Why do we write—and read—alternate histories? What draws us to stories of our past turned around, re-set in strange ways that never were? They cannot be warnings, because the events are already gone and never did turn out that way, so they bear no purposeful, no causal relationship with the world we inhabit. Perhaps we are fascinated by the fragility of our world: look how nearly we became other? Or it may be that where most science fictions display the continuity of human character—no matter how far away in space or time, we still behave in more or less the same way, driven by the same stimuli—there is a case to be made also for the contingency of our character: look, this world is but a heartbeat away yet see how differently we behave in the different circumstances. Or maybe the impulse is altogether simpler, the way we can never stop responding to that age-old impulse to wonder: if only? Whichever impulse it might be, it seems to be getting stronger; at least, more and more alternate histories are appearing, and from across the literary spectrum. This year alone Michael Chabon and Lionel Shriver, Ken MacLeod and Paul McAuley have played with the possibilities of alternate history. Now three more authors ask, in their various ways, how might it have been different?
Whatever the broad philosophical impetus behind the subgenre, all three of these novels betray a very personal basis for the ideas explored. "If only" now seems to be becoming a uniquely personal question, as if all three of these authors could put themselves into the circumstances presented. Stephen Baxter's young adult novel, The H-Bomb Girl, is set in and around his old school in Liverpool and at a time he, too, would have been a child. Owen Sheers's fresh take on an idea already much explored in alternate histories, a German victory in World War Two, owes its origin to his discovery that someone he had known all his life was a member of the British resistance movement. And Kathleen Ann Goonan's opening up of a myriad of alternative presents uses extensive extracts from her own father's wartime diaries. But it has to be said that in each case the quality of the novel seems to relate to how successful the authors have been in distancing themselves from these personal sources.
For the first 200 pages of Goonan's In War Times, for instance, it is clear that what she really wants to do is write a mainstream novel about her father's wartime experiences. It would be a pretty good novel, too. Her father is here given the name Sam Dance, though the use of long and apparently unedited extracts from her father's diary suggest that the real and the fictional character are not too far apart in their military experiences. However, the diary extracts seem to have been used for emotional rather than creative reasons, since they tell us nothing that wouldn't have worked better in third person, and as all the drama is reserved for the third person passages the diary generally slows down an already slow-moving novel. They add colour but not depth, and certainly not action.
Dance is an engineer who receives special training, then is sent to England, where he works on secret equipment before following the American army into occupied Germany. He is also a keen jazz fan and would-be musician who meets Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie before the war and forms amateur combos among his army buddies. The tales of army life are familiar from countless other memoirs and novels: the drunken escapades, the moments of sheer terror, the jazz and parties and girlfriends, the horror of Bergen-Belsen just after liberation, the troop setting up their own private bierkeller, the corner-cutting and ingenuity and making-do. It is, in other words, a routine war, quite good fun from the sound of it, and is generally well-told (except for the occasional lapses in research: the dramatic drive through blacked-out London in a Mini could not have happened for the simple reason that the Mini did not come into being until 14 years after the end of the war), but there is nothing spectacular in the telling except for the occasional intrusions of something strange. A mysterious physicist of European origin, one of the people responsible for his special training, becomes briefly his lover and leaves in his care plans for a curious device that she claims will end war. Dance and his best friend, Wink, spend their free time throughout the war trying to build the device, but it doesn't seem to work. The physicist reappears like a deus ex machina a couple of times during the war, each time leaving with Dance some further refinement for the device—but it still doesn't work. At the same time an officer in the OSS who seems to know about the device, Bette, begins to pull strings in Dance's favour, and as the war ends they marry.
