Alternative Histories

Everyone has a favourite alternative history story. Mine would have to be Man In The High Castle, a world of Axis victory over the allies of WWII where Phillip K. Dick turns his lens on his native America now dominated by Japanese businessmen, the I Ching and a nostalgia for American collectibles reminiscent of the post-war Middle East, freed of British cultural domination. His novel suffers from still being US worship, understandable really as it was written less than 15 years after the end of the war during the world explosion of Americana. 

The genius of Man In The High Castle isn't in the antipode of history we know (and love) but of the sophistication in its construction. The daily habits and activities of the average subservient American that would appear insulting and alien to the average Texan enrich the novel and these macro-realisms teach us a lot about the American mentality.

(Please note the clearing of the Mediterranean, not simply a fictional speculation but a genuine plan proposed to the Nazis and rejected as essentially being too insane. I'll blog about that another time.)

The theme varies substantially, but subtle differences can be exceptionally revealing in alternate history, a slight change in values can suddenly shed light on paradigms we might take for granted. The Alt History Wiki, has some interesting examples. A page on the Aliens franchise is as simple as listing a fifth film made in 1996 in pattern with the four before it as a micro-parody of blockbuster regularity. It's a little way off the excitement going around for the forthcoming Prometheus, seemingly only a half prequel in that it doesn't bear the name of the series: Alien 0 for instance.

There are some notably well-developed and logically progressive timelines buried in the site. One alternative history is set in a world where the Roman empire survives. (In it's contemporary form - forget my rants about how it never really died, just dissolved into the fabric of civilisation.) There's some text to wade through but of course the revelations and excitement are to be had in the maps. We're familiar with maps of the Roman empire - at a time when territory was the de facto mark of power, a large map was better than a big ole' pile of gold, hence the great store and faith but in cartographers.

Regrettably, and against my expectation, the wiki isn't a collection of literary alternate histories akin to Alberto Manguel's gold-standard Dictionary of Imaginary Places, a book that my grandfather kept on his shelf and I would pour over for hours on every visit. Manguel's book is sadly out of date now but still an absolute necessity for any serious fantasist.

Before wikis allowed me to read episodes ahead in Game of Thrones without ever having to even look at the covers of the novels, something like the Dictionary of Imaginary Places would have provided the perfect solution to delving into the strange and twisted lands of novels that were out of reach. Such a wealth of imagination is hard to come by in such a simple form, everything from Middle Earth to Moore's Utopia are in there.

On a similar wave of collections of short, formatted fantasies, Jorge Luis Borges' A Universal History of Infamy (now published as A Universal History of Iniquity) delivers a series of criminal fables of wrongdoers and their lives in Borges' uniquely galvanising and jaw-dropping semi-fantastical tongue. If you have the time (how could anyone possibly not?) buy it and read it. And keep it on the shelf next to Manguel. They were friends after all.