The Long View 2008-12-21: Solstice Alternatives

The fictional book acknowledgment that John J. Reilly writes here is perfect.

Solstice Alternatives

The only merit of today is its brevity. The sun disappeared at some forgotten point last week. In the time since, the clinically depressive skies have produced every known water-based form of precipitation, all of which accretes to a stratum of street ice in the persistently below-freezing temperatures. In the evening (which should arrive about an hour after noon), I hope to attend an auto-da-fe of particularly annoying global-warming enthusiasts. In the interim, I thought I would dispel the darkness a little by making these notes on my current Alternative History reading.

* * *

Jasper Fforde is up to his old tricks, this time with First Among Sequels , an addition to what might otherwise seem to have been the neatly concluded Thursday Next series. The story has moved on from the 1980s to the early 21st century, but of course in the Thursday Next world of Republican Britain with its airship-based civil aviation and scattering of genetically revived Neanderthals and dodos. Some of this, frankly, is getting a bit old (hence the brightly colored sweaters on the balding dodos), but the author has by no means run out of invention. There is a retrospectively plausible plot involving the overthrow of the Time Guard, Thursday’s apparently slacking teenage son and her imaginary elder daughter. The prose portal gives access not just to literature, but also to ethics-seminar hypotheticals. In such narratives, difficult things happen; which means, usually, that situations arise that require the protagonist to decide which of two groups of people must be subjected to a horrible death in order to save the other.

And since it’s such a miserable day, I don’t care who knows this: I, too, think that Jon Pertwee was the best Doctor Who.

* * *

And then there is Joy Walton’s “Small Change” books, a trilogy of detective novels set in Britain after that country comes to a negotiated peace with Hitler in 1941. I have so far read only the second book, Ha'penny ; the first is Farthing and the last Half a Crown. Ha’penny deals with a politically complicated family not unlike the Mitfords and the connection of some of them to a plot to kill Hitler in 1949. Hitler at his most gemütlich puts in an appearance. He even quotes a line from Shakespeare in the original.

There have been many novels about alternative outcomes for World War II. The better ones, as novels if not as fantasy fiction, keep the degree of historical divergence as modest as possible. In many ways, Ha'penny is really a book about the British theater; readers may find themselves reminded of the novels of Robertson Davies. In any case, in the Small Change books, there is no invasion of Britain. Churchill is still a member of parliament. He could conceivably even form a new government, though that is increasingly unlikely in a world in which the political system is adapting itself to a fascist future. We hear only a little from America, but the same is happening there, or so we may judge from the reference to Humphrey Bogart’s memorable performance in The Battle of Kursk.

One cannot help but reflect that this is the world of Patrick Buchanan’s desire.

* * *

I have also started reading Piers Brendon’s The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997. This is not Alternative History, either by design or in effect. Nonetheless, I did find myself gagging on the author’s Acknowledgements. In those pages he thanks, by name, all his friends, each member of his family, and everyone who has ever had anything to do with Cambridge University except Isaac Newton. In each case, he offers an affectionate, witty summary of the service rendered. I found myself asking: How could so many people have been so unfailingly helpful to someone else’s project for so many years? My own experience with publishing is that bringing out any large, complicated book is a prolonged pillow fight of incomprehension, miscommunication, malicious obstruction and lost tempers. Surely at least some of the people who write these thick, serious books for reputable publishers have wanted to write an acknowledgement like this:

Bringing out this book was a process of many years. It began with an application for a grant. You don’t want to know what I had to do to secure that and I don’t want to tell you. Having begun my work, no influence made itself more strongly felt than that of my academic colleagues. At first derisive, then nitpicking, several of them towards the end were so far persuaded of the merits of my project as to try to steal my idea. The lawyers have seen them off; that is why you are holding this book today.

The greater part of my labors consisted of consulting primary sources at special collections in libraries around the country. In five years’ of research, I never met a librarian who was worth talking to, except to determine when they had lost or miscataloged the very item I was seeking.

Of course, beyond scholarship, every book of this kind is an adventure in commerce, one that I succeeded in bringing to a successful conclusion despite the persistent negligence and occasional fraud of my literary agent. Among the editors at my publisher I was unfailingly met with bovine ignorance of subject matter and a remarkable, even heroic indifference to every question of style. Any editor can confuse editing with spellchecking; it took a certain genius to gender-neutralize every sentence dealing with prostate medicine.

On a more cheerful note, I don’t think that I could have completed this book without the complete inattention of my wife and children. They did not help, but at least they did not hinder. I therefore dedicate the work to them, secure in the knowledge that their ignorance of my labors will continue undisturbed.

Oh, the sun just came out. Now everything is very pretty.

I hope the auto-da-fe is still on.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site