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The Road to a New Alternate History. Part 4.

By Adam Selby-Martin.

The spectacle of Jahr Null, Episode 10, Season 3 The Man in the High Castle.

Picture courtesy: The Man in the High Castle wiki fandom.

The first three articles in this series looking at A New Alternate History can be found Here, Here, and Here.

Blowing up the Statue of Liberty: Spectacle, Swastikas, Psychology, and New Alternate History.

Part 1 – Defining Spectacle

Let us begin this latest article about New Alternate History by sharing a secret, you and I. Something that we must speak of only between ourselves, muttering into each other’s ears, safe from anyone else overhearing it. Whisper it so that only the soft susurrating breeze hears it – once – and then carries it off into the distance, fading away into the horizon never to be heard again. Are you ready? I will now hiss it gently, treating it like a newborn foal that will kick us if we startle it.

Gently now:




We don’t just like it, we love it. We crave it. Spectacle – whether in real life or in a piece of fiction – entertains us on a base, emotional level in a manner that nothing else truly can. Consider the feeling you feel inside of yourself when watching the fireworks erupt at midnight on 31st December, intense colours sparkling over Big Ben and reflecting from the spokes of the London Eye. Or the roar of the crowd, thousands strong, as someone scores a goal in the last seconds of the last minute of the match. The pomp and pageantry of the King’s Coronation, with its rank of marching soldiers preceding the golden carriage; the pregnant pause before the crown comes into contact with the monarch’s brow for the first time.

The London Eye, New Year's 2012/13.

Picture courtesy London Eye.

There are an infinite multitude of scenarios that I could go on to describe those feelings; and as it is in real life, so it is in fiction – but even more so, as fiction can describe a level of spectacle that would be impossible in real life. The entire ‘Blockbuster’ film ur-genre is built upon the very concept, hurling epic spectacle after awe-inspiring spectacle to the extent that many recent blockbusters are almost nothing but CGI-laden ‘spectacle’ scenes chained together by forgettable dialogue and character scenes that the latest dictatorial market can insert or remove as required in order to woo their audiences.

Almost any genre in fiction can provide one of these examples of spectacle, from action adventure and crime to disaster and even romance; and of course, my personal favourite, science fiction. Of the many examples I could pick from here, I will always return to the sublime spectacle of various iconic monuments and buildings across the world being destroyed by flickering beams of energy from alien saucers during Independence Day – sequences shot entirely without CGI and instead using a combination of perfectly-sculpted miniatures and skilful camera angles. (*)

Resurgence. Spectacle, but not as we know it.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And of course the Alternate History genre is no different – and in fact I believe in many ways it can provide the ultimate example of spectacle. After all, not only can the genre offer the base level of spectacle as with any other genre, but it can then enhance that spectacle to a level that I believe no other genre can ever hope to reach. Because a counterfactual scenario can imbue that spectacle with an inherent element of wrongness and even injustice that can strike us in ways nothing else truly can; and create images and visual scenes that twist and subvert our core values and our perceptions of how our world – and its history – unfolded. To explore this further, let us consider some specific examples from across the written and audio-visual field of the genre in order to demonstrate this:

  • The climactic event of Jahr Null, the episode that acted as the Season 3 finale of The Man in the High Castle, in which an American icon is destroyed by the Fascists who have occupied large swathes of the United States of America. Surrounded by the vapour trails of Nazi jet fighters passing overhead, and witnessed by ecstatic, cheering crowds and a decrepit Heinrich Himmler, Fuhrer of the Greater Nazi Reich, the Statue of Liberty is ripped apart by a series of powerful explosions that hurl its shattered remains into the waters around Liberty Island. Its destruction signals the beginning of the eponymous Jahr Null in which the Nazi regime attempts to erase pre-Fascist American cultural identity by destroying numerous famous cultural icons, such as the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and Mount Rushmore.

  • The opening scenes of the BBC adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB in which we are presented with the war-torn landscape of a London shattered and pock-marked with shell holes after futile resistance against a successful Nazi invasion in 1941. A German truck drives past the ruins of Buckingham Palace, torn apart and gutted by fire, the barricades in front of it strewn with Nazi propaganda posters. The façade of Scotland Yard – headquarters of the Metropolitan Police – marred by two gigantic blood-red banners adorned with flash and circle insignia of the British Union of Fascists. Wehrmacht troops casually patrolling down Whitehall, and British police helping to round up political undesirables.

  • The chapter part-way through Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South when Confederate troops, armed with automatic rifles supplied to them by time-travelling white supremacists, breach the defences around Washington DC and make their way to the doors of the White House itself. There they are greeted by the tall, gaunt frame of the Great Empancipator himself, Abraham Lincoln. But in this particular timeline, Lincoln now finds himself a prisoner of the Confederate States of America, his attempts to keep the Union from fracturing apart prematurely – and permanently – ended by South African terrorists with access to a time machine.

  • The opening cutscene of Westwood Studio’s best-selling real-time strategy video game Red Alert 2, which sees a surprise invasion of the United States by a revanchist Soviet Union backed by psychic madman. As the opening notes of Frank Klepacki’s sublime Hell March play, Soviet zeppelins menacingly emerge from between New York skyscrapers, disgorging endless waves of heavily-armed paratroopers; missiles scream past the Golden Gate Bridge to land in San Francisco; and a ‘Welcome to Texas’ sign is crushed under the tracks of a Soviet super-heavy tank.

