My favorite alternate-histories are the ones set in the world where everyone is gay (i.e. Jo Walton’s Farthing)
So, I’ve been thinking about trying to read a few more SF novels lately and somehow the name Jo Walton bubbled up. She’s been getting all kinds of attention lately. Whenever I see her name, I always thing, “Huh, isn’t she that woman who wrote that book that’s just like a Victorian novel, except everyone is a dragon?”*
Anyway, Walton’s latest book is Among Others. I browsed through the first few pages of the book, but there’s something about it that felt a bit off. It’s set in 1979 and it’s about a girl who has a Harry Potteresque encounter with the Dark Lord and then goes to live with her family in Wales and read sci-fi novels. From what I could see, much of the book is just her connecting on various New Wave SF novels she’s read (I saw a bit about Samuel Delany’s Triton for instance). Now, this theoretically sounds like something I’d love. But when I read through the first few pages, I was worried that it was going to be a little…well…boring. Did anyone else read this? Was it good?
So anyway, the book I actually chose to read was Farthing. It’s a murder mystery set in an alternate-historical (counterfactual, if you’re being snooty bout the adjective) 1949 where America refused to help Britain during WWII and Britain got discouraged and brokered a peace deal with Hitler.
Now, okay, first of all…I am going to spoil the hell out of this book. If you care about that, then don’t read further. Now, secondly, there are two noteworthy things about the book.
First, it is filled with queers. This completely took me by surprise. The first gay character who’s mentioned in the novel is a throwaway sidecharacter and he’s also an effete, self-absorbed fop. I said to myself, “How typical! The novel’s token gay man is a self-absorbed fop (and right-wing Hitler sympathizer)”. But then, in the next chapter, one of the two PoV characters says to himself, “Oh, I guess I’ll never have children”. I thought, “Hmm, I wonder if he’s gay.” Then he starts thinking about the ‘batsman’ that he’s left at home, and I was like, “Hmm, this seems pretty gay.”
But I shouldn’t really have even bothered to speculate to myself. You see, I still hadn’t realized that this novel takes place in another, far more honorable, alternate-historical genre: the world where everybody is queer.
A better question would’ve been, “Who isn’t gay?” This book’s got gay and bisexual men all over the place (and there’s even a pair of bisexual or possibly lesbian women). I mean, wow. There are gay villains and gay heroes and a really weird relationship between one of the protagonists’ and her brother and her husband.
Honestly, I was pretty impressed. I think I’d find it hard to write a book where 30 or 40% of the characters just happened to be queer. I mean, it’s not quite statistically accurate is it? Even Kinsey (whose numbers also feel a bit on the high side) didn’t posit this kind of world. And it’s not like the characters know each other through their queerness, either. They’re all just people who get thrown together.
But even though I’d find it hard to suspend my belief in the queer-rich universe for long enough to write a novel, I think I can certainly buy into it for the time it takes to read a novel. And, let me tell you, the queer-rich universe is a glorious place indeed! It’s so free from constraint. If you’re going to have ten gay characters in a novel, then you can have evil gay people and good gay people and morally neutral gay people and effete, useless gay people and effete, useful gay people and everything else that you fucking want. Oh, and the gay themes also make an interesting contrast to the themes of persecuting the Jews. Because, you know, even in our world’s England, male homosexual acts were illegal.
The ‘Axis Wins WWII’ element was a little less awesome. It’s kind of hard to make something like this seem good, but this novel came closer than most. I think it benefited from not being set in Nazi- or Japanese-occupied territory. Instead, it was set in a peaceful and somewhat-free England. And it showed the subtle ways in which British society was shaded by the influence of Nazi Germany.
I particularly liked how the English people were so enthused about the peace they’d won from Germany. They called it the “Peace With Honor”. It felt so true to life. To go from the shadow of an annihilating war (in 1940) to a peace that didn’t involve any concessions or losses in territory would’ve seemed like something of a miracle.
If the whole novel had kept up this genteel remove from its grubby counterfactual themes, then I would have liked it better. But, instead, the novel had to end (of course) with England sliding into a counterfactual dictatorship. In that, it felt like it echoed a whole bunch of similar narratives. Yes, It CAN Happen Here, I get it…honestly, it’s gotten a bit tiring. I want someone to write a counterfactual book that makes the case that democratic institutions are too strong and entrenched in America and the UK for a totalitarian government to actually arise. Because, honestly, I’m not even sure I buy the essential premise. There are same fairly large differences between Weimar Germany and the U.S./U.K. For starters, one country was about ten years old, while the other two are amongst the oldest democracies in the world. I mean, I’m not saying that it’s not worthwhile to remember that our democracy is fragile, etc, etc, but hasn’t that point already been made by SOOOOOO many books? (V for Vendetta, The Plot Against America, every Harry Turtledove novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, It Can’t Happen Here, every dystopian YA novel). Okay, I am clearly just as guilty of this as anyone, but still…
Well, whatever, aside from that cliche (which really only musses up the last tenth of the novel or so), the story was delightful. In tone, it was rather similar to Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit Of Love.**
I wish that more SF novels were written in the alternate universe where 30-40% (rather than, perhaps, 4-8%***) of the population was queer.
*The dragon novel is called Tooth and Claw. And it (somewhat shockingly) won the World Fantasy Award. I trust the WFA more than I trust most awards, so I’m definitely going to read this one someday.
**Mitford, of course, almost became the star of her own WWII counterfactual, insofar as one sister was best friends with Hitler, another sister was married to the leader of the British fascist party, and both her parents were highly sympathetic to Hitler.
***Obviously this is a controversial and largely unknown figure. In modern America, something like 4% of Americans identify as gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender, but there is also some indeterminate number of straight-identified people who experience same-sex sexual attraction (and even have sexual experiences with people of the same sex).