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Historical Jenga

25th February 2013 - Steve Newman


The sub-genre of alternate history has been tackled by writers from Harry Turtledove to Vladimir Nabokov. As Steve Newman, from our Westfield Straford City branch suggests, it can be be a fascinating lens through which to examine genuine history, as well as being purely escapist fun.



Imagine history as a game of Jenga, a massive game of Jenga that towers over the Earth that everybody can play whenever they want. Now pretend that each block is a moment in history. Move it and the whole structure changes, move it slightly further and the tower falls. Welcome to history's illegitimate brother, alternate history.


The idea is pretty straightforward. You change a moment in time - could be that Caesar survives the Ides of March or HMS Hermes is sunk by an Exocet missile during the Falklands War - and you follow it through. Caesar lives for another 20 years as a dictator and Rome becomes a different empire because Augustus never becomes Emperor (we also never have a month called August). Sink HMS Hermes and the British fleet has to withdraw from the South Atlantic without retaking the Islands. Margaret Thatcher loses the 1983 election and the 1980s are different decade.


I've always had a fascination with this kind of Jenga. It's not popular with most historians: I once asked one of my Professors what would happen if there was no Germany, thinking we could have a discussion on what would have happened if Bismarck hadn't united the country. Instead his response was "What if it was a giant lake?" I just left the classroom.


The American Front by Harry TurtledoveWriters though have always toyed with this idea. Harry Turtledove has made a career of writing alternate history fiction, so has S M Stirling, while Len Deighton toyed with it with in SS-GB and C J Samson has imagined 1950s Britain under Nazi rule in his recent book, Dominion. It's hard not to resist pulling the block away, which is why it might not make great history but does make great fiction. Once you start to read alternate history you realise the range that it covers. It is as much a part of the history of the thriller as it is a part of science fiction and fantasy. Yet there are for me three books in particular that stand out.


The first is Fatherland, probably Robert Harris's most famous book. Set in a 1964, on the eve of Hitler's 70th birthday, it portrays a world where a cold war exists between Germany and the USA, and senior members of the Nazi Party are being murdered. It's a thriller in the mould of SS-GB and Dominion, the book that drew me to the very idea of alternate history. I remember the author appearing on TV, with pictures of Albert Speer in front of models of a rebuilt Berlin, the one that both inspired and becomes the setting for Harris' world. It showed a new form of world building that somehow felt edgier and closer to our world.


For Want of a Nail by Robert SobelThe second is For Want of a Nail. Everything about this book to me is leftfield, from how I discovered it to reading it. Let me explain. It's 1998, it's the first year of my history degree and I'm meant to be writing an essay on Socialism in Europe. I wasn't doing that. Fatherland was still floating in my mind so I was typing 'alternate history' into Alta Vista (this was before Google) and I discovered a whole new universe cheerfully playing this type of Jenga.


The Confederates had won the second American War of Independence; I never realised how many ways Lee could have taken Gettysburg. Operation Sealion was a success and Britain was a Nazi State. Napoleon hadn't retreated from Moscow and the Cuban crisis hadn't been averted. (That timeline was quite short).


In the middle of this a name kept cropping up: Robert Sobel. So one day I took myself into a bookshop and a bought a copy of For Want of a Nail. It's a history book. Sobel actually wrote it as an academic book for undergraduates explaining the history of North America from 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga to 1971 (when the book was written).


But here's the twist: the British led by John Burgoyne win at Saratoga, thus crushing the American Rebellion. What follows is a detailed history of the countries that rise from that moment, Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico. Everything is fiction, right down to the index and bibliography: every one of the books he references is a figment of his imagination. It is both a very clever satire on the idea of the victor writing history - in the CNA Burgoyne is eulogised, with a capital named after him; in the USA nobody has heard of him - and a unique way to tell a fictional story.


The Years of Rice and SaltThe third is pure science fiction. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is about a history where the Black Plague wipes out the whole of Europe, creating a world where there is no Columbus, Leonardo Da Vinci or Isaac Newton. Instead China discovers America and Islamic alchemists theorise about the nature of gravity.


Robinson follows a 600-year history through the eyes of six characters that are born, live, die and are reincarnated to live the next life. It's through their eyes that you see the development of this alternative world.


All three of these books have had an influence on me in some way but it's remarkable the way use this simple idea of going back in time and changing just one moment has caught my imagination. And, you never know, we might even find how to do it one day


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