Monday, December 15, 2008

The Separation

A good deal of alternate history focuses on wars ending differently. In The Separation, Christopher Priest also looks at a war, but in a most unusual way. Here Priest examines a pacifist alternate history and also questions history itself. Depending on your read of the book, you could argue that it is not an alternate history at all.

The book starts with at a slow book signing by a British author of popular military histories. He mostly writes about the "German War," which ended in 1941 with an armistice between Britain and Germany (the unfortunate Russians thereby bear the full Nazi effort). At this point, most alternate histories would have Britain falling directly under a Nazi heel or living under a quisling class of anti-Semitic Tories. Instead, Britain is prosperous and free. Priest constructs a reasonable reason for this that reminded me quite a bit of some Niall Ferguson's ideas from the Pity of War.

As the historian gets up to leave, a woman leaves a memoir that the historian is seeking . He is trying learn more about someone who appears to have been both a bomber pilot and a conscientious objector. As it turns out, the one person is two, twins, and each has a diary. Unfortunately for our historian, the stories tell very different stories of the war. In one, the war ends as it does in our world, in another it ends in 1941.

(Spoilers ahead)

At one point, one of the characters calls Churchill a master of the manipulation of history. The creation of history, both as actor and as interpreter, is a major theme of the book. The framing device is the use of history, the pacifist and conventional interpretations of World War 2 are set apart as separate realities. And the major characters are concerned about how they are impacting history. One interpretation of the story is that the time lines are creations that reflect the desires of the characters to validate their choices. Priest ends the book quite ambiguously, so other interpretations, including the intersection of universes are also possible. I think that Priest is also arguing that the quest to fully understand history is not possible and that interpretation and mystery will always play a part.


Anonymous said...

But are you liking it? I just got it for my husband, because he liked "The Prestige," but I didn't know that it was alternate history.

Tripp said...


Yes I did like it. Among the books of his I have read, I would put it between The Prestige, which I quite liked and the Extremes, which was decent.

Alternate history usually conjures thoughts of schlock, but this is no such book. You needn't be a fetishist to like this one, I swear!