Monday, May 25, 2020

J.L.Carr - How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup

This is possibly the funniest novel from the 1970s that you have never heard of. Steeple Sinderby is a tiny village, a "tiny grey-walled settlement, forgotten in the western wolds". It is populated by exactly the sort of people you imagine populate tiny forgotten villages and its amateur football team won the FA Cup. Or at least they won a slightly alternative FA Cup where Scottish teams participate and in which Manchester United might be persuaded to play in an uneven, uphill field in the middle of nowhere for the semi-final ("we make it an all-ticket game... but...  decided that it would be immoral to raise the charge for admission from the 5p with which we'd begun the season").

Sinderby Wanderers are doubly lucky. There is at least two former first division player in their village and the local school headmaster is a exiled Hungarian genius whose fresh eyes on football allow him to devise fiendish strategies to defeat all the higher placed players. From the polygamous landowner who chairs the football board simply because he chairs everything else in the village, to the vicar who plays on the wing (except when there's a funeral to organise) these beautifully drawn, hilarious, characters give an odd sense of realism to the unlikely tale. There are spectator brawls, improbably goals, and a hilarious TV interview with the chairman who channels Enoch Powell in his vision for Britain, nearly bringing down the government.

The book is not the official history of Wanderers' victory. Rather its the private memoirs of Joe Gidner who usually takes the ticket money from the derisory number of fans who normally watch Wanderers play, and makes a living writing poems for greeting cards. Told through flashback, newspaper reports and committee minutes, this is an absolutely hilarious and deeply poignant story.

JL Carr was himself delightfully eccentric. His most famous book is probably A Month in the Country. Readers of that beautiful and sad novel will be unprepared for the humour of this one. I'd recommend both if only to see the true genius of this forgotten writer. Perhaps the funniest book I've ever read, this is certainly in the top ten. Buy it as soon as you've finished reading this review, you don't even need to like football.

Related Reviews

Carr - A Month in the Country

Lev Grossman - The Magician's Land


There is no denying the consistent high quality and ongoing inventiveness of Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy. Three volume fantasy novels are hardly new, but few maintain their quality (whatever level that might be) through the whole series. Grossman's books however are excellent and this conclusion is both satisfying and different enough to the early volumes to hold the reader till the end.

The first two books dealt with the adventures of Quentin Coldwater who having been accepted into a hidden magical college in the first volume, then expelled from the alternative magical realm Fillory that he came to jointly rule in part two, spends much volume three trying to re-enter  Fillory. The final part is a battle to save Fillory from complete destruction.

Such a summary only superficially explains the story. Quentin, as in the rest of the series, is an annoyingly self-obsessed figure, a loner who is convinced of his talent and genius who is prepared to knock over everyone else on the way to success. He has never quite got over the guilt of the death of his partner earlier in the tales, and thus broods his way through much of this book as he tries to bring her back from the dead. The beginning of the book is focused around an entertaining magical burglary but quickly the reader learns that this is nothing more than an entree to the larger story.

But the book neatly brings the story full circle. By the end, we know much more about Fillory, but we also understand more about how children from Earth first found their way there. These tales are much more dark than we might have first believed and Grossman ties all the lose ends together very neatly.

All in all a very satisfying, dark and entertaining conclusion to an excellent fantasy series.

Related Reviews

Grossman - The Magicians
Grossman - The Magician King

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Colin Tudge - The Secret Life of Birds

This is a fantastic book to introduce you to its subject. Tudge's easy going, but informed, style is that of a genuine enthusiast whose desire is to develop all his readers to the same level of knowledge. Tudge begins with a couple of seemingly easy questions - what is a bird, and how should they be classified. From these he takes the reader through the complexities of groups and species, through to grappling with more esoteric questions like what is it to be a bird. What we quickly learn with is that birds are infinitely more complex than they seem at first. These are more than just flying animals that eat and lay eggs, these are creatures with complex social lives, the ability to learn and comprehend their surroundings and a huge variety of ways of living. For instance, birds are able to learn about their surroundings and make decisions based on how their environment changes. For instance, take the Collared Flycatcher:

In one field experiment, scientists, being scientists, added more eggs to Collared Flycatcher nests in one area, and in a neighbouring area they reduced the number of eggs in the various nests, and the next year mos males turned up in the territory that had been given more eggs. Once more we see that birds can be aware of their environments; they know what they are doing and build their knowledge season by season throughout their lives.

