(Scribner, £10.99, 464 pages, trade paperback, published 2002.)
As a trope, alternate world stories strike me as SF's equivalent of
fast food: I may Bring the Jubilee,
Phil Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Keith Roberts'
Pavane. Most alternate histories though seem to confuse the cleverness
of their what-if conceits with genuine insights into the mechanics of
history--or indeed, anything else beyond a smug sense of playfulness.
Leaving aside the rare exceptions--Kim Stanley Robinson's recent The
Years of Rice and Salt comes to mind--few offer any genuine engagement
with how events shape--and are shaped--by the sheer mess of things.
Do any of us really care if the Southern states or the Spanish Armada
won crucial battles--apart from that comfort-food feeling of being reminded
that we probably live in the best of all possible worlds?
I'm tucking into a nutritious meal for the imagination, but after the
first quick tasty rush, I'm left with the feeling it's pretty insubstantial.
This isn't to disrespect the great alternate history books gracing us
over the years--the usual suspects like Ward Moore's
If alternate histories are genre fast food, then alternate histories
of the Second World War are its McDonalds. You know what you're going
to get with each meal ("What if Germany won the war and Britain was
overrun by the Nazis ... " yadda yadda) and you know that as soon as
you're finished, you'll want to leave quickly. Strange then that of
all the playing fields of alternate history for so thoughtful a SF writer
to enter, Christopher Priest should choose this for his most recent
novel, The Separation.
Like many alternate world stories from writers as diverse as Kingsley
Amis and Len Deighton, the book has been slipped out under cover of
the mainstream. Put this trade paperback alongside Harry Turtledove's
latest and you'd never spot they were cousins under the skin. Like much
of the British writer's latter work--what I tend to think of as his
The books (The Affirmation, The Prestige, The Extremes,
etc.)--Priest's novel plays with traditional SF tropes under what
genre ghetto trolls might consider literary camouflage. However, unlike
most other alternate WWII books, Priest starts with a very different
perspective on the workings of history. Grand events do not arise from
crystal clear moments of decision, points where the narrator has to
choose whether to cut the red or the blue wire of history, but from
the cloud of misunderstandings, small gestures and things left unsaid
that make up the mess of our everyday lives. As a result, Priest has
crafted a fine fable of how the world is haunted by the ghosts of our
what-might-have-beens and the awful sense of our own powerlessness to
Through a fractured narrative that appears to double back on itself
repeatedly, the novel follows the diverging paths of two identical twins--Jack
and Joe Sawyer--through the early stages of the war. Champion rowers
who win medals for Britain at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, conflicting
views on the proper moral response to war and love of the same girl
lead the two brothers to different, critical junctures in history. Jack
does his bit by flying bombers for the RAF. An avowed pacifist, Joe
works as a Red Cross ambulanceman in London. Yet both are instrumental--through
a mixture of accident, calculated choice and sheer bloody-mindedness--in
causing momentous changes in the course of the war.
How these changes are played out is one of the striking features of
the novel. At the risk of spoilers, it is soon clear that the tangled
lives of the brothers--partially re-told from the present day--has generated
a version of events quite different from the typical alternate WWII
cliché. The key point of historical 'separation' involves Britain
making peace with Germany in mid-1941, before the US has entered the
war. But rather than leading to a capitulated world in which the Nazis
proceed on to global domination--the kind of kneejerk morale many writers
would opt for--Priest displays a more nuanced (if not always plausible)
future in which Germany and the US exhaust themselves in empire-building
in Russia, a Jewish homeland is created in Madagascar and Britain becomes
a leading force in the world. In writing about the war itself, Priest
gives careful attention to both the moral imperatives the British felt
in resisting Germany as well as genuine horror at how the violence of
the war always feeds on itself. While this could be read as a critique
of the usual justifications surrounding WWII--and the alternate histories
feeding off the period--Priest has been admirably exact in his even-handedness.
Moreover, not just one alternate future is fashioned in the novel's
events, but several. Characters cross back and forth between
these separate realities, as confused themselves at their passage as
those passages confuse the reader. So what at first begins as the usual
alternate history ploy of building narrative interest out of a historical
puzzle--just which set of events caused the world to become so different--turns
into something far more complex and interesting. For Priest, it is less
the trails of consequences that are worth detailing, but the original
moments where so much seems possible. This is where the paradox of history
can be most sharply seen. At the same time as we realize that we have
the power to change history, our little actions able to overturn the
fate of nations, we understand that we are ultimately powerless, because
we are blind to where those moments fall and what decisions to take.
In its telling, the novel reinforces the theme by tracing the narratives
of the two brothers through diary fragments, letters, eyewitness accounts,
even academic studies. In so doing, Priest shows public and personal
histories constantly in dispute with themselves, as the stories reveal
gaps, contradictions and mysteries that are never fully resolved. It
is a powerful metaphor of the way we try to make sense of how events
intertwine to form our lives and then how those lives intertwine to
If the book does have one weakness, it is that it can be difficult
to care much for the individual stories. Priest's narrative tricks,
his rather clinical style and his repressed characters are familiar
features from his other books, but while the combination works well
in firing the intellect, it is less effective in seducing our sympathy.
I can't say I was particularly bothered about what happened to either
brother by the end of the book. If anything, the novel comes over as
worthy--not unlike those brown-rice vegetarian meals where you're
constantly aware of how much you're having to chew your food. Better
than the McDonalds of the world--but maybe not as much fun.
Review by Philip Raines.
The Separation is also reviewed
in Adam Roberts' feature on the 2003 Arthur
C Clarke Award shortlist.
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