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Archive for the tag “alternative history”

Theology, science, alternative history, literature

In our literary coffee klatch this month we discussed a fairly wide range of books, some of which I have blogged about separately in a discussion of teaching theology and literature in a Bible college or seminary.

David Levey had been reading nonfiction for a change and kicked off with a book about Galileo, science and religion, written by a Wits professor of astronomy, God and Galileo by David L. Block. It was based on an old letter in the Vatican archives that few people had looked at, and threw new light on debates about science and religion.

I too have been reading nonfiction — currently The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I should have read it 50 years ago, but only saw it in the library this week. I had always thought it was fiction, and indeed it was in the fiction shelves of the library, but I then discovered that Tom Wolfe had written his first fiction work about 20 years later, and this was in fact a kind of journalistic look at the hippie drug scene of the late 1960s. The other nonfiction book I am reading is Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, from which I have been learning a great deal. I’ll comment more on these when I’ve finished reading them. We had discussed Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch at one of our earlier gatherings, and David mentioned another book that dealt with lives of sharecroppers in South Africa. These books throw a lot of light on current debates about land.

Val has been re-reading historical novels, especially ones by C.J. Sansom, dealing with the period of the English Reformation and the reign of King Henry VIII. The first of the series is called Dissolution, and deals with the dissolution of the monasteries (my review here)..Sansom wrote a series featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, but has also written historical novels set in other periods, such as the Spanish Civil War, and also, in a slightly different  genre, Alternative History, or the historical might have beens, Dominion, predicated on a successful German invasion of Britain in World War II (my review here)..

While discussing the alternative history genre David mentioned SS-GB by Len Deighton, and we had both recently read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which we had both found disappointing (my review here). David said that the second volume of that series was coming out soon, and promised better things. It is The Secret Commonwealth. We mentioned other books where sequels had proved disappointing, like the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson, and William Horwood’s Duncton series, where everything after the first book was disappointing. That one, and many of the others, seemed like cases of a publisher pushing a reluctant author who had run out of inspiration. And for those who like Alternative History, David recommended the What might have been series by Gregory Benford.

For the rest of what we discussed, see here.


Dominion: an alternative historical novel set in Britain

DominionDominion by C.J. Sansom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.

David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.

David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.

C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.

In some ways the book reminded me of When Smuts goes by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.

One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.

A 1952 Volvo: only one was ever built, but perhaps in an alternative universie it might have gone into production, as featured in the book

A 1952 Volvo: only one was ever built, but perhaps in an alternative universie it might have gone into production, as featured in the book

Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might-have-beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a “big Volvo”, used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. I don’t recall ever seeing a big Volvo in 1952, but if the war had ended in 1940, instead of 1945, as in the book, a big Volvo might have gone into production and been marketed throughout Europe. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).

I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime.

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