Key to understanding the enormous variety of bird life on our planet is how these animals evolved. Tudge takes us from the time of the dinosaurs onward, showing how different aspects of bird life - feathers, song, brain and so on - would have evolved. One of the most amazing examples of this is the parasitic behaviour of the European Cuckoo which has evolved in a way that is, surprisingly, often of use to the other species that are lose their eggs when the Cuckoo lays its eggs in their nests.
Once the parasitism of one species on another becomes habitual, an arms race would develop between parasite and host. As the centuries pass the parasites mimic the eggs of their hosts more and more accurately, while the hosts become more and more adept at detecting the minute differences o that the parasites need to be more and more accurate. Eventually we reach the fine-tuned versatility of the European Cuckoo - to which its hosts have yet to mount a convincing defence.... But the relationship... in which the hosts can apparently discriminate foreign eggs pretty well, but sometimes choose not to- adds yet another layer of subtlety.
One final point which I found fascinating. Birds superficially seem to offer a classic example in nature of the family unit consisting of two adults and babies. Yet there seems an infinite array of different ways of bringing up baby birds in nature. From the parasitism of the European cuckoo to the sharing of eggs, to the species that move eggs into different nests and have multiple partners (both female and male birds breeding with others). All human life, so to speak, is here.

Tudge's final chapter ruminates on the threats to bird biodiversity. He shows how bird life is intrinsically part of wider networks, relying on other animals, plants and birds. Destruction of individual species can undermine wider eco-systems. Sadly, if anything, the trends he outlines are far worse now then when the book was published in 2009.

My only criticism of the book is that the detailed "cast list" of birds, dividing them into different orders was overlong, though Tudge skilfully keeps the reader attentive by giving them morsals of fascinating and sometimes hilarious titbits about different examples. For the reader with a passing interest in birds, or the more serious watcher, this book has a lot. Read it with an internet connection so that you can look up each amazing creature and marvel at the wonder of evolution, and, then go outside. You'll see birds with new eyes.

Related Review

Tudge - Good Food for Everyone Forever

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Terry Sullivan & Donny Gluckstein - Hegel and Revolution

There is a famous quote attributed to Lenin about Marx's Capital where he claims that Marx's masterpiece is impossible to understand completely "especially its first Chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel's Logic". But Hegel himself is considered daunting in the extreme. His name and works used as examples of complex books that are considered to be beyond the reach of ordinary readers. Many times I've sat in pubs after socialist meetings and heard such discussions.

So I am very pleased that Terry Sullivan and Donny Gluckstein have produced Hegel and Revolution. This is intended as an introductory work with, according to the authors, two aims. The first is to introduce the "thought and life" of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The second is to "outline the very strong influence Hegel had on Karl Marx... as well as the wider Marxist and socialist movement". These are ambitious aims, and to attempt the task in a book of less than 100 pages is a brave feet. The authors acknowledge that there are "certain areas of Hegel's thought" that they do not consider at all. Instead they focus on three key areas that connect to the work of Marx and give a feeling for Hegel himself. These are alienation, Hegel's philosophy of history and dialectics.

Key to understanding Hegel is the French Revolution and so the authors begin with placing Hegel into the context of the Revolution, and putting this Revolution into its historical context. It's an approach that Hegel himself might well have appreciated:

Hegel realised that dependence on a single element of the overall picture, or an individual human being, or a piecemeal analysis of separate events would miss the complex and interconnected character of the transition. 'Everything that exists stands in correlation,and this correlation is the veritable nature of every existence'.

