Arts & Leisure

Exploring what might happen

RUFUS SEWELL as John Smith in the TV series “The Man in the High Castle” (Amazon Studios)

By Arthur David

One of the fastest-rising categories of fiction today is “alternate history,” which explores the possibilities of  “what might have been,” usually in a dystopian way in which things get a lot worse for all of us.

That category fills up bookshelves and Amazon.com web pages and has also made significant inroads into television, adapting – and usually expanding – on a novel.

Although alternate history is often lumped in with science fiction, it needn’t be. One early example is Mark Twain’s “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’ Court” in which the protagonist is magically – or perhaps just mentally – transported from the days of steam and electricity to the days of old when knights were bold but not especially bright.

(Spoiler alert: what follows is going to reveal some details which may reveal the endings of some works. You were warned.)

What makes alternate history interesting to millions of viewers and readers are the comments often made about our present circumstances. For example, in “Yankee,” our hero tries somewhat arrogantly to impose a 19th century democracy on a 10th century monarchy ruled with an iron fist and cloaked in ignorance and superstition. It’s an early form of what today is called “nation-building.”

JOHN TURTURRO in “The Plot Against America.”

The most popular version of alt-hist (as some nerds call it) is the novel. “The Man in the High Castle,” an early example, was written by Philip K. Dick. It depicts a future in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan win World Two and divide up America under their steel boots.

How did this happen? Franklin Roosevelt is assassinated before he can take office and the isolationism that follows results in a U.S. military too weak to prevail against the Axis.

(FDR being the linchpin of these stories is a common theme. It seems that he was all that stood between us and disaster in these stories; maybe most alt-hist writers are Democrats.)

The Amazon Prime TV series is very different from the book. The writers fill in a lot of detail the Dick didn’t include and create the character of John Smith (played well by Rufus Sewell), a U.S. Army officer who turns his coat and becomes a Nazi in order to save his family. It raises the question: faced with death, what would you do to stay alive and protect your loved ones?

Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” also got the TV treatment, and it hews pretty close to the original. The most interesting character is – oddly enough – Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, portrayed by John Turturro. Feeling sincerely that his fellow co-religionists have isolated themselves too much from the general American population, he allies himself with a pro-fascist Charles Lindbergh.

Little by little, he begins to realize he had made a bad decision. The issue here is that sometimes people with good intentions can be as dangerous as those with evil intent.

Haven’t you ever wondered how your life would have been different if you had made some change in your life? A different career? A different spouse?

Good alternate history helps us understand how easily things could have gone “the other way.” The fates of nations, as with people, are determined by the decisions they make.

 

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