Lesson 9: Tinkering with History

Lesson Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify several significant works of alternate history and explain the development of the alternate history subgenre.
  • Explain how the focus of the science fiction field shifted away from short fiction and toward novels.

The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick
Timescape, by Gregory Benford


By 1962, the dominance of the science-fiction magazines was beginning to wane. Many of the major editorial influences of the Golden Age had retired or moved on: Tony Boucher and J. Francis McComas had given up the editorship of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Horace Gold had been succeeded at Galaxy. Although John W. Campbell continued as editor of Analog until his death in 1971, he was no longer the dominating figure in the science fiction field that he once had been.

For a time, it appeared as though the short story might find salvation in book form. The movement began as a radical experiment in 1951: a book composed of never-before-published stories—that contradiction in terms, an original anthology. It was a response to three facets of science-fiction publishing: the success of the anthology, the increasing difficulty in finding unanthologized stories worth reprinting, and inadequate distribution of magazines. Raymond J. Healy, who had coedited the big postwar anthology Adventures in Time and Space, commissioned and solicited original fiction from a variety of science-fiction writers and published them in the book New Tales of Time and Space.

In 1952, Ballantine Books published Star Science Fiction Stories, edited by Frederick Pohl, the first volume in an annual series that started by offering five cents a word or more for short stories but gradually reduced its payment rate to about that of the better-paying magazines. But the series was discontinued when Pohl became editor of the Galaxy magazines, succeeding Gold.

But even though the original anthology continued to play a role in science fiction for decades to come, it only delayed the inevitable shift of SF’s focus from short fiction to the novel. By 1980 the transformation would be complete. Book publication of science fiction had come into its own, beginning with some seventy novels published in 1972 and doubling every year until it reached 2,000 a year by the 1990s. The novel had become the form in which new breakthroughs would occur.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the publication of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Gregory Benford’s Timescape (1980).

With The Man in the High Castle, Dick confirmed his transformation from a gifted writer of imaginative, quickly-written novels for Ace Books into an author of literary aspirations with an eye for characterization and a keen sense of place. His film breakthrough, the 1982 Blade Runner, however, was still twenty years away. Benford, an astrophysicist at California State University, Irvine, came into his own as a scientist who brought his understanding of science and its culture to the service of his literary art, and his novel Timescape would give its name to an entire science-fiction line at Pocket Books. The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award (the Nebula and the Campbell were not yet in existence); Timescape won the Nebula and the Campbell award.

Both novels deal with alternate history: The Man in the High Castle imagines that the Axis powers won World War II; Timescape, which seems at first to be about communicating with the past, turns out to involve changing history.

Alternate history, led by historian Harry Turtledove, has become almost a genre of its own in the past two decades. But it has a much longer history, going back at least to a 1931 anthology called If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by J. C. Squires, which inspired a parody by James Thurber, “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”

Wars won by the losing side have been common starting points, particularly the Civil War (Ward Moore wrote a defining novel in Bring the Jubilee, 1953) and World War II. But Poul Anderson wrote a sizable number of Time Patrol stories and novels in which history turns upon small points, and Fritz Leiber wrote a novel, The Change War, in which agents compete to protect or change history. Film and TV series have picked up on the idea of changing the past, although these media have yet to do anything meaningful with alternate history.

The Man in the High Castle was special in depicting America’s cooperation with the Japanese occupation of the west coast and emulation of Japanese ways of thought, in the same way that Japan accepted American occupation and adopted American attitudes and art forms. A threat to civilized Japanese governance in the form of Nazi secret plans for dominance—and an element of rebellious hope—are found in an alternate history, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy (the title comes from Ecclesiastes XII) written by “the man in the high castle.”

Timescape was special in its believable characterization of scientists and the scientific culture, as well as the academic culture, and in suggesting a method for sending messages to the past that had some support from science—the use of tachyons, theoretical particles that can only travel faster than light. And the future has a good reason for wanting to communicate with the past: it needs to tell a scientist in 1962 to stop the release of materials that cause the diatom bloom that is polluting the future (in 1980, the novel’s 1998 was still the future) past all hope of recovery.
Writing Assignment
Consider some or all of the following questions and submit a brief (approximately 500-word-long) writing assignment. Your assignment need not be formal, but it should demonstrate comprehension of the required readings and a well-developed understanding of how this lesson's material relates to the development of the science fiction genre.

  • In The Man in the High Castle, how have Americans accommodated themselves to the Japanese occupation? What is the concept of “wu”? Dick said that he used the oriental oracle device, the I Ching, for plot help. What role does the I Ching play in the novel? Other oriental concepts, such as Tao and Yin-Yang, occupy a place in the narrative; do they have a function other than validating the Japanese influence?
  • What changes in U.S. history were the nexus points for the alternate history that The Man in the High Castle creates? Are those nexus points from our history? What changes in Nazi history are imagined? What further possibilities create the coming crisis?
  • At least three histories are described or implied in the novel: the history of the novel, the history of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, and our own (which Mr. Tagomi may encounter in his dazed breakthrough after he kills the SD men and Childan gives him the silver triangle). How do they vary? Why?
  • What is the meaning of the final revelation of the I Ching? Why does Abendsen deny it? How do the visitors react to the discovery that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is true? Why?
  • The Man in the High Castle could be described as “six characters in search of reality.” How do the lives of the characters all deal with the nature of reality? How does Juliana’s decisive act stem from Tao?
  • Timescape can be described in many ways, just as it is about many things. What distinguishes it from other science fiction?
  • Can you follow the analysis of how tachyons can send a message into the past? What is the meaning of the sentence “1963 is in the sky somewhere”? Given tachyons, what is the problem the scientists of 1998 face? Why do the scientists at Cambridge (where Benford spent a postdoctoral period) need to fight their way through government bureaucracies to get a grant? Why does the novel include Peterson’s amorous dalliances?
  • What is the significance of John Holdren’s book The Geography of Calamity: Geopolitics of Human Dieback?
  • The novel discusses the nature of scientific paradoxes, particularly the paradox of time. What part do paradoxes play in the novel? In the final outcome?
  • The novel discusses science in three ways: the results, the way of getting the results, and getting the results accepted. Benford also deals with this issue in his short story “Exposures.” Why isn’t it enough to come up with the truth? How does this apply to the need to change the past?
  • In terms of style, can you characterize the final sentence of the novel and what it adds to the effect of the resolution?

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