I found the author's summary of Hegel's thought accessible, though I had to read and re-read several pages to get my head around his concepts. Their focus is on how Hegel's ideas were developed and built upon. So in the section on alienation, where they summarise Hegel's approach like this:
Importantly for Hegel consciousness is not just the consciousness of the individual but it is also the consciousness of spirit. More precisely this should be 'Absolute Spirit', that is, God. This might lead the reader to question: 'How does this square with the first-person point of view of phenomenology?' Hegel rejected the common idea that God is different from and superior to the world it has created. Rather, he held that God is in some sense constituted by humans and the natural world. Consequently, humans including the self-examination of their consciousness that, make up, at least in part, God. 
But Marx argues this is wrong:
'There is a double error in Hegel'. The first is that 'When, for instance, wealth, state-power, etc. are understood by Hegel as entities estranged from the human being, this only happens in their form as thoughts'. This is, for Hegel it is not wealth (or the lack of it), state-power or anything else that we experience as part of the material reality of our lives that is of primary importance in understanding alienation. It is not our separation from and lack of control over these aspects of the material world that is the source of our alienation. Rather, it is the thought of such entities which confronts us as something alien. 
The second error, detected by Marx, is that Hegel "only knows and recognises... abstractly mental labour". So it is on the mind that matters, not the real world outside. The authors conclude that, according to Hegel, "we humans have created the world around us but we are not aware of this and thus we are alienated from it". These differences are not abstract. Overcoming alienation for Hegel requires the changing of the mind - hence his emphasis on the importance of rational thought. For Marx it requires the changing of the world.

While critical of Hegel the authors nonetheless defend him from some of his critics. For instance they argue against the idea that Hegel held a "great man theory" of history. I don't know enough about the debates here and it was one of those places were the focus of the book slightly undermined the material. Because the writers are emphasising the importance of Hegel's ideas and method to Marx, I felt the material on Hegel suffered. To be fair they are doing this in a book of very short length and something has to go, but I wondered if another twenty pages could have helped flesh out debates.

It is the material on dialectics that readers will find perhaps the most useful, and perplexing. Here the authors are brilliant in demonstrating Hegel's own thoughts (and approach) and how Marx takes things forward. But they are also cautious. Responding to one critic of Hegel they write:
These irregularities do not mean that the dialectic method is wrong, rather, merely that Hegel has not been able to carry out his own method consistently. Our own conclusion is that this inability of Hegel is indicative of the fact that the dialectic and dialectical method is not as widely applicable as he argues. It cannot he used to understand all of thought, rather, it must be used much more selectively and when that is done appropriately it can be uniquely insightful. 
I think this is important. What the authors celebrate is not simply Marx's development of Hegel, but Hegel's own philosophical approach (they say it feels "fresh") because it allows us to unpick the processes of change and development. One of his "great innovations was to put a sense of history into the study of philosophy". In that sense his work is "timeless" as they say, but it is also a basis for other developments. 

I'm not sure that Hegel and Revolution will lead me to read Hegel. But it did give me a sense of the basic ideas that a much better appreciation for the work of Marx and Engels in developing philosophical thought - though as always, we must remember that "the point is to change it".

Related Reviews

Löwy - The Theory of Revolution in the Young Marx
Molyneux - The Point is to Change it: An Introduction to Marxist Philosophy

Gluckstein - A People's History of the Second World War
Gluckstein (ed) - Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance in the Second World War
Gluckstein - The Tragedy of Bukharin
Gluckstein - The Paris Commune - A Revolution in Democracy

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Philip de Souza - Seafaring and Civilisation

Subtitled "Maritime Perspectives on World History" Philip de Souza's Seafaring and Civilisation is intended to be examination of the role of maritime commerce and communication in shaping world history. It's an ambitious project that deserves far more than the 200 pages that the author has. Unfortunately while the book touches on a number of interesting ideas, it fails to develop these beyond a superficial argument that maritime transport allowed exploration, facilitated the exchange of ideas, disease and new commodities and allowed states to extend their influence regionally and eventually globally. Philip de Souza fails, for instance, to get to grips with why it was European explorers arrived in the Americas, and not the other way around. Nor does he explain why, beyond generalities, why the much more advanced Asian and Middle Eastern Empires did not arrive off the European coasts in sufficient numbers to mean that that their influence would dominate the world after the Middle Ages.

