I’ve put all my bedroom furniture together now, and my bedtime reading over the past few days has been Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle. [Typically, Penguin publishes the book inside two different tarted-up covers, but with the same nasty old typesetting inside.] As “what if the Axis won the War?” novels go it’s not as frightening or convincing as Robert Harris’s Fatherland, (one of the finest thrillers I have ever read as well as being genuinely moving) but so far it is excellent—and particularly thoughtful about some of the subtler social and ethnic consequences of Japan and Germany carving up the World between them.
Fatherland was made into a terrible film, but Bladerunner is famous for being one of those rare adaptations that improves on the original: Dick’s story Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?. Look at this list of films based on his work* and wonder at Dick’s extraordinary imagination. Sadly, his prose often lapses into a special kind of awful. A few years back I made it through most of his collected short stories [I only link to the first volume] before stumbling on his unevenness and/or being repelled by his chronic sexism. Despite them, there is a wild, genre-creating inventiveness about his stories that gave me the same sort of thrill I got when I worked my way through Poe as a boy. I can also remember the first time I read P K Dick: I bought a collection including Second Variety and Variable Man in a book remainder shop when I was on holiday with my parents in Blackpool. It was so much more interesting than most of the shlocky, 50s-style science fiction I had read up until then that it might as well have been in a different language.
I am half way through The Man In The High Castle now and, completely atypically, this is the first time Dick has referred to a woman’s breast. (It belongs to an actress and is being fondled by Göring in the imagination of a German officer stationed in America.)
*The list doesn’t include Terminator or Alien, inspired by Second Variety and Beyond Lies The Wub respectively.
Yes, he did have an amazing imagination: it may have been due to the drugs (have you read the extraordinarily self-pitying whinge about the effects of drug experimentation at the end of A Scanner Darkly?) However it was achieved, he had the ability to get his ideas under your skin, like half-remembered dreams.
Personally found High Castle far superior to Fatherland – probably because I have studied the Third Reich in some depth and Harris’s novel is completely rooted upon the old good/bad German (or ‘a few bad apples’) paradigm which has been completely demolished by recent and not so recent scholarship.
Though much older and given the circumstances even less rigorously researched than Harris, PKD avoided this trap by contrasting Bad Germans to Good Japanese – and dubious as this is it is still much less absurd than the central idea of Fatherland that 15 years after the German victory the only people on the whole planet who knows what happened to those 11 million Jews who have mysteriously disappeared are the few surviving attendees of the Wansee Conference whose bodies start popping up in the woods around Berlin.
The similarities to Gorky Park are also so obvious that I am surprised Martin Cruz Smith didn’t sue.
Getting back to Dick, try ‘The Transmigration of Timothy Archer’ which is both his last work, his most successful non-SF novel and the only one with a sympathetic female protagonist.
Re A Scanner Darkly I found the ‘whinge’ at the end so powerful that I’ve never been able to re-read it – but then my experience of drug experimentation is probably a lot grimmer than Stephen’s.
Have you read Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Summer Isles”? I think that’s my favourite what if alternate history (Britain loses the first world war and becomes fascist instead of Germany – the narrator is a gay man who sees homosexuals, gypsies, and the Irish being exiled to camps on said Isles). It’s beautifully written.
Tim Powers was a very close friend of P K Dick, and has always been among my favourite writers; has a similar extraordinary imagination and often re-tells history by focusing on strange details. His version of the Cold War, Declare is fantastic, and one of his early novels, The Drawing of the Dark is a version of the Fisher King myth set in Vienna in 1529 – the “Dark” refers to a beer which is the foundation of all Western culture.
Other books include “The Stress of Her Regard”, which features Byron and Shelley (and his doppelganger). Powers is also the unacknowledged inspiration of that Johnny Depp pirate film, which has to be heavily influenced by Powers’ On Stranger Tides.
The male imagining of a woman’s breast is sexual, but surely not sexist per se.
Further to Roger’s point about Fatherland: I only saw the film but the central conceit of the Holocaust being kept secret seemed so ludicrous to me that I never bothered with the book. The film version, at least, was also predicated on the failure of the Normandy landings leading to a German victory – also foolish: the Allies would just have A-bombed Berlin. In fact, the main beneficiary of a failure on D-Day would have been the USSR – we would have had the Iron Curtain on the Atlantic coast of Europe instead of in the middle. That would be a good subject for an alt-history novel, though I’ve never heard of one on that theme (Nazis make for better sales, I guess).
Archangel was a decent read, though, and Pompeii likewise (just started it).
Someone chose Philip K Dick for their specialised subject on last night’s Mastermind final. He didn’t do terribly well, unfortunately.
Would highly recommend Christopher Priest’s The Separation.
This is a very clever reworking of the Man in the High Castle theme – again it starts off in a world where the Nazis won – or rather Churchill in 1940 negotiated a peace which left them in control of continental Europe (just as various right-wing historians like Andrew Roberts think he should have done – but then subverts the whole concept in a very PKD way.