The device, the physicist, and the involvement of the precursor of the CIA, are all remarkably low key. It is as if Goonan has slotted in these occasional references to set up the second half of her novel, but in a way that will have the least impact on the war story she really wants to tell. With the end of the war the pace speeds up. Goonan manages to cover everything from Hiroshima to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in less space than she devoted to the four years of war. She is still writing the biography of her father (he worked as a fire protection engineer for various government agencies) but now the device and its consequences come more and more centre stage. For the most part it still doesn't seem to be doing anything (except mutating in various curious and alarming ways) but there are now definite consequences. Although Dance travels back from Europe with Wink, when he tries to contact him again in the first year of peace he discovers that Wink was apparently killed at the end of the war. Yet not so long after he runs into Wink again at a reunion. Somehow the device has opened up different time streams, all of them better and more peaceful than our own. Yet our history is still the basic one, and gradually over the years more and more alarming messages reach Dance from these parallel worlds that something dark and threatening is about to happen in our world that will threaten the existence of all of them. But it is only when Dance's daughter, politicised by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of President Kennedy, discovers that the device can be used as a time machine and sets out to stop Lee Harvey Oswald that the mystery finally turns into a drama.
In War Times is beautifully written, but it does feel as if the alternate history idea is grafted on to provide narrative thrust, and Goonan hasn't really worked out what she wants to do with the alternate histories she conjures up. Stephen Baxter, who also uses the Cuban Missile Crisis as the hinge point around which his novel turns, has at least distanced himself more from the personal aspects of the story he is telling. The scene is Liverpool in 1962. The Beatles have just returned from Hamburg and are about to perform again in the Cavern while a host of other local groups are starting a musical revolution. Meanwhile international storm clouds are gathering after an American spy plane has photographed a Soviet missile site in Cuba. None of which seems of much importance to Laura Mann, who has just returned to Liverpool with her mother while her parents' marriage goes through a rocky patch. Here she has to contend with an American officer who has suddenly become their lodger and for whom Laura has developed an instinctive dislike; a new school where an elderly woman teacher seems to be taking a special and unwelcome interest in her; and the unhappy waitress at the coffee bar she and her new friends frequent who seems to be carrying Laura's own diary. Meanwhile Laura's father, a senior RAF officer, has given her a key which he says will keep her safe in the coming crisis.
As the Cuban Missile Crisis develops into something much more severe than it was in our own history, an excuse for the imposition of a police state, Laura discovers that the teacher, the waitress, and the American officer's commander are all time travellers. They have returned from different futures, more dystopian than our own, and all are after Laura's key, which could precipitate or prevent catastrophic war. Laura literally holds the future of the world in her hands, and she and her new friends must decide between the limited options open to them, while various repressive forces close in.
The deus ex machina ending (which involves, among other things, the Beatles bursting through the wall of the Cavern into a secret command centre) is a little too fortuitous to convince, and owes more to James Bond movies than anything else. But along the way Baxter tells a gripping story including, given his usual eschatological inclinations, a variety of pretty gruesome ways for the world to end. The curious thing is that although Baxter is writing about his home town in the time of his own childhood, there is very little real sense of place in the novel. Only the Cavern—dark, cramped, hot, smelly—is described with any real vivacity; other than that the city is strangely bland and featureless. Indeed, it is a remarkably subterranean place: the Cavern, the cellar coffee bar where Laura and her friends meet, the underground command centre. Indeed, for much of the last part of the novel the friends lead a rat-like existence scuttling from cellar to cellar.
Both Baxter and Goonan, of course, are experienced science fiction writers, yet both seem to regard their alternate worlds as a playground for ideas rather than a landscape seriously to be inhabited. Hence, for instance, the willingness both display to employ deus ex machina devices to move the plot along or bring it to an unlikely conclusion. At some fundamental level, these are not novels but thought experiments that willingly sacrifice some quality of verisimilitude in the cause of the idea. Owen Sheers is a first-time novelist, but as a published poet he can probably be seen as coming to his alternate history more from the mainstream than the science fictional side of the literary divide. Yet he inhabits his alternate world more thoroughly than either Baxter or Goonan ever approach. It is a rich and lyrical novel in which far and away the most powerful presence is the landscape, yet it could only work within the context of the alternate history evoked, and Sheers never for one moment hints that this is not a real and solid actuality. This is very much a novel about figures in a landscape, yet the turn that history has taken is part of that landscape and Sheers displays it with unstinting conviction.