De Souza argues that seafaring was highly influential. He writes, for instance:
maritime networks promoted and helped to maintain highly diverse social structures in which individuals and groups were able to specialise in economic, religious, military and cultural tasks. It is important to emphasise the role of staples in the expansion of this trade. A great deal of it was bulk cargoes of food, raw materials such as metals and timber, cloth, aromatics and spices which were so throughly embedded in the urban cultures of many places in Europe, the Mediterranean, the Near and Middle East, South and East Asia, that they can be considered part of the fabric of civilisation.
He continues by arguing that the growth of large states "gave added impetus" to the development of urban civilisation in places linked by the ocean. In turn this stimulated production and taxation.

But I didn't feel that this was as profound an insight as the author seems to suggest. In fact what was key was trade, not the mechanics of trade. There is nothing here about how the expansion of trade and production shifted civilisation. Surprisingly the word capitalism isn't mentioned - because it is the capitalism's great expansion in production, with the associated need to expand and claim new resources, that means that seafaring explodes in the late 17th century. In contrast de Souza merely sees the expansion as being associated with the development of European empires.

The book contains many interesting facts and some wonderful illustrations. But there is no space for the author to develop any insights. At the same time his claim that "Many British families are, quite reasonably, proud of their ancestors' achievements in the Indian subcontinent" is very strange. I'm not sure this is a argument that stands up to any sort of scrutiny. The book also doesn't really mention the way that seafarering power became key to 19th and 20th century history, nor how this shaped industrial development.

Sadly despite the interesting premise I didn't think the book was long enough for the author to develop a coherent argument that raised it beyond merely interesting.

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Frederick Engels - Dialectics of Nature

Writing a review of Frederick Engels' Dialectics of Nature is a difficult task. The book is incomplete - fragmentary in parts - covers a wide range of subjects that do not always sit easily together and is, at least from a purely scientific point of view very dated in parts. Readers are hampered also by the language, as Engels use of key scientific terms reflects the era of writing and not their usage today. Yet the book remains worthy of study and, had it been available earlier in English, could well have been much more influential than it was. In 1873 Engels wrote to Marx that he had been lying in bed and decided to begin work on what would become the Dialectics of Nature after realising that the natural sciences were all about "matter in motion". This is important because it shows that Engels was beginning from the nature of change - the dialectics of the title - rather than the science that makes up much of the current manuscript.

The science, as I said, is dated. But it is important. Reading it today much of the material would seem (if updated) fairly obvious to say a first year physics student at university. But it must be seen in the context of contemporary debates. What Engels demonstrates is an amazing awareness and knowledge of what were front line scientific debates at the time he was writing. This is not the product of a casual enthusiast but someone who was au fait with the detail of major scientific debates. The chapter on electricity, which forms a substantial chunk of the manuscript deals, in great depth with the nature of electricity itself, Engels placing himself firmly on the modern theories against the "barren lumber of ancient, doubtful experiments... an uncertain fumbling in the dark." His detailed refutation of what he calls an "obsolete scientific standpoint" leads to him rejecting "all traditional theoretical notions about electricity" and highlighting more contemporary theories based on a detail knowledge of the science and experimental results available at the time. It would be another fourteen years before the electron was finally discovered so Engels is firmly on the right side of science.

It is, however, the sections on dialectics itself which remain of most interest and use today. Sadly these are mostly in note form. They form, at least in the 1939 British addition, a general argument, but in some places are little more than jottings down of comments and ideas. These in themselves are sometimes fascinating - I was struck by the evolution of ideas in astronomy that were taking place and how scientists (and Engels) were grappling with a transformative moment in the understanding the universe. But Engels argues what matters most is an approach to science that uses dialectical thinking:
Dialectics divested of mysticism becomes an absolute necessity for natural science, which has forsaken the field where rigid categories sufficed as it were the lower mathematics of logic, its everyday weapons. Philosophy takes its revenge posthumously on natural science for the latter having deserted it; and yet the scientists could have seen even from the successes in natural science achieved by philosophy that the latter possessed something that was superior to them even in their own special sphere.
Earlier he comments, "thinking is necessary: atoms and molecules, etc, cannot be observed under the microscope, but only by the process of thought". Yet Engels isn't arguing for abstract thought - he points out that a much more resolute materialist than the modern natural scientists" because he was concerned with "the thing in itself".

