loosely translates to “expert in nonsense”. Samuel Butler, another utopian writer, named his fictional society Erewhon, which is simply “Nowhere” written backwards. In addition, in his “perfect” society, people are punished for being sick and treated for criminal behavior, an inversion of the usual procedure!

I guess its like the dividing line between heaven and hell, or revelation and madness. Somehow, the line is fine, and one misstep can take you from one to the other in the blink of an eye! And, as with everything else, we carry these things with us  and project them wherever we go. Well… that was deep! Stay tuned, I’m sure to have something more cheerful for next time!

Sickness, more Alternate History, and some coming reviews…

Sickness, more Alternate History, and some coming reviews…

I hate being sick! Whenever the seasons change for me, I tend to come down with one of those colds that comes on hard and takes forever to leave. Well, this Fall season has been a double whammy, seems I’ve gotten sick twice in the last four weeks, which has meant a month of convalescing I could totally do without! But at least its given me time to ponder future writing projects.

For starters, I had an idea for an alternate history novel of my own. Its been something I’ve been interested in of late, as my reviews of Man in the High Castle, Fatherland and Guns of the South will attest. Reviewing Rabbletown by Mr. Attwood also gave me another push; somehow reading other people’s work always inspires me to write more of my own. And if there’s one thing I learned from reading other works of historical fiction, it is that there are two basic trends to every story.

1. History diverges due to key events happening just a little bit differently.
2. Ultimately, things converge again and familiar patterns reassert themselves.

Or, to put it mathematically, H = (Ce + Ha) / Env, where H is history, Ce is the Confluence of Events, Ha is human agency and Env is environmental (i.e. external) mitigating factors. Alteration of one (i.e. human agency) is what allows for divergence, but in the end, the other factors assert themselves and balance is restored. Okay, I totally made that up and it was unbelievably geeky! But also kinda cool, right? Ah whatever, my idea:

Red Sky At Night:

A working title, but one which was suggested to me by the maestra of title work (hi Katrina!) And given the title, one might suspect that Communism and/or Communists are the focus. They would be right! My story deals with a question that I’ve been pondering for a long time and with all the fiction I’ve read of late, stuff that deals with similar questions and “what ifs”, I began to turn it into an idea. In short, my story is based on the question of what would have happened had Leon Trotsky come to be leader of the Soviet Union instead of Stalin?

To be fair, this question has been asked by generations of historians and communists alike, particularly the latter group who wanted to distance themselves from Stalin after the full weight of his crimes and megalomania had been exposed. But for historians, the question is more academic, motivating by genuine interest instead of personal beliefs. Overall, they are simply interested in whether or not Trotsky would have been any gentler, or the course of Soviet history any different, had he been in charge.

But first, a little preamble. You see, it is one of the great questions of history why Trotsky did not disavow Stalin when he had the chance. Before his death, Vladimir Ilyich Ilyanov (aka. Lenin) wrote in his “Final Will and Testament” that Stalin was a rude, ruthless man who should never be allowed to have power. Trotsky was seen as the natural successor, and this Will could have shattered Stalin’s support. Stalin’s allies helped him to prevent the Will from being revealed at the 12th Party Congress; however, at the 13th, Trotsky could have revealed it to the Party and done irreperable harm to Stalin’s reputation. Instead, he made conciliatory speech that was intended to heal the rift between himself and Stalin’s followers.

However, this did not prevent Trotsky from being ejected from the Party, put into exile and murdered some years later. So the question of why – why DIDN’T Trotsky denounce Stalin when he had the chance? – has never been successfully answered. We can assume any number of things, but it is at this point irrelevant. The real question, as far as my idea is concerned, is what would have happened had he gone through with it? And that’s where things get fun… if you’re a history geek anyway!

For one, Trotsky wouldn’t have launched Stalin’s crash industrialization programs (aka. the Five Year Plans) in the later 20’s. In all likelihood, he would have continued Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP, which allowed for a degree of privatization) and when the big economic crisis loomed, have appointed Bukharin to deal with it (as opposed to purging him as Stalin did). This would have led to the slow recovery of the Soviet economy, and when the Great Depression hit in 1929, Russia would have continued to be spared the worst ravages of it while similarly showing signs of growth.