But avoid at all costs the works of Harry Turtledove who has become a virtual alt history industry churning out several what-if books every year.
As I am thinking of writing something on the whole sub-genre of What if Hitler Won? fiction and how it reflects changing perceptions of the Third Reich, so I did read Turtledove’s in The Presence of Mine Enemies.
This starts off reasonably enough with a small group of Jewish families who have survived into the Third Reich’s sixth decade by adopting false Aryan identities, but then quickly degenerates into an astonishingly lazy rehash of the fall of the USSR complete with a Nazi Gorbachev, a Nazi Yeltsin, satellite states experimenting with fascism with a human face, an attempted SS coup foiled by mass mobililization of Berliners etc – it is so mindbogglingly bad it actually makes Fatherland look quite good.
Alos wish I could find tapes of the 1970’s BBC series An Engishman’s Castle with Kenneth More, which I vaguely recollect as being The Man in the High Castle set in England and stripped of all the wierder Dickian elements.
Steve K – agree that the Russian offensive against Army Group Centre which took place a few weeks later did far more damage to the Wehrmacht and would still have taken them to within striking distance of Berlin even if the Normandy landings had failed totally.
But would we then have nuked Berlin in 1945?
I am not sure that I agree with the common leftist prejudice that the Americans would never have dropped a nuclear bomb on white folks, but we do know a lot about the decision to A-bomb Japan and that the main reasons they chose Hiroshima and Nagasaki rather than Tokyo is that these cities were more or less virgin targets that had not been already bombed into ruins – and they needed to not just break the Japanese will to resist but also to get a clear idea of just how effective these new weapons were.
Under this criteria it would have been pretty impossible for the Americans to find a worthwhile target as every major German city had been bombed to buggery by winter 1944-5.
It is also pretty inconcievable that the Germans could have stopped the Russians taking Berlin anyway before the Americans had usable A-bombs in summer 1945 (arguably they would have diverted more forces from France to the east which may have slowed the soviet advance by a few weeks, but even a complete disaster on D-Day would not have removed the threat of further allied landings later in 1944 or early 1945 – so the bulk of the German armies in the west would have stayed there until it was too late).
My own feeling is that if D-Day had failed the Russians would have been allowed to occupy all of Germany up to the Rhine and allied efforts would have been focused on liberating France, Italy and the Low Countries as the German occupying forces there collapsed.
On the other hand had the whole of Germany been incorporated in the soviet sphere in 1945, the American position in western Europe would have been a lot weaker, so it is not that hard to imagine Berlin being nuked in a Third World War within a relatively short period of time.
If you seriously want to fantasise about a Nazi victory (and for some reasons a lot of people have) the turning point has to be put back a lot earlier to a negotiated peace between Britain and Germany in 1940 (a successful German invasion was never feasible work as the Royal Navy would have sunk any invasion fleet in the Channel) or the fall of Moscow in 1941 followed by a general collapse of the Red Army.
The German navy’s southern strategy of taking out the British bases in the Mediterranean before turning east against Russia, might concievably have forced the British to make peace in 1941, but would have also given the Russians a vital extra year to prepare for the German onslaught.
Any point after the American entry into the war and the German failure to take Moscow just doesn’t work as the imbalance of resources then became so great as to make allied victory inevitable (for details see Richard Overy’s excellent book Why the Allies Won).
I saw Bladerunner in a double bill with The Man Who Fell tio Earth, I think at that cinema in Baker Street. It seemed to go on forever: Five bum-numbing stars.
The P K Dick novels I’d recommend (and I have them all) are Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, and Martian Timeslip, which is a brilliant riff on 1950s California transported to Mars, where the canals are unionised. The best Dick work unfilmed.
There is also a brilliant pastiche of PK Dick called Philip K Dick is Dead, Alas, by Michael Bishop. Confidently recommended.
While on the subject, the film directly drawn from Second Variety is called Screamers, with Peter Weller (in his Robocop days) and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
For the most startling World War II what-if, try Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s film “It Happened Here” about the occupation of Britain. Made in the early 60s for 2/- 6d with amateur actors and based on real events in occupied Europe, it thinks its way into the 1940s and drags you with it.
I first saw Bladerunner completely unexpectedly: my father worked in advertising, and had been invited to bring all of us to a “film premier” (really just a theatre rented by the agency where they were supposed to show a yet-to-be-released film). For some reason the advertised film was replaced by Bladerunner, which was at that point some months away from release. I had of course heard of it, and was eagerly anticipating it, but had no idea I would see it so soon. As the Ladd Company logo came up, and the music started, I began to think, hang on, this isn’t the advertised movie… As the title credits started, excitement began to build (Ridley Scott! Harrison Ford!) Just as I dared hope it was Bladerunner, the title confirmed it. Pretty amazing.
I don’t much like Bladerunner. It’s OK, I suppose, if you’ve nothing better to do.