By Alexander Wallace
The very conceit of a German victory in World War II is in and of itself a cliche in our online alternate history communities; however, mainstream published authors have an annoying tendency (speaking as someone with approaching ten years in the online community) to not realize that fact. It feels like every few years some mainstream author comes out with a new take on the subject that non-genre critics will fawn over briefly and at which those in my circles will roll their eyes in disdain. I think this is a manifestation of a problem that for many writers, alternate history is but one literary toy to play with rather than a dedicated genre to be explored in its own right. As a result of this, many dilettantes in the genre have little idea of the conventions thereof.
In that light, I was quite satisfied to know that C. J. Sansom had at least dipped his toes in the genre and the subject matter before writing Dominion. In his afterword, he says that he came to the conclusion that Operation Sealion was absolutely impossible on his own when doing research for his book. Likewise, he explicitly praises Robert Harris’ Fatherland, which is widely lauded as an alternate history classic by the community.
Sansom’s commitment to doing alternate history right, as a first-time dabbler in the genre, shows throughout the six hundred or so pages of Dominion; this is a world where Lord Halifax becomes Britain’s Prime Minister and agrees to a peace with the Germans to prevent further bloodshed. This is something of a cliche in its own right, but it has become that because it is a go-to way to get Britain out of the war in a manner that isn’t as flagrantly absurd as a successful Operation Sealion. For this alone, Sansom deserves praise.
Like many alternate histories, written within and without the dedicated alternate history community, the plot of Dominion is a mystery. I’ve seen a couple reasons put forth as to why this is so common; one friend of mine said that both mystery stories and alternate history stories place a huge emphasis on atmosphere, and so putting them together works well. I’ve seen others on the internet argue that this is because alternate history is a genre that can be so focused on little details, and mysteries have plots that hinge on tiny details (upon thinking about it, I think those two have much more in common than I initially thought). In any case, the mystery of this book revolves around scientist Frank Muncaster, who needs to be smuggled out of the country regarding a very particular secret he knows.
The atmosphere of this novel is one of the best-crafted environments I have ever read in print alternate history. Much like Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich or Fatherland, the entirety of this authoritarian Britain oozes a deeply unnerving sheen to it, giving you the distinct impression that an SS man might be lurking behind every corner, looking to arrest you personally. Like reading about life in a real authoritarian state or the classics of dystopian literature, it makes you feel rather paranoid.
In terms of plausibility, overall I think the notion that a Britain that comes to terms with the Germans in the manner described is a reasonably realistic one; a German triumph of this sort would doubtlessly have negative effects on worldwide standards of democracy. I do, though, doubt that Britain, who exhorts itself to “rule the waves,” would ever allow a German naval base on the Isle of Wight.
Sansom does editorialize a bit regarding who he thinks would collaborate with the Nazis. Lord Beaverbrook, Enoch Powell, and Oswald Mosely are some of those that he has working with the occupiers, which I found to be believable. Sansom does go overboard, though, when he casts the Scottish National Party as enthusiastic collaborators (Sansom is an outspokenly unionist Scot). A good chunk of his afterword is him raging furiously at the existence of people who want Scotland independent from the United Kingdom, making forced comparisons with the Nazis that don’t particularly hold up well.
But that is perhaps the only flaw in an otherwise sterling novel. This is the more ‘realistic’ Nazi victory world, like Fatherland or In the Presence of Mine Enemies instead of the more fantastic counterpart thereof, like The Man in the High Castle or SS-GB. This is a book that has earned its status as a modern classic of the genre, and those who are looking for a fresh take on a well-trod path will gain much from it.