In addition, the Communists in China would not have been cut off as they had been by Stalin in the 1920’s. Chiang Kai-shek would have continued to fight them, but there would have been no massacre, meaning the Chinese communists would have been stronger and in a better position to dictate terms to Chiang when the Japanese invaded in the late 20’s. As a result, the Japanese army would have encountered stiffer, unified resistance as it fought its way south years later.

Similarly, in Europe, when the Nazi’s come to power in 33, Trotsky would have thrown his country’s support behind the German Social Democrats and would have committed the Comintern (Communist International Organization) to fighting Hitler once he seized power. Over the course of the next few years, during the re-militarizing of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the Spanish Civil War, and the Sudenten crisis, Russia would have been the most outspoken advocate for resistance.

This had the effect of inspiring people from other nations, particularly France, England and Czechoslovakia, into doing the same, often in defiance of their own governments who sought accommodation. Combined with the fact that Russia’s heavily regulated economy had avoided the scourges of the Depression, these acts of support would convince many foreign nationals of the need to stand with Russia. And without Stalin’s own paranoia and megalomania to discredit and embarrass the Soviet Union and its supporters, these efforts were far more successful.

Finally, after years of advocating Collective Security through the United Nations, Trotsky’s Foreign Commissar – Maxim Litvinov – saw his efforts to create an anti-fascist alliance comes together. During the Sudeten Crisis of 38, Hitler found himself being resisted on all sides. France declared that it would mobilize to help the Czechs since Russia was promising the same. Britain, fearing a Communist victory in the next election, mobilized to pressure Poland and Romania to come to a right of passage agreement with Russia, rather than pressuring Czech president Benes to concede the Sudetenland to Germany. As a result, Hitler was overruled by his own commanders and forced to stand down.

Hilter was unable to recover from this political setback, and when Germany similarly suffered an economic recession a year later, his support dwindled further. By the end of 1939, he found himself ousted from power and the SPD was restored. Mussolini and Franco, one-time allies of Hitler’s, were also brought to heal, the Italian dictator going as far as to relinquish his countries control of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and remove all his troops from the Balkans. In Asia, Japan also found itself without a friend and was forced to withdraw from the Chinese mainland. Europe and the world celebrated as it seemed that the aggressors had been contained and another world war had been averted.

But this jubilant mood did not last long. Without World War II and the post-war reconstruction to stimulate the economies of the western nations, the Depression continued for several more years. The post-war population boom similarly did not take place. Instead, Europe and the Anglosphere witnessed slow recovery as nations on the continent resorted to increasingly socialist measures to address their economic woes and closer trade ties were established with Russia. Russia, now enjoying cordial ties to most European nations, similarly began to open its economy and its borders to foreign investment and tourism. By the late 40’s, most economies had pulled out of the Depression through a combination of social programs and regulated trade.

This had the added effect of creating a rift between the Continent and Britain, a country that prided itself on its free markets and traditional liberal approach. As socialism began to take root from Lisbon to Vladivostok, Britain sought new alliances to protect its way of life. They found it in the US, which was once again experiencing a Red Scare and cracking down on communists, labor leaders and protesters. Together, they created a secret alliance to protect their mutual interests and continued to eye the Continent with suspicion.

Relations were further strained when in the 1950’s, India began to demand independence. Without the threat of Hitler, the British government had never come to an agreement with Ghandi for the sake of independence. What’s more, agitation on behalf of Europe’s new socialist organizations became a constant source of irritation. Though France was loath to give up its own Empire, pressure from the League and its own populace was mounting. In time, France gave up trying to work with Britain to find a common solution, began disbanding its own empire and urged Britain to do the same. Britain refused and held on to its possessions, but by the early 60’s, virtually every French speaking colony was free and joined the League of Nations.

Which brings me to the opening of my story. It is the early 60’s, the world is divided between two major blocs – the League of Nations and the Anglo-American Alliance – and in between are dozens of nations that are either neutral or part of one or the others sphere of influence. Relations between the two sides are strained as competition for markets, alliances and weapons have reached a tipping point, and some are beginning to fear the possibility of open war. Within this talk of war are even more frightening rumors that both sides are researching advanced technologies – rockets, jet engines, super computers, and even (God forbid!) atomic weapons…

So as you can see, history unfolded quite differently due to the presence of one man instead of another. However, in time, the familiar patterns reasserted themselves. While World War II did not take place from 39-45, it does appear on the horizon by 1960. While there was no Cold War to speak of after 45′ between two nuclear-armed superpowers, a state of detente exists between two similar global powers by the late 50’s with the prospect of a nuclear war by the early 60’s.