Engels is concerned with the process of change that takes place in nature. Sadly his work here on dialectics has often been confused by an over focus on the three laws of dialectics that he presents early in the work. Some on the socialist left, particularly the Stalinist brand of Marxism, tend to see these laws as rigid, leading others to reject them. In an essay on Dialectics, nature and the Dialectics of Nature Camilla Royle has made the point that these rules are important in helping us understand processes in nature and aspects of dialectics, but we cannot reduce science down to them. She concludes:
However, noting interesting examples of Hegel’s laws in “nature” does not give much clue as to how, if at all, scientists can use these laws. If scientists are expected to start from the idea that they go out and look for examples of the laws in their work...  it risks turning dialectics into a scholastic exercise. All of the biologists mentioned state that what they do when they go into a lab is the same science using the same methods as anyone else. Dialectics is for them a way to interpret the results of their experiments rather than an excuse not to do those experiments. Knowing the laws of dialectics is no substitute for a scientific understanding based on knowledge of specific material phenomena.
Engels' work abounds with examples of this approach. For example:
Continual change, i.e., abolition of abstract identity with itself, is also found in so-called inorganic nature. Geology is its history. On the surface, mechanical changes (denudation, frost), chemical changes (weathering); internally, mechanical changes (pressure), heat (volcanic), chemical (water, acids, binding substances); on a large scale – upheavals, earthquakes, etc. The slate of today is fundamentally different from the ooze from which it is formed, the chalk from the loose microscopic shells that compose it, even more so limestone, which indeed according to some is of purely organic origin, and sandstone from the loose sea sand, which again is derived from disintegrated granite, etc., not to speak of coal.
Here Engels is emphasising the process of historic change as being integral to understanding the geology that we see in the landscapes today. Again, in a small not "Simple and Compound", Engels shows how a living creature is a not reducible to components, nor is it simply a sum of those components:
Categories which even in organic nature likewise lose their meaning and become inapplicable. An animal is expressed neither by its mechanical composition from bones, blood, gristle, muscles, tissues, etc., .nor by its chemical composition from the elements. Hegel (Enzyklopädie, I, p. 256).The organism is neither simple nor compound, however complex it may be.
And elsewhere he emphasises dialectics as an approach that can destroy old irrational beliefs. Writing on life and death he comments:
The dialectical conception of life is nothing more than this. But for anyone who has once understood this, all talk of the immortality of the soul is done away with. Death is either the dissolution of the organic body, leaving nothing behind but the chemical constituents that formed its substance, or it leaves behind a vital principle, more or less the soul, that then survives all living organisms, and not only human beings. Here, therefore, by means of dialectics, simply becoming clear about the nature of life and death suffices to abolish an ancient superstition. Living means dying.
One of the most complete sections of Dialectics is the famous chapter The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. This is probably the most influential part of the work, which has been published separately on many occasions. Engels demonstrates how the evolution of modern humans was shaped by our inherent ability to labour on nature for our own needs. This then transformed our brain in a dialectical process. This pamphlet is also where Engels sets out a wider understanding of society's interaction with nature and he highlights the impact of capitalism on our environment - arguing, though he doesn't use the word, that capitalism cannot be sustainable. For readers who think that Marx and Engels had little to say of use to the environmental movement, this is the chapter to read.

