Reading Harder: Alternate Histories

The New Year inspired me to do some TBR tackling, like it always does.

Since the BookRiot list came out a few weeks ago I have been planning my 2019 reading.  I am always delighted when something on my TBR also qualifies for a BookRiot category as well, and I had two old backlist hangers on that qualified for the alternate history requirement.

I’m finding that I love stories set at different points of history.  Phillippa Gregory’s Lady of the Rivers series got me through new motherhood.  Nero Wolfe novels sustained me through late high school, college, and grad school when I only read fiction on breaks.

Futuristic dystopian/cli-fi books make me nervous, because of course anything can happen.  Given my lack of trust in the current Administration to protect the globe or anything that isn’t profitable nearly within this moment, scary futuristic books seem all too likely.  I’m game for historical dystopia, though.  Bring it.

But alternate history…it already happened a certain way so we can just play with ideas about if a moment was different, how would we be living now?  Both of the books in this post (I’m supposed to be working on my novel, not reading two books in a week, I need rehab) are set in times when assassinations of wartime US presidents (FDR and Lincoln) happened before they could leave their mark and each discusses the points that diverge from the facts that we learn today.  With each war having a different outcome, it also, in both books, means different things for racism in our country.

An Alternate History Book

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The Man In the High Castle, Philip K. Dick

This was on the TBR long before Netflix decided to make it into something.  I don’t even remember how it originally crept into my awareness.  I think at one point I thought that having read a PKD novel would have made me cool.

The Axis powers, Germany, Japan, and Italy won the Second World War, rather than the Allied powers, owing largely to an early assassination of FDR.  Essentially, this assassination is to blame for why America wasn’t strong enough to defeat Hitler and his allied countries and why in the novel the country is divided between German and Japanese territory, with Italy kind of the forgotten stepchild of the thing.

Nazi Germany is still the bully in the setting and in the plot, Imperial Japan is strong enough with their culture consuming their part of the US, which is under totalitarian rule.  Racism is rampant, there are definite classes based on skin color and ancestry, even with a brief mention of ethnic cleansing/experimentation still happening in Africa by the hands of the Germans, and it is still a dangerous thing to be Jewish.  I would say that even if Germany won the war I doubt the ethnic cleansing would continue today, but then I have to remember that the book was written and set in the early 60’s.  It’s nearly 60 years old as it is.  But when would it have stopped?

There are some parts of this story that are interesting, like the focus on the Japanese buying relics of Americana from the days before they took over.  Authentic Mickey Mouse watches are a valuable collectors item, as well as guns.  The Japanese I Ching features heavily as the closest thing I can determine as a religion and the characters rely on it to make decisions.  And as in any totalitarian rule there is a subversive book circulating  that speculates on if the Allied powers had won the war.  The book within the book, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, then predicts the fall of the Soviet Union, something that happens in real life decades later.

However, this book spins out a little nutty near the end, makes some reaches, goes off on character revelations and plot turns that I had to check up with on Wikipedia (whom I donate to every Christmas btw because of my reading needs) and I missed what the point of some of them were.  I don’t know how Netflix is planning to handle these.  Wiki notes that Dick also used the I-Ching to make plot decisions…interesting.   This book was both fascinating and intense.  Tiring.  Exhausting.  It needed my full attention. It has way more to do with setting and the plot of political intrigue than it does about characters.  It’s weird in some ways,but that’s sci-fi.  It’s pardoned as a part of the genre.

And the TV series looks like even more of a ride.  Likely not knitting TV.

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Underground Airlines, Ben Winters

I was hesitant to jump into another alternate history book over the weekend, but it was on my TBR, and it went with the theme, and I was knitting a sock more than I was working on my novel, so I went for it.

In this one, Lincoln is assassinated early, like FDR’s early assassination in PKD.  The Civil War never happened, and instead the states compromise on slavery, with four states, the Hard Four, slavery is still legal (and of course regulated, but legal nonetheless) and white people continue to get rich on the backs of those left with no choice, Persons Bound by Labor.  Racism is more obvious in the other states than it would be if these Hard Four weren’t holding out on profiting by slave labor, even though other nations have not allowed the US to play with them anymore because slavery persists.

An escaped slave is obligated to work as a bounty hunter for the government.  Although racism persists, often freed people and policemen don’t want to help in returning escaped slaves, so the main character enters another bondage of sorts (he even has a tracker in his neck) to find those who have escaped from bondage.  He doesn’t have to return them himself, but he’s complicated Of course his story is interwoven with his own trauma, his story fleshing out the world of slavery.  It’s fascinating, his past intersecting with the hard truths of rooting out those who made it out like he did.  The plot twists are sweet, and he discovers the assignment that he is working on is of course more than it seems, and he ends up having to infiltrate the Hard Four.

I think I liked this one more than The Man in the High Castle because it has more of a human element to it.  The Man in The High Castle is so strongly plot driven,  hard core philosophical Sci-Fi.  Living in a totalitarian society and having your nation completely transformed by war in your lifetime would have repercussions and change who you are, but the plot doesn’t deal with that. Underground Airlines had me from the beginning and I rode it through in a short amount of time.

Both of these books are about racism and class.  And how when the true leaders can’t lead, we descend into dystopia.  BookRiot posted some of their own suggestions on this topic and they stated that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was also an alternate history, in that magic somehow returns to Britain.  I have read and reviewed it here but I never thought of it as an alternate history.  Magic doesn’t change Britain into a dystopia. Still loved it.  What a great read.  Even though it was too intense to revisit on Netflix.

I have started editing my novel in preparation to have it professionally critiqued, just easing myself back into it.  I need to ease off the reading now. It’s kind of happening.  But it’s so much easier on the emotions to blissfully knit and immerse myself in a book.

The cold weather has swooped into my part of the world.  My dog and car and I aren’t exactly thrilled, but we can go play on the lake if it’s cold long enough.

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