Marooned guest: Tom Anderson
Lavendered, with just a few possessions.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be marooned – or perhaps I should say, given the circumstances of Harold Wilson’s adventures at the end of his stint as PM (as described in Agent Lavender by Tom Black and Jack Tindale), “lavendered” – on a lonely isle with just a few items of personal significance, and trying to work out which items of personal significance you need to select to take with you, and working out how you would cope in the new surroundings; it’s an intriguing prospect (I think so, anyway, and I'm the Editor).
Have you wondered if this editor has ever started an article series with such a long opening sentence?
Well, your curiosity will be sated in this new series. This series is, unsurprisingly based on a premise first presented by Roy Plomley from 1942 until his death in 1985. He was followed by lesser hosts: Michael Parkinson (1986-1988), Sue Lawley (1988-2006), Kirsty Young (2006-2018), and Lauren Laverne (2018 to present) continued the tradition.
I refer, of course, to Desert Island Discs.
That series involved a castaway choosing 8 records to listen to on the Crusoe-like new existence (Caruso for Crusoe?).
In this variant, I’ll be discussing AH with a variety of people, and asking them to do something similar. The format will be 5 AH books, 1 real history book, 1 piece of alternate music, and 1 luxury item referenced in a work of AH. I’ll discuss the choices with the guest.
The first castaway is the very prolific Tom Anderson. Author of numerous books (some of which are listed at the end of this), nominated in 2018 for a Sideways Award with Bruno Lombardi for N’Oublions Jamais, author of many articles for this blog on a wide variety of subjects, a chemist of no little talent, and one of the biggest contributors to discussions on the forum.
Welcome to the isolation of the Lavender Isle. What’s the first AH book you’ve chosen?
The Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove. Or, if that’s cheating, specifically, book 3: Upsetting the Balance.
Worldwar, Upsetting the Balance, by Harry Turtledove.
Worldwar is one of the biggest reasons I got not only into Alternate History, but into history itself. The conceit of the series is simple; in mid-1942, at the height of the Second World War, the world is attacked by an alien conquest fleet with military technology roughly akin to what was modern when the book was written (1994). I always read it as an allegory for Gulf War era, technology-obsessed western militaries potentially coming undone when faced with technologically inferior foes but which had fighting spirit and resistance movements – although based on an interview with Gary Oswald posted here , I don’t think that was Turtledove’s intention. Regardless, Worldwar is not only a thought-provoking bit of blockbuster film AH, but one which also does a pretty good job of showing just how global WW2 got.
Some parts of the world certainly get more attention than others, but there is a good range of viewpoint characters and an exploration of just how different the experience in different nations was. Up until I read this series, my understanding of WW2 was very much that usually taught in British schools: “Hitler – Munich – Poland – the Blitz – D-Day – mumble mumble that’s it” with little mention of the role of even the United States, never mind the Soviet Union. As someone whose grandfather fought in the Pacific front, I had always known there was more to it, but Worldwar is the first place I really saw it put together. Upsetting the Balance is my favourite book because it has a lot of the most original ideas in the series, including the Race’s invasion of Britain. While the reasons for this are a little contrived, there is a big reveal slightly evocative of HG Wells: with Britain’s back to the wall, Churchill turns to the last resort and unleashes the poison gas reserves, only to find that the Race never invented war gases and has no countermeasures against them. This prompts the other powers to start using gas as well. I have a particular memory of having to order this book in America in 2003 in a different edition as it seemed to have vanished from all British shelves; in fact, it was the first book I ever ordered online!
And the second AH book you’ve selected?
For Want of a Nail, by Robert Sobel.
I did not actually read For Want of a Nail until quite recently, as it is not particularly easy to obtain. However, it had a huge, indirect impact on my own writing. I sometimes feel slightly embarrassed that some readers attribute the ‘scrapbook style’ of alternate history work to me, as I use it in Look to the West; most of that series consists of excerpts from in-universe history books, works of historical fiction and the like, rather than a traditional narrative. However, I did not create this style. I’ll talk about my direct inspiration later on, but for now, I think the true progenitor of it is For Want of a Nail. Robert Sobel was a serious, published historian (mostly of the history of business) and to write a book like this in 1973, when counterfactuals often get a snooty dismissal from alleged proper historians even today, is a remarkable creative decision.
Sobel’s point of divergence is that General Burgoyne wins the Battle of Saratoga in 1777 during the American Revolutionary War. With this British victory, France never enters the war on the rebel’s side and the rebellion is eventually subdued. Loyalist rule is restored in the form of the North American Union, while the remaining rebels flee westward and create the nation of ‘Jefferson’ in the region of Texas, which eventually merges with Mexican rebels against Spain to become the United States of Mexico. This story is told through a textbook (no pun intended) execution of the scrapbook style from a standing start, the excerpted sources containing a richness and depth that makes us truly believe that this world exists.
Sobel brings his experience of business history to give a solid economic foundation to his work; later events feature a corporation, Kramer Associates, becoming a world power in its own right. This is not only the beginnings of academic alternate history, in some ways it is also its peak.
Moving on to your third book. What is it?
The Plague Policeman, by Tony Jones.
