Counterfactual history is a genre based on the question ‘what if?’. It’s one of my favourite types of fiction, combining creativity based on historical events.
Some prominent authors include Australian John Birmingham, with his series Axis of Time, and American Harry Turtledove (though I’ve passed his series on aliens invading the world).
Invariably, the parallel universe in a counterfactual novel is based on changing one of the quirks of a major historical event and then broadly continuing on with history as it was. Another way of approaching counterfactual novels is to throw an unexpected event into the near future and see what happens. John Birmingham in his Axis of Time series does this with a multinational peacekeeping force being taken back into the midst of World War II, for example. Literally, take one idea from the near future, pop it into the cauldron of history, and stir. If you’ve not read Birmingham’s Axis of Time trilogy, you should – it is chillingly, hauntingly real (and the names of some of the characters ensure a chuckle, too!).
Two of the three books I’ve read recently are both worth a look at, and both have America as one of the protagonists. I won’t say much about the last book, other than to note that I finished it.
The challenge of counterfactual history is that the premise can sometimes go awry and what we know of history and accept as logical, can be thrown out. Literary licence can be taken too far – see below for my review of Neue Europa.
First was MacArthur’s War: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan, by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson. Starting from the premise of a change of a single event in the critical Battle of Midway in World War II, this book considers the political and military events leading up to an invasion of Japan. This is the first novel I’ve read by these guys and it won’t be the last. It’s pacey, realistic and has enough turns of history to keep it interesting and thought-provoking.
What this book recognises is the key to keeping the reader’s interest is make the fictional almost sound like fact. In this book, the authors actually make the conversations between General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz and President Roosevelt as you would think they’d have been like. Told from both Japanese and American perspectives (with the Australian Army fictionally deployed in a way that suggests the authors have read their real history well), the story clicks along and though the end of the war could’ve been explored with some more analysis, it’s a good read.
Vaughn Heppner asks what could happen in thirty years with China taking on America in Alaska (of all places) in Invasion: Alaska. Once you accept the premise of climate-changed induced geopolitical strategy being played out in the wilds of northern and southern Alaska, it’s a pretty good yarn. I learned much from Google Maps and in doing so received a ‘geography 101’ lesson about Alaska and eastern Siberia. Some development of how things came to be and more detail on some of the other protagonists whose influence is key to the story would have added depth, and there’s scope for the author to take some of these storylines and spin them off in their own right – perhaps he has. I ploughed through this book in a few days (a stinking hot Melbourne weekend staying inside helped!); it’s not a hard read at all and in fact I was quite keen to keep reading as I went through. More character development and a much stronger ending would’ve added to this tale, but to the author’s credit, I didn’t know until virtually the end what the outcome would be. I’d happily read another novel by Vaughn Heppner again – it’s a good read.
Neue Europa is based in World War II. I could sit here and tell you that a cursory look at a world map suggests that fighting a major war in central Asia, with supply lines respectively from Europe and the US via India, would be unrealistic, but I’d be wasting your time in the same way reading this book wasted mine. The novel stretched credibility on far too many fronts and the ending was soppy and spotted far too easily. If you have time to read this review, then don’t waste your time reading the book – I walked away scratching my head, wondering about the implausibility of it all. If it’d been a meal, I’d have taken it back and asked for a refund. Mutton – meet lamb.
Next up on my reading list are John Silvester and Andrew Rule’s Underbelly: The Gangland Wars, Malcolm Speed’s Sticky Wicket, some Gideon Haigh via the new Global Mail and then some New York City history. I have also The Fatal Shore looking at me, reminding me I must read it one day – that and Cloudstreet!