That’s all I got for now. More to follow just as soon as Data Miners is complete and my others ideas have panned out. That’s the fun thing about alternate histories though isn’t it? Since they have to do with past events, no one can ever accuse you of not being “current”, right? Who knows? If its successful, I might even write a sequel, Red Sky At Morning, about the aftermath. Thank you honey (my wife) for THAT title idea!

Coming Reviews:

On top of that, tackling “McDune” franchise in a more comprehensive way inspired me to do a more in-depth review of both the Legends and Hunters/Sandworms of Dune series. I’ve shellacked the latter ones before, but I’d like nothing better than giving them a good, specific thrashing! Fans of the elder Herbert, unite and hear me shellack! So, in the coming weeks, I hope to do a review of Hunters, the Machine Crusade, and possibly the Battle of Corrin and Sandworms as well. And since I’m almost finished with the A Song of Fire and Ice series (i.e. Game of Thrones, etc) I might publish some thoughts on them too. Can’t wait for season two of the miniseries! Go Starks! Screw the Lannisters!

P.S. for those who don’t know, Katrina runs a fun and fascinating website named Were You Wondering? She even lets me contribute for some reason… Here’s the link:
wereyouwondering.com

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Alternate Histories…

When it comes to science fiction, alternate histories are a special kind of sub-genre. They explore the what ifs of history, challenge our notions of inevitability, and open up whole worlds based on what could have been. They are a source of fantasy and speculation on the one hand, offering the reader a chance to explore endless possibilities, and realism on the other, showing how a drastically different world can be entirely plausible.

Some might ask why this sort of thing would be considered sci-fi at all. Why not simply file it under the heading of historical fiction next to all those recreations or Dan Brown novels (Ha! Take that, Brown!)? Well, the answer is that, like time travel novels, there is a scientific basis for this kind of story. I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the Multiverse or Alternate Universes hypothesis. In essence, these theories arise out of quantum mechanics as well as pure fantasy, positing that there may be an unlimited number of alternate universes in which all possible realities have been realized.

So really, creating a world where things unfolded differently from our own is not only fun and creative, its also a relatively scientific approach. Who’s to say that this world doesn’t exist somewhere out there, in a different dimension of the universe as a separate quantum reality? Hell, there may very well be countless such realities paralleling our own. And imagining how and why things unfolded differently in any one of them is what makes them fun!

All that being said, let me get into some prime examples of Alternate History and what was good about them. For starters, the classic tale by Philip K. Dick and the world where the Allies LOST the Second World War.

Man In The High Castle:
This story takes place in the US during the 1960’s where a different kind of Cold War is brewing between two superpowers. But unlike the world that WE know, in this world those superpowers are Japan and Germany. After losing the Second World War, the US was divided between these two powers, a loose federation of Midwestern states is currently unoccupied between them, and Jews, Africans and other “undesirables” have all but been exterminated. The rest of the world is similarly divided, falling into either the Greater German Reich, the Japanese Empire, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, or the Italian Empire.

Man In The High Castle, Map

The reasons for this are made clear throughout. For one, the assassination attempt of FDR by Giuseppe Zangara’s in 1933 was successful. As a result, the US experienced a weak string of governments led by FDR’s VP John Nance Garner and then Republican John W. Bricker. Without FDR’s leadership, America never recovered from the Great Depression and was unable to offer military assistance to Britain and Russia or defend itself against Japan when WWII broke out. As a result, the Axis powers won and the US itself was conquered and divided by 1948.

In the world which resulted, the Mediterranean has also been drained, Africa has been sterilized through the worst manifestation of the Reich’s human experiments, and the Reich is sending people to the Moon and further into space. Technology has advanced quicker within the Reich, but at a tremendous cost in human terms, and the resulting impact on the Reich’s culture is evident everywhere. Madness and mass murder have become a permanent part of their psychology, which is part of the reason why they are planning on war again. The Japanese sphere is much more peaceful and phlegmatic by comparison, but technologically less advanced. In any coming conflict, they will be at a disadvantage and they know it!

