By Matthew Kresal
Alternate history offers us windows into worlds as they might have been. Arguably, this is a function of all fiction, including stories set in the near future. At some point, however, tomorrow does arrive, and it can turn those works into pieces of unintended alternate history. One such example comes from 1982 and the pen of thriller writer Ted Allbeury who imagined Britain just a few years in the future under foreign occupation in All Our Tomorrows.
Not that Allbeury, a bestseller in his day, was alone in imagining such a dystopic vision of British politics gone wrong. Ryan Fleming, in the final part of his Days of Future Past series, offered a look at many such works, including Anthony Burgess’s 1985 and Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup. Professor Steven Fielding likewise explored several such visions in the 2013 radio documentary Very British Dystopias, part of BBC Radio 4's Archive on 4 series. What separated All Our Tomorrows from those other works was that the occupation came at the hands of its Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union.
Set toward the end of the 1980s, based on hints in the dialogue, Allbeury presents a version of history where Thatcher fell from power far sooner than she did in real life, perhaps as early as the 1983 General Election. The first half of the novel details a Britain on the brink of collapse thanks to a prolonged, if not continuous from one to another, series of strike actions by various labour unions. A Britain that also finds itself separated from Europe, both politically and economically, opening the door for the Soviets to force the British Prime Minister to come to Moscow. With the PM forced into agreeing to a “Treaty of Neutrality and Cooperation," it's not long before Soviet troops are marching into Whitehall, and the island nation falling firmly behind the Iron Curtain.
Timing is everything, and that is no exception for All Our Tomorrows. Written with the memory of the industrial actions of the seventies firmly in reader's memories, and before the Thatcher government broke the back of union power, and before the rise of Gorbachev, there's a certain ring of plausibility to events. Allbeury introduces a large cast of characters, from the PM to SAS Colonel Harry Andrews, which sometimes leaves it feeling a little unfocused, but which gives a comprehensive portrait of the nation and the world that could conceivably allow this to happen. Moreover, this portion felt like a dramatic counterpoint to Mullin's A Very British Coup, published the same year (which. in turn, depicts a left-wing British government coming to power and finding itself under siege politically, including by the US government).
It's in the second half where things go awry. Using the aforementioned Colonel Andrews, and drawing on parallels including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Allbeury features the establishment of an American backed set up an armed resistance movement that gradually becomes more and more effective. Despite that, the focus begins to shift away from Andrews and the occupation, despite glimpses, including the shooting down of Soviet transports with Stinger missiles, which is a highlight of the novel. Instead, the focus falls onto superpower machinations in Washington and Moscow. Yet, Allbeury gets bogged down in the clichés of Cold War era diplomacy, building up eventually to a summit conference that effectively ends the Cold War, with Britain turning to an American style democracy in the wake of events.
It's an ending that, given how the end of the Cold War played out in real life within a decade of the novel's publication, seems downright laughable. Even under different circumstances, it might not have been possible to bring things to a completely satisfactory conclusion given that Allbeury introduced far too many characters with too many threads in the first half. It's perhaps a case of biting off more than can be chewed, or realizing as an author (if not as a reader) that there are only so many pages left with a lot of proverbial balls in the air. Either way, it causes it to end with something of a whimper, rather a bang.
Despite the issues with its second half of the novel, All Our Tomorrows is a perfectly readable novel of Cold War alternate history. Allbeury, even with his tendency to tell rather than show, creates a believable version of events for Britain to find itself under Soviet occupation and the first half is a fine piece of (however unplanned) alternate history. A future that came not to pass, but remains intriguing, if not a tad frustrating in places, to read.