Like Goonan and Baxter, Sheers calls on something personal in the birth of Resistance. In his case, it is the discovery that someone he had known all his life had been a secret member of that small group who would, in the event of a German invasion, have retreated into hidden bunkers and carried out a programme of sabotage and hindrance behind the lines. Even at the time it was anticipated that they would have survived for no more than 14 days. It is a dramatic subject for a novel, but Sheers dispatches it off-stage with his first sentence: "In the months afterwards all of the women, at some point, said they'd known the men were leaving the valley." All the men of the remote Olchon valley in Wales leave without warning one night. We presume they are members of the resistance, but we do not know and we do not see them again. Their absence is tangible throughout the novel, but Sheers has taken as his subject the women left behind. It's a hard life, in tune with the harsh rhythms of the year, and for a while the women simply have to carry on as if nothing has happened. But the outside world cannot leave them alone: a German patrol arrives in the valley.
The cultured commander of the German troop has a secret mission, to secure the Mappa Mundi which has been hidden in a cave near the Olchon valley. But he sees it as a way to get his battle-weary soldiers out of a war that is clearly coming to an end. So the Germans start to help the women with the unending labour of their farms, and slowly they begin to take the place of the vanished men. They dress in the civilian clothes that have been left behind, they abandon their weapons and their radios. An uneasy truce holds and deepens. In particular we follow the faltering relationship that starts to develop between Albrecht, the German commander longing for the peace and seclusion of the valley, and Sarah, a young wife with a vague yearning for something beyond the narrow confines of the valley. Their contradictory trajectories bring them together into something that almost but never quite becomes a love affair.
But Sheers's focus on the valley isn't claustrophobic, because every so often we get a snippet of news from the outside world: Churchill and the Royal Family escaping to Canada, the Duke of Windsor returning as Hitler's proxy, fighting continuing, chilling news about the Jews. But more particularly we get to meet George (the person whose involvement in the resistance inspired this novel was George Vater), a young man recruited into the resistance while still a teenager at the beginning of the war, who now finds himself leaving messages and collecting information that may reveal something of the occupation. When Albrecht begins to fear that the German high command might discover and disrupt his little idyll, he tries to keep things secret by impulsively stopping mail into the valley and having it returned unopened. But this makes George think that the Germans have simply slaughtered everyone there, thus laying the groundwork for the tragedy that unfolds.
The details of this alternate history are fresh: the D-Day landings fail and the Germans are able to throw back the Allied invasion and then launch their own counter-invasion. But in its broad sweep, Hitler victorious is one of the least original ideas in the whole subgenre. What makes Resistance so successful, therefore, is not the idea but the substance of the novel: the focus on the human cost, what separates and unites people, the loneliness and harshness of life in such a valley, and the fears that underpin everything in these circumstances and that can have appalling consequences. This is coupled with a gloriously sensual evocation of place. The valley truly is one of the leading players in this story. There are no villains here, only flawed people seriously striving to do their best, to find a modicum of peace in a cruel world, people made small by the high and unforgiving landscape.
The broad messages we might take from all of these novels are remarkably consistent and familiar: war is bad and to be avoided. To be honest, alternative takes on the Second World War and the nuclear holocaust that might so easily have been unleashed by the Cuban Missile Crisis are never going to tell us much different. And if Baxter suggests that our current reality is fragile, then Goonan makes it seem difficult to move into any other. Again it is Baxter, in what is in many ways the most traditional of the three alternate histories, who suggests the frailty of character with Laura having to face different versions of herself dependent upon the future she chooses. But for Sheers there is a consistency to human needs and desires that may bend and shape itself according to historical circumstance but that still in the end remains coherent. On the whole it seems that for the science fiction writers (and readers?) the point of alternate histories is the malleability of history, the opportunity that presents for experimenting with the whole character of our world. It is a theatre of ideas that can undermine not our sense of our place in the world, but the world in which we have that place. For Sheers, approaching the playground of alternate history from a different direction, there is no sense of undermining the world. The world is rooted firmly in landscape, in the unchangeable. What is malleable here is humanity: the way we must adapt to circumstance; the way the women of the Olchon valley must re-establish a form of normality when their world is overturned by the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of all their menfolk; the way the German soldiers grasp any faint chance of peace in the turmoil of war. All three of these novels will make you think, but the Sheers will also make you feel.
Paul Kincaid is the coeditor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology. His collection of reviews and essays, What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, is forthcoming.