Enter into this world a series of characters who represent the various facets of society. There’s the Japanese Trade missioner in San Francisco, Nobusuke Tagomi, Mr. Baynes, a Captain in Reich Naval Counter-Intelligence who poses as a Swedish Industrialist, Frank Frink, a secret Jew who is trying to start a jewelry business with his partner, Wyndam-Mason, an industrialist and the former boss of Frink, Robert Childan, an American antiquities dealer who sells his wares to Japanese customers who are interested in owning examples of pre-war Americana, and Juliana Frink, a Judo instructor and Frank’s ex-wife.

In the course of the story, we find that Baynes is traveling to San Francisco to meet with Tagomi, ostensibly as part of a trade mission, but really to deliver a warning. Germany is gearing up for war with Japan and plans on using nukes! Mason introduces the subject of the book known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, an alternate history that deals with the subject of how WWII could have been won. Frink and his partner begin manufacturing jewelry in the hopes of selling it through Childan, who does good business with antiquities but finds that innovative new things are not appealing to his Japanese customer base. And finally, we see that Juliana, after hooking up with a Reich secret agent, is traveling to middle America to find the author of Grasshopper, a man known by his signature – “Man In The High Castle”. The Reich wants this man dead, for obvious reasons.

By books end, Juliana kills the German agent once she discovers his identity and finds the man for herself. She learns that, in spite of the mystery surrounding him, he is actually a perfectly normal man who was inspired to create something groundbreaking. His inspiration for the book apparently came from the Oracle, an aspect of the I Ching which people use to ordain the future (and which plays a central role in this story). How he applies the Oracle to past events is never fully explained, but the point is clear. By book’s end Juliana realizes that they are living in the wrong reality. Germany and Japan were meant to have lost the war and the history was meant to unfold differently.

While difficult to follow at times, mainly because of the sort of stream of consciousness way PKD writes, this book was fascinating and is the perfect example of an alternate history. The plot device of the book, itself an alternate history, illustrates beautifully how history unfolded differently in this alternate universe and spares the reader from having to read through an intro that explains how it all happened. And aside from some debatable scenarios, like the draining of the Mediterranean, most of what goes on in it seems highly plausible.

Fatherland:
Another example of an alternate history in which the Axis once again won World War II, but did not conquer the New World. In addition to being a novel, it was a adapted into a TV movie starring Rutger Hauer, Miranda Richardson and Peter Vaughan. The author, Robert Harris, has done many works of historical fiction, including Enigma (also adapted into a movie), the Roman historical novel of Pompeii, and a trilogy centered on Cicero (Imperium, Lustra, and Conspirata). And though Fatherland does resemble Man in the High Castle in many respects, it is arguably more realistic and novel in its approach.

The story opens in the Greater German Reich in 1965 after a murder has taken place. Investigating this murder is Xavier March (played by Rutger Hauer in the movie), an investigator working for the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo). The victim is a high-ranking Nazi named Josef Bühler, and his death was meant to look like an accident. As he investigates further, he finds that Bühler’s death is linked to several deaths of high-ranking Nazis who lived through the war. In each case, their deaths are made to look like accidents.

At the same time, Charlotte “Charlie” Maguire, an American journalist, has come to the Reich to witness Adolf Hitler’s 75th birthday. This event is also being used by the Reich to heal the rift between the US and Germany, as there has been a state of detente between the two since Second World War. While in Germany, she is slipped a package from a stranger containing details about Bühler and begins looking into it herself. In time, March and Maguire meet up and begin exchanging information, hoping to discover the truth behind all the deaths.

In time, they come to uncover that the deaths are part of a cover-up conspiracy whereby the planners of the Holocaust are being eliminated one by one. This is being done in preparation for the meeting between Hitler and Josheph P. Kennedy (the president of the US in this story), basically to ensure that Germany’s crimes don’t get in the way of a new alliance. When the Gestapo get wind of their discovery, March is arrested and tortured, but Maquire escapes and heads for Switzerland with the proof they’ve found.