In fact, while much of the book is dated, and some of it feels abstract, Engels never loses sight of his wider project - the struggle to end capitalism and win socialism. Right at the start of the book Engels highlights how capitalism has immiserated the mass of humanity and a new, higher, form of social organisation is needed to liberate us all:
In the most advanced industrial countries we have subdued the forces of nature and pressed them into the service of mankind; we have thereby infinitely multiplied production, so that a child now produces more than a hundred adults previously did. And what is the result? Increasing overwork and increasing misery of the masses, and every ten years a great collapse. Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom. Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as species. Historical evolution makes such an organisation daily more indispensable, but also with every day more possible. From it will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and especially natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade. 
Related Reviews

Royle - A Rebel's Guide to Engels
Engels - Socialism: Utopian and Scientific
Engels - The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Engels - The Condition of the Working Class in England

Friday, May 08, 2020

J.L. Anderson - Capitalist Pigs: Pigs, Pork, and Power in America

This excellent history begins with the pig. But it shows how the animal, converted into a commodity, became part of the interlocking social, economic and political relations of US capitalism. Far from being a niche subject, this is a book that helps us unravel the great environmental crises of our times.

My full review of this was published on the Climate and Capitalism online journal. You can read it here.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Andrew Martin - The Last Train to Scarborough

I bought this novel on a whim on a trip to Scarborough a few months ago, intending to read it in the hotel. I wish I had done, because it certainly evokes the place and would have been quite atmospheric to read on location, so to speak. Andrew Martin's "railway detective" novels all feature Jim Stringer, a railway obsessed former train driver turned railway policeman. Martin's target audience is clearly the slightly railway obsessed reader of crime fiction, though the book works better as historical fiction. Set in March 1914 Martin does well to give a sense of the era, but at times goes to far, describing every little thing to tell the reader they are really in the past.

Stringer travels to Scarborough undercover as a railway fireman to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a rail-worker who was staying in the inapt named Paradise guest house. There Stringer encounters, and falls for, the beautiful owner of the home while finding her brother and the other guests distinctly uncomfortable. The best thing about the book is that Martin does this really well. The guesthouse is creepy, the guests weird and there's a dreamlike feeling to Stringer's interaction with them all as he gropes towards trying to work out what's happening.

But while readable, the book doesn't really work as crime fiction. The best thing about it is the atmosphere. Unfortunately the plot is limited - the denouncement isn't particularly interesting or exciting and doesn't warrant the buildup. But the biggest problem is the structure. Martin constructs the book by having two interweaving timelines, one that follows Stringer on his investigation, and the other that is near the end. The latter takes several chapters to get going and is really confusing (and unnecessary). At the end of it I found myself jumping back and forwards trying to work out what was happening.

I am told that others in this series are better, and perhaps this was not the best starting point. Readers might enjoy it for the atmosphere but that was about it for me.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Glyn Morgan & C. Palmer-Patel - Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction

The allure of alternate history is strong. According to the science-fiction author Stephen Baxter in his introduction to this fascinating book, the Roman historian Livy speculated in 35 BCE what would have happened if the conquering general Alexander the Great had not died aged just 32. There's many a revolutionary socialist that have speculated in meetings on the Russian Revolution (or more likely in the pub afterwards) on what would have happened if the German Revolution of 1919 had been successful and Russia not been left isolated. The Marxist historian Chris Harman himself argued in the introduction to his book on the German Revolution that the "starting point for the process of degeneration of the Russian revolution lay outside of Russia. Stalinism, as much as Nazism, was a product of the lost German revolution".

But Alternate History (AH) is not just speculation about the different paths that society could have taken. It is also a way of approaching history itself and, simultaneously, a way of understanding our own society today. The theme is not restricted to science-fiction. There are a great deal of novels that draw their themes from just two world historic events. The American Civil War and the Second World War. Some of the most popular books of the post-war period, from The Man in the High Castle (1962), to SS-GB (1978) to Fatherland (1992), the idea of the Axis power's success in the war has provided ample fodder for author's imagination and enthusiasm for readers. Part of that success has to be that there is a basis to the alternative history. In imagining Britain or America under Nazi occupation we can draw on the very real experiences of France or Belgium (though rarely on the experiences of Poland or Russia).