This is our first SLP published entry on the list. Another thing that people often praised about my Look to the West is my worldbuilding, developing alternate paths for where technology can go, different terminology, different flags, and so on. If For Want of a Nail is, indirectly, the source of my scrapbook style, Tony Jones’ work is the source of my worldbuilding inspiration. Jones has developed several alternate history scenarios primarily for the purpose of being settings for roleplaying games. Some are more detailed than others, but one of the most ambitious and impressive is Clive-less World, which is the timeline in which the novel The Plague Policeman is set. As the name implies, the point of divergence for Cliveless World is Robert Clive managing to commit suicide earlier than our timeline and removing his impact from history – and in particular his victory at the Battle of Plassey. India becomes French rather than British, and indeed France is the world’s pre-eminent power going forward, with Britain instead forming a union with Prussia. Most of Africa was never colonised and is a patchwork of tiny states. Conversely, there was a scramble for Antarctica.
All of Jones’ genius for originality is on full display in this setting. Biology has moved faster than in our timeline but computing more slowly, with Jones predicting earlier pandemics and disease checks at airports long before they appeared in real life. Aircraft only have one wing (a real, but obscure school of design in our timeline) and nobody thinks this is in anyway unusual; it’s just the way the world works.
Major political ideologies include Panopticon versus Nulloptican (whether the state should be able to watch people or not) and Rationalism. What is most impressive is that Jones creates a tapestry which feels natural, but very alien, and his characters never bother to speculate about things being different; why would they? To me, this kind of almost xenofictional narrative is the heart of what makes AH unique.
Can you talk about your fourth book?
Fight and Be Right, by Ed Thomas.
Everyone knows who Winston Churchill is, but hardly anyone knows his father Lord Randolph Churchill. But both had illustrious political careers that seemed to end in disaster – it’s just that WW2 provided the opportunity for Winston to make a comeback and make his reputation as a war leader.
What if Randolph had had the same opportunity, stemming from a tiny, inconsequential point of divergence involving some letters being lost? Really, though, the interest of Fight and Be Right is not about that. To me, it’s about two things.
Firstly, Thomas has a fantastic ability to relate a series of increasingly less believable and farther-fetched events, only to end in a footnote quietly saying: “All of this is as OTL [our timeline] so far.” This is both a fun way to learn some of the odder events of real history, while also making anywhere he takes the story after that feel more plausible by comparison!
Secondly, the story cuts back and forth between the 1880s and the 1930s, and does an excellent job at pulling the rug out from under your assumptions about where it’s going. The same is true of Thomas’ A Greater Britain, and it feels more realistic to actual history. In practice, trends don’t continue forever, and what looks like a course that’s positive for the rise of a country may turn out to spell its doom. Both of these factors are ones I’ve also tried to do in my Look to the West series. The universe of Fight to be Right is well grounded, with the 1940s further explored in the follow-up The World of Fight and be Right.
And what about your fifth book?
Walking Through Dreams, by Jared Kavanagh.
Kavanagh’s as yet unpublished Decades of Darkness was my direct inspiration for using the scrapbook style pioneered by For Want of a Nail as mentioned earlier. Impressive as that work is, arguably it is surpassed by Walking Through Dreams, the first in the Lands of Red and Gold series. Backed up by both moving poetic language and rigorous scientific detail, Kavanagh imagines a world where an allohistorical founder crop, the red yam, developed in Australia – allowing Australian Aboriginal tribes to settle down as sedentary farmers and create river valley civilisations like those in China, India, or the Fertile Crescent. Australia’s notoriously dangerous wildlife, coupled to cities and floodplains, leads to novel pandemic diseases. When the first Dutch explorers arrive in the 1600s, a link is established which leads to European colonial contact and conflict, while Australian diseases spread back to Europe and have an immediate impact on history as they start impacting on the contemporary European wars.
One thing which makes the writing especially impressive is that Kavanagh makes the Australian civilisations feel deep and believable, and it is easy to forget that we are essentially seeing the OTL European nations interacting with what is effectively a fantasy world.
Kavanagh is also not afraid to depict scenes of the horrors stemming from that interaction without ever losing the wonder of first contact; there is little authorial moral judgement, a factor which can often undermine suspension of disbelief in alternate history. Lands of Red and Gold is the only alternate history book which I have found naturally plugging to people as diverse as historians, ethnologists, and agricultural researchers. It is a landmark in the genre and richly deserves its Sidewise Award nomination.
Moving on from AH books, you’re allowed one OTL history book. What would be your choice?
I feel I have to pick 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World by Frank McLynn, as this was my primary inspiration for Look to the West and got me interested in the 18th Century. Honourable mention to Perilous Question by Lady Antonia Fraser, which inspired my novella The Unreformed Kingdom.
We’ve loaded you up with books, so you will have plenty to read. What about music? What piece of AH music would you like to have?
I’d like to hear Wenzel Druzhetsky’s Jacobin Wars Suite from Look to the West, which currently exists only in my imagination.
And your final item allowed is a luxury item. What will that be?
An insult I came up with was: “The sort of person who’d ask for an MP3 player as their luxury item on Desert Island Discs.” I won’t do that, nor copy Terry Pratchett and ask for the Chrysler Building. To keep to the AH theme, let’s say some means of playing the game Command & Conquer: Red Alert, which was my earliest inspiration for learning about the genre and I vividly remember reading the manual from cover to cover.
We’ve got you all supplied up for your stay of Lavender Isle. How well do you think you will cope?
Oh, doubtless poorly. I used to think I wasn’t a very social person, but the experience of lockdown in 2020 and the relief of returning regularly to the office in 2021 put paid to that impression.
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
The Look to the West series