March is eventually freed with the help of the chief of Kripo, but quickly realizes his rescue was staged so he might lead them to Macquire. He instead heads for Auschwitz, which has been dismantled since the war, looking for some indication of what went on there. He soon finds bricks in the undergrowth, indicating the existence of old structures. Satisfied that it was real, he pulls out his gun and prepares for the inevitable.

The story not only does a good job of postulating what would have happened had Germany won the war (i.e. the Holocaust would have been covered up and disavowed by later generations in order to protect Germany’s reputation), but also on how this victory came to be. In addition to Reinhard Heydrich (the chief of Reich security during WWII) surviving his assassination attempt in 1942, the Germans also learned that the British had cracked their Enigma codes and changed them, thus being able to successfully cut off Britain with their U-boa ts and starve it into submission by ’44. In the East, the Germans also manage to defeat the Russians in the Caucasus in 42′, thus securing the Baku oil fields, cutting off Moscow from supply and finishing them off by 43′.

With victory in Europe complete, they then begin testing their own nuclear weapons and developing “V-3” intercontinental rockets by 46′. However, the US wins in the Pacific and drops their own nukes on Japan, ending the war there and leading to a state of Cold War between the US and Germany. Thus, in this alternate world, it is the US and Germany that are the global, nuclear superpowers rather than the US and USSR. The story also ends on a cliffhanger note, leaving the reader to wonder if war breaks out between the US and Germany and whether or not the main characters survive.

However, not all alternate histories revolve around WWII or even recent events. Some go much farther back in time, tackling pivotal events like the “discovery” of the New World, or the fall of Rome, or, in the case of Harry Turtledove, the outcome of the American Civil War. This is an especially good example of alternate history because of its apparent plausibility.

Guns of the South:
In this story, historian Harry Turtledove explores the very real possibility of what would have happened had the South won the war. It involves some South African ultra-nationalists (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging) traveling back in time to supply Robert E Lee’s army with AK-47’s and nitroglycerine tablets (to treat Lee’s heart condition), thus ensuring a Southern victory at Gettysburg and in the 1864 campaign. The motives for this aid are made clear in the course of the story when Lee finally questions the helpful men who’s accents and technology they find strange and intriguing.

In essence, the leader of the time travelers (known as the AWB, the anglicized version of which is “America Will Break”) tells Lee that in 2014, where they have come from, white supremacy has not endured and that in South Africa by their time, blacks have eclipsed whites as the dominant power. They feel that the only way white supremacy will survive is if the American South won the Civil War, thus ensuring that it would have a home in the US in the future. Lee accepts their help, and the Confederates eventually win the Civil War and the Union, England and France are forced to recognize the CSA.

What follows this is not only intriguing but highly plausible. Lee becomes president of the new south and abolishes slavery, in keeping with his views and the reality of the post-war situation. Not only is slavery untenable from a moral standpoint in his view, Lee knows that forcing former slaves to return to the plantations will only lead to violence and spur on black guerrillas who are now operating throughout the Confederacy. At his inauguration however, men from the AWB attempt to kill him with Uzis and end up murdering his wife, VP and several dignitaries. Lee then seizes their HQ and finds many more things from the future (like lightbulbs and books about the marginalization of racism in the future). He then successfully uses these books to convince his congressmen that slavery is obsolete and must be condemned. Abolition is thus passed in the South without incident.

The story ends with the Union, angered by British recognition and support of the South, invading Canada. Also, Lee is made aware of the fact that they are developing their own version of the AK-47 in case of future war. However, he remains convinced that the CSA will maintain its technological advantage, and will in time catch up with the North in terms of industry and be able to defend itself if worse comes to worse.

Having completed this one volume, Turtledove went on to create ELEVEN more books in the series, drawing out this alternate history thread and creating a very plausible timeline in the end. To sum it succinctly, the US enjoys mostly peaceful relations with the CSA for about fifty years, but angry over England and France’s support of the CSA, aligns itself with the new power in Europe at the end of the end of the 19th century – The German Empire! As the alliances take shape in the early 20th century, it’s Germany, Austria-Hungary and the USA versus Britain, France, Russia and the CSA. Neat huh? One can see without much effort how this will shake things up!

