With Philip K Dick’s The Man in The High Castle currently doing the rounds on Amazon and the BBC in the process of adapting Len Deighton’s SS-GB, it’s clear there’s a thirst for alternative history fiction that tackles big themes and even bigger, loopier narratives.
Invasion is obviously at the centre of most of these stories. In Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Japan and Germany have won the war and carved up America between them. The novel has a mystical, elusive quality and is perhaps the best example of a covert, insidious pact being made by the authorities which leads the subjects under them to ask spiritual rather than brutal questions.
In SS-GB, the Nazi’s have invaded Britain and are in total control. This is more of a police procedural – similar to Robert Harris’s Fatherland – and subsequently, perhaps, doesn’t tackle the deeper questions like Dick’s mysterious opus. Dominion by CJ Sansom is in a similar vein and then there’s The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and numerous works by Harry Turtledove.
What many of these works have in common is a comforting notion that ‘the enemy’ is naturally evil ie the Nazis – and that all narrative roads are subsequently open and nothing is out of bounds in terms of exploration, examination and downright ridicule.
But then we have last year’s release of Michel Houellebecq’s Submission which told the story, among many other things, of a Muslim President in charge of France and the tensions that brings.
Of course, this is hardly a fantasy and may even become reality sometime this century given the influence and growth of Islam in Europe. In that respect, Submission is quite timid and restrained in that it doesn’t get to the heart of the fears and anxiety that are unquestionably lodged deep in Western minds at the start of the 21st century. Perhaps, that was Houellebecq’s intention.
But it’s clear from how Submission was received – a Muslim ruler in Europe was the story – that there is a thirst and hunger for more acute examination of the Islamic resurgence than just stories of terrorists, family strife and forced marriages and so on (although those have their place).
Writers and artists have a duty to engage with the big subjects of a troubled era – and Islamic power or lack of it – is one of the biggest in our enlightened but neurotic continent right now.
Of course, there’d be pitfalls: how would you deal with the Prophet Muhammad or the Quran if they were mentioned in contexts other than sacred ones?
Those are deeply personal questions and almost irrelevant because an ambitious, alternative history tale with Islam at its heart it would be external factors that drive the story; namely, conquest, power, control and subjugation. That is the meat of what we’re dealing with today, not the sacred rituals dear to every Muslim on the planet. Where’s the story in praying five times a day? There isn’t one.
So let’s hope someone’s brave enough to dive in where others have feared to tread. Because to be feared, jeered but never truly examined on a big scale or a grand canvas is a waste of fiction’s endless capacity to enthrall and fascinate.
Not to mention, speculate…