The purpose of alternate history narratives, it could be argued, is to provide us with a deeper understanding of history as it really took place. By bringing his or her imagination to bear on a particular historical incident—the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by Claus von Stauffenberg—or a given time period—the Italian Renaissance—and changing what happened, the writer creates a sense of dissociation in the reader which is pleasurable and thought-provoking in various ways. We naturally enjoy playing "spot the difference," i.e., looking out for the people, incidents, or points in time that have been altered, eliminated, or switched around. Such mental games both confirm our personal knowledge of history as it happened, and stretch our imaginations with what-ifs (we know Hitler wasn't killed by the briefcase bomb—but what if he had been?) We are also—or at least we should be—provoked into considering the particular version of history that we have been taught, that we have grown up with and assumed to be "true," and reappraising it from a different angle. Dislodging any cornerstone of history will most likely destabilize the entire edifice, and when that cornerstone of history is the notion of a just war, for example, or the ethics of enforced regime change, then writers of alternate history surely have an important role to play in questioning outdated assumptions and reinvigorating the debate around whether a "true" history can in fact be said to exist.
Neither can we ignore the pleasure the writer might experience in playing God, in rewriting what has previously been written. With all these things in mind, I have been asking myself what we are to make of Harry Karlinsky's second novel, The Stonehenge Letters.
The Stonehenge Letters is presented as a factual account, edited and compiled by a "retired psychiatrist and amateur historian," of a hitherto unknown aspect of the legacy of the scientist and inventor Alfred Nobel. Researching the Nobel archive in a continuing attempt to discover why his hero Sigmund Freud was never—in spite of being nominated on numerous occasions—awarded the Nobel Prize, our narrator comes upon a file of correspondence relating to what is dubbed "the mystery of Stonehenge." Further probing reveals that unbeknown to the world, Nobel had intended to set up, in addition to the now famous prizes for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Peace already provided for in his will, an additional prize for the person or persons able to reveal or shed significant light on the origins, purpose, and essential nature of the ring of giant standing stones in Wiltshire, England, known as Stonehenge.
Our fictitious researcher is meticulous in his studies, giving us a brief outline of Nobel's life and discoveries before moving on to the circumstances of his death, the problems involved in probating the will, and the reactions of the will's executors on learning of Nobel's intentions to add a codicil for the provision of an additional prize. After thinking the matter over, they agree that the legal problems inherent in reopening the will to further scrutiny would be too onerous. However, they remain united in wishing to honor Nobel's intentions in some way. They therefore decide to institute a "secret" prize, to be awarded only once, and open only to previously elected Nobel laureates, who will be offered the opportunity to compete amongst themselves to solve the mystery of Stonehenge, just as Nobel wished.
We are then treated to the theories put forward by the various competitors. Each laureate is introduced with a brief biographical sketch, his or her personal reaction to the challenge, and then their solution. Unsurprisingly, each laureate's theory is heavily canted towards their own particular area of expertise. Hence we have a theory from Ivan Pavlov (Medicine) involving the digestive habits of earthworms, a delightful "Just So" story from Rudyard Kipling (Literature), a short treatise on radioactive decay and its potential for dating rocks and other mineral deposits from Marie Curie. Of those solutions proposed, none are deemed successful. The executors turn instead to Albert Einstein . . .
This is a charming and erudite book, flawlessly executed. Of course, many of the personages that populate its narrative will already be familiar to most readers, and those that are not are readily researchable. Thus we discover that Lady Florence Antrobus, Nobel's muse and inspiration for the "Stonehenge Prize," really did have a lifelong attachment to the stones, and really did write a personal account of her fascination entitled A Sentimental and Practical Guide to Stonehenge. Alfred Nobel, who comes across in this narrative as a brilliant and generous but rather shy and socially awkward man, did indeed form passionate and perhaps unwise attachments to women who were predestined to disappoint his hopes—one because she was already in love with someone else, another because her more fun-loving, lighthearted nature ensured that she eventually tired of her serious soul mate and turned to blackmail as a means of extorting money from him. Anyone with a particular interest in the mystery of Stonehenge will find plenty to engage them here—although it is doubtful they will find themselves much enlightened by Ivan Pavlov's Theory of Earthworms. The Stonehenge Letters is an enjoyable read, filled with sly humor, fascinating esoterica, and meticulous research. The writing is elegant, wry, and knowing throughout and the construct as a whole is a considerable achievement. Readers with a taste for the bizarre and the ironic will find plenty to amuse and entertain them.
Considered in the light of alternate history though, the question still remains: what exactly is The Stonehenge Letters for? The alteration to history that Karlinsky proposes is very small, and known to only a very few people. There are no evident repercussions, and no impact made on anyone outside the immediate circle of those in the know. There is a mystery, but no solution. The idea of solving the mystery of Stonehenge, of substantively affecting our view of ourselves, the world, or history in the process, may have seemed too outlandish or too obvious—too science fictional, even—to Karlinsky. But without such an engine—or indeed any engine—to power it, his project runs the risk of running aground.
There is fun to be had, to be sure, in extracting the fact from the fiction—where exactly does Karlinsky's book stop being a resumé of the life of Alfred Nobel and start being a novel?—and in the counterpoint of the narrator's tangential, Freud-obsessed footnotes. But we are pretty much aware of the historical discrepancies at the novel's outset—we know there was no codicil, no Stonehenge Prize, no crackpot file—and our fictional editor/doctor is no Charles Kimbote—he's simply not mad enough. The story, such that it is, soon peters out.
Harry Karlinsky's first novel, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects (2010), was a genuine original, a purported investigation into the life of one Thomas Darwin, the eleventh child of the more famous Charles Darwin and his wife Emma Wedgwood (in the world as we know it, the Darwins had ten children only) and his extreme and imaginative theories on natural selection. The text is presented as a biography, complete with chronology and footnotes, and as such allows the reader to revel in a fully realized story as well as a clever sleight of hand. The illusion is complete, and Thomas's delusions are both entrancing and compelling. (Read this and you’ll never look at your pastry forks in quite the same way again.) In The Stonehenge Letters, the illusion is much more partial. The book is clever, but for this reader at least, not compelling. I couldn't escape the feeling that its author, once in possession of his undoubtedly intriguing idea, hadn’t been entirely sure what to do with it.
As someone who cares deeply about literary form, and is forever on the lookout for new ways of interpreting what a novel is and what it might be capable of, I wanted very much to like this one, and having already enjoyed one book by Karlinsky I felt enthusiastic about reading a second. Whilst I remain excited about what Karlinsky might try next, and in no doubt of his talent and skill as a writer, I reluctantly have to conclude that The Stonehenge Letters, like Nobel's fabled bequest itself, is something of a white elephant.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.