I’ve always had a weakness for “what-if” or “alternate-history” fiction — stories turning on random accidents removing people who would otherwise have become the major figures we know, or important decisions made in a way other than what history records, culminating in worlds very different from the one we inhabit. Of course, as with all books, some such efforts are more worthy of my time than others. I would very much like back the several hours I once spent on a Harry Harrison alternate Civil War novel that left me wishing I could scrape literary residue off my eyeballs and that the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind could bleach the plot from my memory.
Other alternate-history books, happy to say, are much better.
Sean Gabb’s The Churchill Memorandum (Kindle version here) is one of the more sophisticated, cynical and well-written takes on the alternative-history theme that I’ve read. Imagine a version of the 1950s in which Nazi Germany still exists, as a superpower, but has followed a path similar to that taken by China in our world: some political loosening, a lot of economic liberalization, and a complete about-face on anti-semitism (Hitler died before the Holocaust, or World War II, could be implemented). The other major superpower is Great Britain, which remains mostly free, prosperous and still settled in its colonial ways and attitudes.
In this alternate world, America is a second-rate power under the rule of Harry Anslinger, of alcohol- and, later, drug-prohibition fame. While almost a laughable figure now, Anslinger at his height was a dangerous and fanatical creature, and his fictional regime strikes me as a likely extrapolation of the real man’s style, if he’d succeeded to such power. The reason for that twist is the driving force for this novel, as young historian Anthony Markham — more snobbily English than thou as he compensates for his frowned-upon homosexuality and ethnically mixed heritage — is drawn into an international conflict over the possession of a document penned by the (in alternate reality) obscure Winston Churchill, revealing just how the world was divvied up and the U.S. pushed into totalitarianism and international irrelevance.
Markham technically violates one of my rules for fiction, which call for a main character with whom I can identify, or is at least likable. He’s too cowardly and self-involved to satisfy that requirement. But he’s written with such humor, and required to run such a gauntlet of trying circumstances, that it’s easy to forgive his flaws — especially when he longs for another shot of morphine to carry him through the inevitable next set of tribulations.
Familiar twentieth-century figures abound in this world — though in appropriately skewed ways. German prosperity can be attributed to the political ascendancy of economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Ayn Rand is an imprisoned dissident in the U.S., and young Margaret Roberts is being groomed for an unprecedented future as a woman prime minister.
Americans unfamiliar with British political or journalistic life should keep Google handy to look up the names of conspirators willing to use the most brutal means to win or keep political power in this alternate U.K. Gabb’s treatment of his characters suggests a well-informed insight into the personal failings of their real-world counterparts.
As you might guess from some of the names dropped above, Gabb is a libertarian — director of the Libertarian Alliance in the U.K. He’s also an accomplished novelist; as Richard Blake, he’s authored the excellent Aelric series of historical novels set in the later Roman empire. And he’s a historian. The combination seems to have made him an author who cares about freedom, but is too aware of the realities of world events to believe that a world that he (and other British libertarians) might find more attractive than our own could have been achieved without important trade-offs.
The result is great entertainment and very much worthy of a read.