Review by Adam Selby-Martin
In the alternate history genre, both in written form and in television and cinema, there have been a number of stories that revolve around attempts by time travellers to assassinate or otherwise ‘deal’ with Adolf Hitler before he can become Fuhrer and begin the Holocaust and the Second World War.
The classic episode No Time Like The Past from the original The Twilight Zone follows time traveller Paul Driscoll as he tries to kill Hitler, but fails; Stephen Fry’s novel Making History sees Hitler’s birth be prevented, only for an even more charismatic and effective Fuhrer take his place; and the short story by John Scalzi, “Missives From Possible Futures #1: Alternate History Search Results”, shows an increasingly improbable series of scenarios in which Hitler is killed, either accidentally or through assassination by time travellers.
There are many more examples in the genre, but certainly all of the above instances involve well-intentioned individuals attempting to kill Hitler in order to prevent the horrors and tragedies involved in the Second World War. Until now, however, I had never come across a piece of alternate history fiction that depicts time travellers trying to prevent the assassination of Adolf Hitler. And yet that is the plot of Ian James’ Saving Hitler: An Alternate History Time Travel Adventure
It would be something of an understatement to say that the author has approached the genre from a different angle than is usual – an alternate angle, if you will – and that approach is reflected in every element of it, beginning with the cover art. It’s a gorgeous piece of art, and certainly one of the most accomplished and attractive covers that I’ve seen while reading and reviewing book; it has a distinctly comic book, perhaps even manga, feel to it, with bright, distinctive colours and well-chosen and complementary fonts. It also does a great job of putting across the theme of the title – the top of the cover has the merged Rising Sun-Swastika symbol that highlights the dystopian nature of the universe it’s set in, and the bottom features the wormhole device that allows the time-travel to occur, as well as combat troops from both empires about to clash. Unfortunately there’s no artist credited for the cover, but whoever made it should be head-hunted by other authors for covers for their next titles.
Moving to the plot of the book itself, in one way it’s rather straight-forward, following the tropes and conventions of this type of fiction: the protagonist is recruited by an eccentric but incredibly smart scientist to use an experimental piece of technology to travel through time (and parallel universes) to a time when Adolf Hitler was still alive – although of course the intention is to save the Fuhrer rather than assassinate him. The bare-bones of the plot may be conventional, however, but it’s fair to say that literally everything else about the novel is absolutely not – and believe me, that’s a good thing, because James subverts almost every aspect of the trope.
To begin with, the world that the protagonist is travelling from is most definitely a dystopia, and a particularly horrific one at that: the assassination of Adolf Hitler in 1941 allowed a more competent Goering, advised by the Wehrmacht, to take control of the Reich and win on the Eastern Front, as well as subdue the United Kingdom by the mid-1940s. At the same time, a resurgent Imperial Japan turned the tide against the United States and won the war in the Pacific. Eventually both empires occupied the rest of the world, and by 2017 the non-Aryan/Japanese population has been exterminated; the protagonist, Nakano Ryo, is a soldier who is on leave after returning from a campaign to eradicate a hidden tribe in Papa New Guinea. Both empires are resurgent, but the downside is that, eventually, one must triumph over the other; and by the beginning of Saving Hitler it has become apparent that the Reich has become the dominant power, with the Japanese Emperor abdicating his power in favour of the German Chancellor.
It’s a particularly grim dystopia, and the author does a brilliant job in imagining it and providing little hints to the reader: from the casual way in which Ryo refers to the killing of the ‘lesser’ tribesmen, to the relentless advancements in technology to the detriment of personal liberties and freedom, and the homogenization of Germanic and Japanese culture and physical identities. The Cold War between the two ultra-nationalist empires is also well-depicted, with more and more evidence being supplied as the story advances that highlights just how the Reich intends to deal with its Japanese counterparts (and now inferiors). It is not a nice background and world, and in a ‘normal’ time-travelling story, the protagonist would be approached by someone who wants to make a desperate leap into the past to try and undo everything. And Ryo is indeed contacted by Professor Hideyoshi, who slowly persuades him to travel back in time to save Hitler.
Saving the Fuhrer’s life, says Hideyoshi, will ensure that he commits various blunders and leads the Reich to defeat, and thereby change the world for the better.
For Japan. Because, in another brilliant twist on the tired old trope, the Professor is no hidden lover of democracy, or a character who believes that the world needs to be fundamentally changed, or is corrupt and wrong. No – he’s just a fanatical ultra-nationalist who believes that the wrong empire is triumphant in their 2017; by saving Hitler, they can ensure (with some future knowledge) that Japan is the country that comes out on top and dominates the world, and not the filthy Aryans. Although you may need a slightly strong stomach for some of the dystopian details that the author uses to construct the world that Ryo and Hideyoshi inhabit, it was oddly refreshing to have protagonists who wanted to change the world for the better, but for values of ‘better’ that aren’t the idealised, white-washed ideals of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ and so forth that usually dominate the genre. It became rather intriguing to follow the story and see how the pair of zealots would try and change the timeline for their own betterment, and not of the humanity that had already been exterminated.
There are some great action scenes later on in the book, and some interesting digressions on the nature of time, and how the time machine might actually function, which the author does well to tie into the flow of the novella as a whole. I greatly enjoyed reading Saving Hitler and following the trials and tribulations of the characters as they tried to save the life of Hitler, and I intend to read more titles by Mr James in the very near future.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews