Friday, December 03, 2004

Enemies Of The State

Harry Turtledove, the superlative wordmeister of alternate history creates a world-that-could-have-been where the Greater German Reich rules most of the world in 2009, and countries like Britain, the United States and France chafe under the yoke of a Nazi mandate in his book "In The Presence Of Mine Enemies"

This book is quite different from his other ones in that all the action is from the perspective of a few common Germans who bear a dark secret at the heart of the Reich - they are Jews in a world gone crazy, that pass off as the chosen by a falsification of records. Their covert actions as enemies of the Nazi State are fraught with danger, yet they must serve it in order to survive. This creates a dramatic tension that carries the story along well. In most of Turtledove's books, a lot of characters seem cut from the same cloth - things aren't very different here, but the tension is more palpable - common themes like near-adultery play out against a backdrop of a subtly changing world - tilting towards perestroika-like change, based on, of all things, doctrinal differences between the first and subsequent editions of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

In this world that might-have-been, sly digs are taken at the 'real' world - the German Fuhrer at the beginning of the book is named Kurt Haldweim, an unsubtle dig at Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the UN in the 1970s and President of Austria in 1986, who faced allegations of war-crimes post his service in the SA

Long scenes are set in the context of bridge games featuring a foursome that comprises two husband-wife pairs - each very different, and significant in the story. The daughter of the main protagonist shows how difficult it is to dissemble your true identity in the face of your enemies, and still live a seemingly normal life, much as many Jews did in the Germany that was for real.

Things change, in the book, and the changes are good, yet as the main protagonist says at one point, in what is probably the thesis of Harry Turtledove's alternate history books,

"For us, how could what might have been be worse than what really was?

It is hard to compare this book with the other, more mainstream alternate history event of the year - Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America". For one, Harry Turtledove describes a world that never was, and yet the horrors described did happen indeed. For another, America features only tangentially in this book, mostly in attempts to under-pay levies due to the Germanic Empire.

The fundamental question of whether the world we live in is Panglossian or what might-have-been might be better than what is cannot be answered by us, save through fantasy. Perhaps, that is for the best, after all.

Also Recommended:
Uchronia, the Alternate History list - to make sense of all the gyrations of alternate history universes in fiction

St. Elsewhereism - 'nuff said

Next up on the reading list - Turtledove's "Days of Infamy"

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader