An Alternate History reading list for this moment
Are we living in an alternate branch of history? I’ve been asking myself that question since waking up the morning of November 9, with the feeling that reality had turned sideways. Since then, many of us have shared the stages of shock, denial, anger and sadness that come after a great loss. But when so many people share these feelings at the same time, that sense of things being profoundly wrenched out of place, of being exiled from the world you know, takes on a different weight.
Elections can be turning points. Millions of people weighed in on the country’s direction — leaving aside the issues of how their opinions were influenced — and this time the joker came out on top, confounding the expectations of many. A shift happened, which we’re just beginning to live through, and which has the power to affect the world. Trying to make sense of this, I keep coming back to the imaginative precedents offered by alternate history.
The impulse to imagine alternate histories has long roots. Two thousand years ago, the Roman historian Livy speculated on whether Alexander the Great could have defeated Rome. Modern alternate history emerged along with science fiction, as in L. Sprague de Camp’s 1939 classic Lest Darkness Fall: an archeologist finds himself thrown back in time to a slightly different Rome in the sixth century CE, where he manages to insert enough technology and knowledge to prevent the coming of the Dark Ages.
The imagination of darker alternate timelines — with the Nazis and other Axis powers winning World War II, for example — has become an enduring strand in the genre. There’s Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which takes place in a post-war America carved up into protectorates of the Nazis and the Japanese. Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy plays out a timeline in which Britain has become a fascist dictatorship following a peace made with Nazi Germany, thanks to the influence of the appeasement faction and American isolationism. Simon Zelitch’s Judenstaat offers another possible World War II outcome, with a Jewish state arising not in Palestine but in the area that for us became part of East Germany, and falling inside the oppressive political orbit of the USSR.
Then there are novels that give us a vision of a homegrown Fascism taking power in the United States. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America traces an alternate historical path in the 1930s, following the election of Charles Lindbergh as President (in our time, he was a Nazi sympathizer). This leads to state-sponsored anti-Semitism that includes a Jewish relocation program. Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here follows a Huey Long-like demagogue who, soon after his election to the presidency, uses military force to establish a totalitarian state. Technically It Can’t Happen Here may not qualify as alternate history, since Lewis was writing in 1935 about an upcoming election, not about a divergent event in the past.
I’ve seen many of these novels cited as parallels to the moment we find ourselves in now. But I haven’t heard anyone bring up a more obscure novel by Philip K. Dick, Radio Free Albemuth, which was posthumously published in 1985. Dick also adapted the plot as a story-within-a-story inside his great late work, VALIS, where it appeared as a film watched by the characters.
Set in the late 1960s, Radio Free Albemuth hinges on the election of Ferris F. Fremont, a corrupt politician associated with a right-wing populist movement. As it turns out, Fremont is also a covert Russian agent. Fremont was partly inspired by Richard Nixon, whose appeal to “Middle America” nominally qualified him as a populist. But as a parallel to our President Elect, Dick’s Fremont hits the trifecta: corrupt dealings, right-wing populism, and Russian influence.
It was Dick’s swirling mix of paranoia and reality-confusion that I thought of the morning after the election. The Man in the High Castle, for example, sets up not just one alternate strand but several: there’s a book-within-a-book by an author who imagines a different ending to the war, with the U.S. and Britain becoming the postwar superpowers, and this serves to sabotage the novel’s dominant reality. (John Gray delves into this aspect of the novel in an insightful piece comparing it to the current TV adaptation.)
Philip K. Dick is not the author I’d prefer to choose as the prophet of our coming political time. But the creeping ambiguity of his fictional multiverses feel like a match for the fear and uncertainty pervading the world we find ourselves in now.
Originally published at Miriam Seidel.