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When Alternate History Denies History

by Kevin Ahearn

This letter, addressed to Science Fiction Weekly, takes strong exception to reviews that heap praise upon authors who, in Kevin Ahearn’s view, ought to know better...

SFW [Science Fiction Weekly]:

Orlando Pantoja's excellent letter blasting SFW's review of Paycheck as "far too generous for this despicable hack job" and challenging "Science Fiction Weekly, as a SCI-FI Channel web site, to raise its standards and stop being a cheerleader" was long overdue, but did not go far enough.

Consider Adam-Troy Castro's review of Harry Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies, "an alternate present where the Nazis won World War II and the Thousand-Year Reich now dominates much of the world."

Calling Turtledove the master of this subgenre, no mention is made of Deighton's XPD and Harris's Fatherland, novels by renowned writers based on a similar premise.

Turtledove's notion that our "isolationist" parents and grandparents succumbed to Hitler's hordes is insulting and offensive. But think of the "benefits." No more National Institute of Mental Health. No more parking spaces reserved for the handicapped. Nobody's on welfare or belongs to a labor union. Gay Power? Come out of the closet and step into a gas chamber. AIDS and Alzheimer's haven't been cured, but no one suffers from either. Imagine all those Labor Day weekends without Jerry Lewis. The wheelchair industry is kaput and, Ya, "Om-pah" music's got a beat. Ya, I can dance to it! One is left to ponder the fate of Hispanic- and African-Americans, if any remain alive.

Addressing none of this, Turtledove's tale centers on a Nazi family in Berlin confronting the fact they are secretly Jews. While this premise may seem interesting on the surface, it simplifies the Nazi Final Solution and furthers the canard that the Jews were the main targets of WW II.

Don't get me wrong here. The Holocaust was a heinous crime against all humanity, including intellectuals, Communists, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, gypsies and other minorities. Moreover, one quarter of the Jews slaughtered were Russian and more than 27 million Russians were killed fighting the Nazi invaders.

"They tore the guts out of the German Army," said Churchill.

Of their sacrifice, Kennedy said, "It's as if everything east of Chicago had been lain to waste."

In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev, who helped lead the Red Army in the capture of the German capital, tells of a citizen who had "clearly lost his senses" raving in the streets as the Russian flag waved over Hitler's headquarters. The Soviet soldiers were astounded when an interpreter told them what this "crazy man" was screaming.

"I'm alive!" he shouted over and over, frantically waving his arms. "I'm the only Jew left alive in Berlin!"

In barely three paragraphs of brutal history, Khrushchev demolishes Turtledove's 424 pages of feeble fantasy.

Yet in SFW, the novel rates an A-.

Not to be outdone, Paul Di Filippo's review of Time's Eye, volume one in a series to be called "A Time Odyssey," gets an A rating. The work is an "orthoquel" — an orthogonal sequel or prequel — and "bears thematic links to both Clarke's Space Odyssey trilogy and Baxter's recent Manifold series."

So much for being anything new. Instead we get a hodge-podge of dated concepts in an exercise of old men respinning ideas half their age.

"First there is the notion of a time-slipped environment, explored previously in such books as Fred Hoyle's October the First Is Too Late (1966) and Gordon Dickson's Timestorm (1977)," writes the SFW reviewer who then learnedly doubts "that Clarke supplies much if any of the writing here, probably devoting more of his share of the work to the conceptualizing, and perhaps to the construction of the parallels with 2001."

Which leaves me to speculate whether or not this "hybrid" would have ever been published without Clarke's name on the cover. Paul then advises those who enjoy this book "to seek out Michael Bishop's award winning story ‘The Quickening' to see this theme treated at short length."

To further jack up the price, accompanying the book is a CD-ROM containing two novels by Baxter and 140 pages of material about Time's Eye, including an interview with the authors and an intriguing essay by Baxter titled "Other Alexanders."

With SFW's highest rating, what a buy!

What a joke! Di Filippo and Castro are science fiction writers and members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Does anyone believe that they would rip fellow SFWA members in print?

Under Editor-in-Chief Edelman, who in his last column, longed to do something "heroic," SFW has become an online Ministry of Truth, its staff of sycophants spoonfeeding us gullible proles "SCI-FI-speak."

Gone is the undying concept that science fiction, beyond imagination, inspiration, and perspiration, requires courage. The guts to look at the here and now and sock the world where it matters most. Shelley, Wells, Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley had the stuff that immortality is made of. In his own way, so did Heinlein.

But not SFW.

We all love Big Brother, don't we?

Kevin Ahearn

Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Ahearn

And, since this is a “Discussion,” let’s consider a thing or two.

In writing alternate history, novelists may get details right; they remember the adage “Today and tomorrow are not inevitable; only yesterday is.” Alternate history, then, transplants us into a future yesterday where everything “would have happened, if...” And the closer that fictional yesterday is to our own, the less it’s fiction and the more it’s history. Hence the political point that Kevin makes so forcefully.

There is a way around it. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld — in such novels as Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment (the latter reviewed in issue 82) — abound with historical allusions but are tied thematically to the present, particularly in depicting the struggle against political and social tyranny.

Writers, therefore, have a judgment call to make: how “alternate” is their alternate history going to be?

Turtledove’s notion that our “isolationist” parents and grandparents succumbed to Hitler’s hordes is insulting and offensive.

One would indeed think so. And yet an alternate-history scenario does qualify as a near miss. Isolationism — due largely to the awful memories of WW I — was strong in the 1930’s in both Europe and the U.S. And a sizable and vocal minority of U.S. public opinion was pro-fascist to varying degrees and for various reasons, such as racism.

If the Japanese government had heeded Admiral Yamamoto and refrained from attacking the U.S., and if Hitler, by some miracle, had been unaccountably cautious as when he refrained from ordering an attack on Dunkirk, public opinion might have forced President Roosevelt to remain neutral.

Even in that alternate history, it seems quite out of the question that the Axis Powers could have divided North America between them. That could not have happened for a very long time, if ever. Meanwhile, would North America have adopted the murderous barbarism of the fascist empires? Even with the social attitudes of the time — especially in race relations — the idea remains, as Kevin Ahearn says, “insulting and offensive.”

Rather, Turtledove’s premise would make sense if he supposed that the U.S. had been beguiled into irrelevance by abandoning its friends abroad, and into backward impotence by compromising its principles at home. Such an alternate history might provide a cautionary tale suitable for our times.

Copyright © 2004 by Don Webb

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