Central to the idea of AH is the notion of a fixed point in the past where an event leads to multiple outcomes and thus different histories, one of which is our own. In Back to the Future it is that famous 1955 dance. In his book Jingo Terry Pratchett mocked the idea with his theory of the trousers of time as one character experiences on history, but his personal organiser genie reports the other.

Baxter concludes that "alternate histories dealing with choices made by humans will always offer counterfactural insights into the way those choices were made". But he cautions that "all our history takes place against a backdrop of large-scale chance events". As a result, "it need not have been so". Putting this into more academic language editors Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel argues that AH is "nothing less than an unravelling of our linear and singular notions of history... AH then is not just about history; it is very much also about the present and the future".

This is particularly brought home in an essay in this collection by Jonathan Rayner Forever Being Yamato which explores the way that popular Japanese film, TV series, books and graphic novels have explored the consequences of the Japanese defeat in the Second World War. The end of the War for Japanese was a deeply traumatic experience for the population. The mystical Emperor was shown to be fallible, the country suffered horrendous firestorms and nuclear attacks, followed by occupation. In addition, the reality of Japanese occupation of captured regions in the Pacific shocked millions. Fictional portrayals of the war thus became an opportunity to explore the rights and wrongs of this, and to a certain extent erase the ignoble experiences through discussions of individual comradeship and sacrifice. Even seemingly fantastical examples reflect these themes, a film (from a novel) Lorelei, the Witch of the Pacific Ocean deals with a super-submarine that "is ordered to prevent the dropping of a third atomic bomb on Tokyo". A girl on board has telepathic powers to facilitate this mission, but real problems arise because there are "ultra-nationalist elements in the Japanese Navy" who want the bomb to arise to destroy Japan so a new, "pure state" can arise. It's easy to see how such stories can lead to the blurring of right and wrong in the decisions taken by the actual Japanese military leadership in 1945. Several similar stories deal with trips backward in time by modern warships or, more surprisingly, versions of the Battleship Yamato, herself a symbol of Japanese power. metaphorically propelled into the future. Rayner skilfully navigates both analysis of the stories and their insights into Japanese politics and culture.

One problem that readers often encounter in books like these is that they can be difficult if one is not familiar with the subject matter. Rayner's chapter, like the others in this collection, is an excellent counter-example. I needed no specialist knowledge of Japanese culture to appreciate his analysis. But in two chapters I did have that knowledge. One dealt with a favourite John Wyndham short-story Random Quest and the other with Kim Stanley Robinson's book The Years of Rice and Salt. Robinson's book is perhaps the most important example of AH discussed here. The book deals with a world where the Black Death destroyed European society and allowed the rise of a global civilisation that originates outwards from the Far-East. As a result Robinson's novel allows a discussion of European Colonial history through it's absence. Chris Pak's essay on the book explores the meaning of history in this context and highlights Robinson's own understanding of history. Pak explains that:
Readers are given a sense of these civilisations' development through the experiences of these characters, whose struggle with authority in various guises is both a part of - and sometimes directly contributes to propel - the social changes depicted in each epoch. 
This highlights the influence of left wing ideas on Robinson - this paragraph echoes Marx and Engels in the opening paragraphs of the Communist Manifest. Despite this, Robinson can still fall back, through the use of reincarnation in the novel, on a "great man" theory of history, despite the influence of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel on the writer. That said, as Pak highlights, the use of AH can also highlight real, but forgotten history, as in the case of Zheng Hei's voyages of discovery. Thus Years of Rice and Salt actually helps our understanding of our own history, through the use of alternate history.

