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The world of counterfactual fiction

The world of counterfactual fiction
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First Published: Thu, Jan 06 2011. 08 38 PM IST

Fact against fiction: Author Jonathan Franzen; George Orwell; and Barnhill in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell wrote 1984
Fact against fiction: Author Jonathan Franzen; George Orwell; and Barnhill in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell wrote 1984
Updated: Thu, Jan 06 2011. 08 38 PM IST
The counterfactual genre (or alternative history as it is sometimes called) is rich in possibilities. Most commonly, and perhaps not surprisingly, it is used as the setting for science fiction: an interesting example being The Difference Engine (1990) by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, which shows what the world might have been like had it entered the computer age a hundred years earlier than it did—a steam-powered version of the IT boom.
Fact against fiction: Author Jonathan Franzen; George Orwell; and Barnhill in Jura, Scotland, where Orwell wrote 1984
Political reversal stories—in which the Nazis won World War II or where the American Civil War was won by the southern states—lend themselves to intense narratives. One of the best is Len Deighton’s 1970s novel SS-GB, in which the Scotland Yard has become a department of the German SS. In Hans Alfredsson’s Attentatet i Pålsjö skog (1996; so far not translated, the title means The Terrorist Attack in Pålsjö Forest), Eva Braun is assassinated by Swedes, which provokes Hitler to invade. The story highlights the various pro-Nazi sentiments that existed in Sweden although the country was officially neutral during World War II.
I recently heard about a richly imagined 1953 political thriller that seems to combine both themes—Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore, in which the two rival superpowers are The Confederacy of America and The Third Reich (or a version thereof), that ultimately are bound to clash over world supremacy. The dizzying concept explores the possibility of travelling back in time to change the future.
The list of mind-bending fiction is fairly extensive and includes the quintessential American author Jack London’s only novel that was banned in his home country, The Iron Heel (1908), the prophetic H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come (1933), and inspired crime noir gems such as The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) by the Pulitzer-winning Michael Chabon. However, the only novel that has achieved the status of a literary classic is George Orwell’s 1984—about a Soviet-like Britain reeling under criminal levels of government mind control.
India, too, finds a place in counterfactual fiction. There’s Rajshekhar Basu’s 1920s satire The Scripture Read Backwards in which a Bengali empire has become the dominant cultural and political global power (so there’s no market for fairness creams; instead, Englishwomen are doing their best to darken their skins). British fantasy author Michael Moorcock’s The Warlord of the Air (1971) is set in an alternative future where the British never left India but, with Winston Churchill as viceroy, continued to base their economy on ever-expanding colonialism. Quite a few novels exploit this “What if colonialism never ended?” theme and in S.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2002), things are taken a step further. Europe has been destroyed by a meteor and Delhi is the world capital.
Narrowing down to crime fiction my search came up with—unexpectedly—Jonathan Franzen’s 1988 debut novel in which a group of conspiratorially minded Indians try to take over the city of St Louis. At the centre of The Twenty-Seventh City is Chief of Police S. Jammu, a workaholic with a penchant for intrigue, distantly related to Indira Gandhi. She’s sent out by her Kashmiri mom to take control of America. Their choice falls on St Louis which used to be the fourth most important city of the US about a hundred years ago, but is now a dying riverside town. The most prominent citizen, chairman of various municipal bodies and celebrated city builder, is the good-humoured Martin Probst, married to the near-perfect Barbie Probst, and they have a normal and uncomplicated daughter, Luisa.
All this is about to change. Martin Probst becomes a primary target in the elaborate conspiracy. Jammu’s psychopathic bisexual henchman Singh manipulates Probst’s daughter into an uncharacteristic teenage rebellion that eventually turns her into a Left-wing intellectual. Singh then kidnaps Barbie while Probst himself is led to believe that his wife eloped with a glamour photographer.
Agent Asha, posing as an Indian princess, marries the local beer baron as part of the infiltration of the city’s bigwigs. Suddenly Probst finds himself estranged from both his own family and the city’s ruling elite as life shatters with unexpected speed and St Louis is about to be turned into an Indian fiefdom.
The use of wiretapping and other Orwellian surveillance methods is probably not a coincidence (this story too is set in 1984). One also gets the feeling that Franzen tries to do for America what Salman Rushdie did for Indian fiction with his allegorical Booker-winner Midnight’s Children (1981): The Probsts become symbolic of the American way of life. Franzen uses them to lay bare the structural silliness of the all-American family; he bends the cartoon-like characters this way and that until there’s nobody left standing.
Summed up the plot may sound very much like what Shakespeare could have written if LSD was manufactured in his day, and when I finished reading The Twenty-Seventh City, I thought to myself, that an occasional dip into the worlds of counterfactual fiction is healthy for both readers and writers.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to him at criminalmind@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jan 06 2011. 08 38 PM IST