A different, dangerous land: Three alternate depictions of Britain (Column: Bookends XXX)

By Vikas Datta (09:24)

Mankind has always had a hankering for a more perfect, equitable society than the one they live in and many have tried to give it a shape – Plato in “The Republic”, Christian theologian St Augustine with “The City of God” for his co-religionists to aspire to, and English statesman Sir Thomas More, who coined a generic name for it with his “Utopia” (1516). But as visionaries kept on dreaming of ideal societies, its converse also developed – the brutal, dehumanising “dystopia” – based on fears of increasing intrusion of the modern state into people’s lives, extreme ideologies, and technological developments that could aid control – and ultimately, repression.

Dystopian fiction, and a close relation, the alternative history novel, are always unsettling because of their disturbing, distorted portrayal of otherwise familiar societies – and especially, when the change is man-made, not by supernatural “undead” creatures like zombies or vampires. Take for instance, a Britain – widely regarded as the birthplace and home of rule of law, civil rights and liberties, and parliamentary democracy – transformed into a nearly-totalitarian police state.

The most mind-numbing depiction of such a nightmarish condition is in the genre’s most well-known work – George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949). The omnipresent and omniscient “Big Brother”, “thought crime” (and the “Thought Police” to detect and punish offenders) , or “Newspeak” or ideological language, or the derived “doublespeak”, among others, are part of its legacy.

But, the book, based on what seems to a war-ravaged London (“Airstrip One”) on the margins of competing empires, and having a regime akin to the Stalinist Soviet Union (‘Big Brother’s description can be easily one of Stalin), should not be just dismissed as an example of anti-communist propaganda despite its origins in the Cold War.

It, instead, seeks to warn how technology can enable the state keep tabs on its citizens, how those falling afoul of/contending against established leadership can be recast as traitors or even removed from historical records and memory, of the pressures to conform, the luxurious life political elites carve out for themselves, the complacency of most sections of a consumerist society, and how mass media can serve to manipulate or catalyse intensified destructive/violent emotion. 1984 may have come and gone but see today’s headlines – these themes still resonate.

Orwell’s work never explains how this state of affairs came about – though nuclear explosions are vaguely referred to. Alternate history novels, on the other hand, normally take a historical event and have it unfold differently from how it really happened – a “what if” scenario to fashion a new “reality” – what if Alexander the Great had lived longer, Napoleon had not been defeated at Waterloo, and the like.

Nazi Germany winning World War II, or at least beating the Allies to a standstill has been a frequent theme in the genre, and works dealing with an occupied/acquiescent Britain include Len Deighton’s “SS-GB” (1978), Murray Davies’ “The Collaborator” (2003) and most recently, C.J. Sansom’s “Dominion” (2013).

Deighton (of the “The Ipcress File” fame) begins his book, set in German-occupied Britain of November 1941, as a murder investigation, before segueing into a power struggle over finding stolen atomic research secrets – in which a neutral US is also interested, and culminates in an attempt to enable escape of an enfeebled King George VI – who is imprisoned in the Tower of London – to Commonwealth territory. The hero, Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer of Scotland Yard, ultimately realizes it was a cynical – but successful – ploy, by a devious British official, to pull America into the war. It may have ended on a note of hope but the sense of defeated, repressed country it evokes lingers long after.

Historical novelist Sansom, who confesses to have been influenced by Deighton’s work, bases his book on a “what if” premise – arch-appeaser Lord Halifax succeeding Neville Chamberlain as prime minister instead of Winston Churchill and making peace with Nazi Germany. In 1952, when the novel is set, Britain is a grim, satellite state, there is pressure for resettlement of British Jews (refugees already been “resettled”), and growing dissent is leading to repression as the principal character, balancing his collaborator image/secret resistance activity, sets out on a mission – pursued by an inexorable Gestapo official.

Sansom, in his book’s afterword, says his intention was to focus on the dangers of nationalism and race-based politics, which have been Europe’s bane all through the 20th century – from World War I to the Kosovo conflict – and are resurfacing even now as people turn to nationalist identities as a response to the present economic crisis.

It can be easy to dismiss these as alarmist/extremely pessimistic but on the other hand, those who disregard history (even alternate) may be doomed to eventually face it!

(07.09.2014 – Vikas Datta is a Senior Assistant Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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