Anna McFarlane's essay on Lavie Tidhar's novel Osama also demonstrates this. In Osama the main character lives in an alternate timeline where the events of 9/11 didn't happen but are depicted in a series of in-universe fictional books. Through one of those books Tidhar gives the reader a chance to share an all-knowing moment, but also gives us a sense of the way history actually happens:
What if the Cairo Conference of 1921 went ahead as planned, with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell dividing up the Middle East for the British? What if they chose a Hashemite King to rule Iraq, and would that have led to a revolution in the nineteen fifties? Or, what if the French war in Indochina somehow led to American involvement in Vietnam? Or if the British held on to their colonies in Africa after the Second World War... A series of simple decisions made in hotel rooms and offices that led to a completely different world.
But, explains McFarlane, this linear historical narrative is taken apart by Tidhar's book:
The circular nature of time in the novel reinforces its deviation from alternate history. Alternate histories tend to find a moment in the past from which to extrapolate, representing history as a linear process that emerges from the outcome of significant events... By creating a character trapped within cyclical time and a novel with a cyclical structure, Tidhar suggests the importance of affect after 9/11- the importance of terror, and the emotional impact of the attacks - means that events are not experienced in linear time but inflict a traumatic break with the past that demands a repeated return to the traumatic site and prevents historical progress.
Anyone with knowledge of US imperialism's actions since 9/11 will appreciate that sense of historic blindness which dismissed historical context and allowed military (and political) decisions to be governed by reaction to a single event, seemingly out of its time.

Karen Hellekson says AH allows "querying of notions of history, including its nature, its purpose and its outcome". This is echoed by the editors in their afterword who write that AH  "has depicted a vast amount of possible timelines, what these texts have in common is the idea that - through the depiction of a slightly different timeline - AH reflects on and reveals the nature of our current reality". While this is undoubtedly true, it is also problematic. Hellekson makes the interesting point that many stories of AH rely on various forms of "temporal police" who correct time-lines. This implies that there is a correct history that must be protected.

History is both the things that happen, and something that is created. The process of creation is contested ideologically. Several essays and the editors contrasted the "great man" theory of history to the Tolstoyan model of "millions of small events". But history is both those things and more. The aforementioned Russian Revolution was the consequence of millions of small actions made by living, breathing men and women. But there was also the singular role of Lenin, who, at crucial moments was able to turn the Bolshevik organisation in specific ways. These helped and encouraged the Revolution to take a specific course, culminating in the seizure of power in October 1917. That outcome might well not have happened if the German government had not allowed Lenin through on a sealed train. But it also might not have happened even with Lenin there. The fact that Lenin and the Bolsheviks to consciously attempted to shape history in the course of 1917 meant that the outcome became more likely. But not inevitable. Lenin was a "great man" but he was a factor in a specific moment, not someone who through sheer force of will could change the course of history.

This is worth dwelling on because, if there is a weakness in this collection it is that there isn't a real sense of what history is. In his essay on Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt, Pak notes the way that Zheng Hei's oceanic explorations were curtailed as a result of internal political conflicts in the Chinese state, he fails to draw this out as an example of how history is shaped by the growth of economic forces, shaping wider political interests and coming into conflict with existing political structures. Sometimes history does move forward, but it can also be held back and there in lies the real historical tale. I also felt that Alternate History isn't just fictional. We have examples from our own history. Marx and Engels, for example, contrasted the failure of the 1848 Revolution in German to the success of Bourgeois revolutions elsewhere to explain the differing historical evolution of political structures, economic and technology in European countries.

Perhaps I am being a little unfair. AH is not just about trying to definitely understand history and that's not what the editors of this book set out to do. AH also allows us to do other things. We can imagine other futures that aren't just about what might have happened if the Nazis had won. A great example of this is William Morris' novel News from Nowhere which, through the medium of time travel allows Morris to tell the story of how the Revolution was successful. We can also, in the example of Random Quest, enjoy a romantic love story taking place over different time-lines (though at the same time using it to see how ideas of gender, power and romance themselves have changed since the 1950s).

As such I recommend Glyn Morgan and C. Palmer-Patel's book. For fans of science-fiction (and Alternate History in general) there are lots of insights from the various authors into specific books, films and series, as well as some interesting new ones to try. Most importantly the authors all help us understand how the AH genre itself stimulates and encourages us to think about our own history, and our place in it.

Related Reviews

Mendlesohn - The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein
Robinson - The Years of Rice and Salt