In the US too, politics change as the Republican Party is blamed for losing the war. It disappears and Lincoln, himself despised, ends up joining the Socialist Party, the only rival to the Democrats. With America and Germany as allies, cultural changes occur as well, such as fine mustaches becoming all the rage. This is in reference to Kaiser Wilhelm who was renowned for having a bushy soup strainer on his upper lip!

But its the wars where the real change occurs. When World War I comes around, America is immediately involved and the stalemate of trench warfare is seen running across the Mississippi river and also between Canada – part of the British empire – and the northern US. The black former slaves of the Confederacy, freed by President Robert E. Lee in the 1880s but then left to rot, rise in a Communist-backed revolt in 1915 but are ruthlessly crushed. In the end, the US army conquers Canada in 1917 with the use of tanks and breaks through the Confederate lines in Kentucky and Virginia. Russia is similarly brought out of the war by a revolution in this timeline, but not a Communist one. The US navy then turns its attention to Britain and puts up a blockage with starves it into submission. The USA and Germany have won the war.

Also similar to real history, the victorious powers impose harsh peace terms on the losers, complete with territorial losses, “war guilt” clauses, reparations, and disarmament. Politics thus become radicalised in the defeated powers – Britain, France and the Confederacy – and fascist parties gain control in all of them. The Second World War then arrives on schedule after a demagogue who is voted in in the CSA who resembles Hitler, though his hatred is aimed not at Jews but at blacks. The war opens with a Confederate blitzkrieg into Ohio that almost cuts the US in half, but in time, the weight of numbers begins to swing the balance the other way. Much like in the real WWII, the death camps run by the Freedom Party to exterminate the South’s blacks continue to run full blast, even as their armies are in full retreat.

Both sides are also racing for nuclear weapons, and some are used in the end – but Germany and the USA have more of them than Britain and the CSA, so the victors in the First World War win once again. And this time, the Confederacy is fully occupied and formally abolished. The United States is reunited after generations of disunity, but a genuine reunification will not come for many generations, if at all.

Thus, while some small changes in historical events led to some rather cataclysmic changes in Turtledove’s story, things pretty much meet up with real history in the end and come to resemble the world as we know it today. Russia is not Communist, and the Cold War of the post-WWII era is markedly different, but the general outlines are the same. So in a way, his story is just like PKD’s and Harris’ in that things diverge in the beginning but come back to what we, the readers, interpret as the normal course of history in the end. Hmmm, one might construe that their is a point in all this, a lesson if you will. And in that, they’d be right!

The Lesson of Alternate History(?):
This humble narrator would suggest that if there is a lesson to be learned from Alternate Histories, it is that the force of history is a powerful, weighty thing and that while small changes can have a big impact, the general pattern reasserts itself before too long. At least, that is what the authors in question appear to be saying. In PKD’s Castle, the story ends with the character of Juliana Frink realizing that Germany and Japan lost the war and that the author of the alternate history book wrote it for just that reason. Fatherland ends with every indication that the Holocaust will be revealed and that the US and Germany will remain enemies. And Turtledove’s Guns of the South, though it takes about half a billion words to get there, ends with WWI and II playing out pretty much the same as they did in real life.

But as I’m sure someone wise might have said (might have just been me!), books tell us far more about the author than the subject. It could be that history is a chaotic arbitrary process and the idea that it will meet up with us or overcome obstacles that are artificially put in place is an illusion. For all we know, causation and inevitability are things we impose based on a false consciousness, that we believe we are where we are meant to be because we have to. That idea is often explored in alternate history as well, where the characters believe that their own timelines are the “right” one and that if tampering took place, it was for ill. However, the stories always seem to end with things going back to the way they were meant to be. Everyone’s happy, or at least, a sense of balance is restored.

Either way, it tells us much about ourselves, doesn’t it? We are creatures who like to tamper with things, who like to ask “what if” and experiment with the natural order. But in the end, we also depend on that order and want to know that it will unfold as its meant to. Whether its an illusion or its real, its one of the many things without which, we would be lost!

Sidenote: Shameless plug, but it so happens I wrote some articles on the subjects of the multiverse and alternate universes. They are available at Universe Today.com, here are the links:

Multiverse Theory
Altnernate Universe