December 1942. The Imperial Japanese Army, having cleared the Allied resistance across Papua New Guinea, invades the Australian mainland. Japanese armies land in Darwin, Cairns and Townsville. There is a sporadic and short lived fighting, but the Japs are largely unopposed in their drive down the coast towards the New South Wales border, the fighting units of the Australian army having been withdrawn south to the Brisbane Line. Brisbane is repeatedly bombed throughout January and February, and as the northern Japanese offensive approaches, an amphibious landing north of Byron Bay puts the Diggers dug in on the northern outskirts of the Queensland capital between the Imperial pincers.
Why are we fascinated by alternative history? I think it’s partly because our own lives are a never ending series of forks in the road; everyday we choose another future at the expense of all others. Most of us live with some regrets – they are the twinges of longing for paths not taken but possibly leading to a better or at least a different present. It’s not too difficult then to imagine our general history taking different turns. Herein lies the second factor. Because our present in the English-speaking countries in particular has been quite good – at least to the extent that not many people would wish it to be radically different – there is a thrill and a frisson to imagining dystopias. Those elsewhere who have lived through nightmares of history – the Nazi occupation, Stalinist Russia, Maoism in China – don’t have to imagine worse; and it would be difficult to. We, on the other hand, relatively untouched by war, totalitarianism and other man-made catastrophes, can well guiltily dream of terrible “what ifs”.
Last night, over dinner, I have watched the second last episode of the second series of “The Man in the High Castle”, the original production from the Amazon studios, based on the old Philip K Dick novel. It is a great show – not just entertaining, but also gloriously imagined visually. The conceit of the book and the series is that the Axis powers have won the Second World War, with the United States divided between the Reich in the east and the Japanese Empire in the west, with an unoccupied zone in the Rockies acting as a buffer between the totalitarian victors. It’s a dark and terrifying vision of the 1960s without Elvis, John F Kennedy, the hippies and the Freedom Riders, where the man in the grey flannel suit wears a swastika armband and the rising sun flutters over the setting sun of Malibu. The fact that it’s impossible to think of any real life scenario where that might have indeed happened does not take away from the pleasure – or the discomfort – of watching the show. What would an occupied America be like? How would an average person behave under such extraordinary circumstances? We in the English-speaking world often sit in judgment of those who have lived under fascism and communism, imagining we would have bowed less and resisted more. But would we have really? I’m glad that we don’t and can’t know, but I fear the answers would not be as clear cut and gratifying as we hope.
In between the first and the second series, I picked Dick’s book off the shelves and re-read it after twenty odd years. It’s a strange novel – as is most of Dick’s literary output – that would not translate well into a movie (it’s certainly too short for a mini-series, much less several seasons’ worth). Thankfully the good people at Amazon have merely taken the basic hook (an occupied America) and some characters, but added many more and came up with an entirely different plot that makes “The Man in the High Castle” more like the other “Nazis won” thrillers, Robert Harris’ “Fatherland” and Len Deighton’s “SS-GB”, than Philip K Dick’s science-fiction classic. The alternative history genre is often considered a part of broader science-fiction, and in Dick’s case (“The Man” had won the prestigious SF Hugo Award after it came out in the early 60s) it’s arguably a correct designation as the book (and the TV series) is not a straightforward what-if but touches on alternative realities and the nature of reality itself. But this should not scare off readers who normally dislike and stay away from SF. There are no aliens and space battles here, and “Fatherland” and “SS-GB” show that most of the genre consists of works of creative reimagination rather than fantasy (nota bene, “Fatherland” has been very forgettably brought to the small screen while a more recent BBC adaptation of “SS-GB” has much more going for it).
While I Ching makes only a few appearances in the series (in the hands of the Japanese Trade Minister), in the book virtually all the main characters, both Asian and Caucasian, use it as a guide for their actions. “Grasshopper Lies Heavy”, the underground bestseller and an alternative history where the Allies have won the war, was written using I Ching, which is almost an in-joke, since Philip K Dick subsequently revealed that “The Man in the High Castle” itself has been written that way, making it perhaps one of the most experimental books ever created. The fact that randomness – or fate – as much as the author decided the actions of the characters no doubt contributes to the strange quality of the novel. How very 60s! The series fortunately opts for conventional, man-made storytelling.
“Fatherland”, still one of my all time favourite thrillers, is a more satisfying book than “The Man”, if one overlooks the fact that its central mystery, like in all other Harris thrillers, is quite ridiculous and far-fetched. But “The Man in the High Castle” makes for far more satisfying viewing. In the end we are entertained and titillated but grateful this is only an alternative history. Which character would we be – the Nazi, the resister or part of the great mass in the middle that keeps their head down and tries to survive the reality in however an unheroic manner? Better we only dream.