  • The scene in the first episode of Apple TV’s For All Mankind which shows people across the United States of America gathering in front of their television sets to witness one of the most memorable moments in the history of the 20th Century – the first man to land on the surface of the Moon. Yet their faces are unexpectedly sullen, even angry as they watch the flickering television screen and see the first steps onto the lunar dust – taken not by Neil Armstrong, but instead by a Cosmonaut who proudly stands in front of a flag bearing the Hammer and Sickle. For this is set in a timeline where the Soviet Union won the opening stages of the Space Race rather than the USA.

Part 2 – What Can We Learn From Why We Secretly Love Watching The Nazis Win?

Now why is this? Why are these examples of Alternate History spectacle – amongst so many others I could cite – so powerful to us as readers and viewers? Well, before we go any further, I must emphasise that I am not a trained psychologist or even broadly knowledgeable about Psychology as a subject; however, I am a very confident and highly opinionated amateur writer with access to a blog on the Internet, and honestly, aren’t those entirely equal in stature when it comes down to it? Regardless of my lack of formal certification, however, I believe I can still make some general points to explain my argument within this essay.

When we visualise these examples – whether on the television screen in front of us, or in our minds as we translate words and sentences into reality – they simultaneously dismay and thrill us. We know that these things have not actually happened in our reality, and yet instantaneously we are presented with an alternate reality in which they have: a dystopian, often horrifying reality to be true, and yet something close enough to ours to be recognisable despite how it has been twisted and deformed. Close our eyes, or turn away from the screen, and everything is safe and normal; dare to look back, and democracy has been crushed under the bootheels of Fascism and the United States is explicitly racist rather than merely being implicitly so. None of these are scenarios that we wish to happen, and we are very happy that it has not in fact happened in our reality; and yet what they provide is a spectacle that we cannot turn away from once we engage with it. For is there not something inherently illicit and even darkly thrilling about such scenarios, in which the absolute worst state for humanity has happened – especially when we can pick and choose when we bear witness to these scenarios.

After all, we can be absolutely certain that what we read and see in SS-GB has not happened to our London. We can physically travel to the capital city, or switch over to the news, in order to confirm that Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are fully intact and their inhabitants safe, and therefore breathe a sigh of relief. We can feel satisfied and even smug in the knowledge that the only thing that will ever threaten those iconic British buildings will be the rapidly-forthcoming results of decades of institutional inertia and lack of funding for crucial maintenance and infrastructure upgrades.

And Big Ben takes a hit from an alien spaceship. It's dangerous to be a landmark.

Picture courtesy BBC.

But definitely not Nazis.

And in this manner, I would argue that the spectacle generated by the Alternate History genre is unique in that in addition to being able to thrill or chill us, it can also challenge our own perceptions and pre-conceived notions of our society and its norms and processes – and even our own values. Because can we truly, definitively, be certain where we would be in that alternate, Swastika-daubed reality? Would we be able to hold onto our existing values and raise our head above the parapet – joining the resistance and fighting back in a likely-doomed effort to struggle against Fascism? Or is it more likely – however much we wish to deny it – that we would instead be amongst that baying crowd of men, women, and children roaring their approval as the Statue of Liberty topples into the water and Jahr Null begins.

Part 3 – Wherefore Art Thou, Utopian Spectacle?

I appreciate that’s a lot to take in all at once, and it’s certainly a complex and deep subject that I intend to revisit in greater detail in future essays. However, as a counterpoint, I’d like to (re)introduce the concept of New Alternate History, and in turn challenge the current state of Alternate History’s spectacle. Because it cannot be denied that, regardles of how effective they are on an emotional and even intellectual level, these dystopian, grimdark, and often brutal depictions are inherently depressing. While I cannot deny that a certain atavistic thrill runs through my body and mind whenever I see something like the examples listed above, I also cannot be distinctly downhearted and ask myself: are these the only kinds of spectacle that the Alternate History genre can supply? Has our genre been stereotyped to such a degree that portraying the bleakest paths that humanity could have take is the only thing it is able – or expected – to do.

When writing this essay, I realised that while there are numerous works of utopian Alternate History fiction, particularly in the written form, I struggle to construct a coherent concept of utopian spectacle that could be deployed to counteract the illicit and darkly thrilling dystopian spectacle that can be endlessly provided by The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB and The Guns of the South and countless other less well-known examples of counterfactual fiction. The closest I could find is For All Mankind, which at least posits a vaguely utopian alternate timeline in which humanity has expanded into the solar system and progressive attitudes towards race and gender are further forward than they are in our own reality. And yet even in that series, these progressions are only due to the ongoing Cold War between two superpowers – one an explicit dictatorship and the other often only nominally a democracy.

Once again I find myself posing a question that I do not truly know the answer to, or even if there is an answer. Instead, I pose it to you, my audience. Can there ever be examples of utopian Alternate History spectacle that can be as engaging, thrilling, and even awe-inspiring as the spectacle generated by dystopian realities? And if so – what could be constructed to counteract the latter’s domination of the genre? My gut tells me that the ability to forge a New Alternate History, as discussed in my previous essays – hangs on this difficult question.

*I can’t believe they never made a sequel to that film. It would have been fantastic, I’m sure, and definitely not a bloated CGI-stravagnaza that committed the dual sins of wasting Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum. Anyway, there’s an Alternate History idea for you, free of charge.

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Adam Selby-Martin has three stories in SLP Anthologies: Comedy Through the (P)ages, Fight Them on the Beaches, and Grapeshot and Guillotines.


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