Changing Up Alternate History

By Michael LevyDecember 8, 2013

The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar. 346 pages.

LAVIE TIDHAR WRITES alternate history, but his novels don’t necessarily fit all that comfortably on the shelf with most of the works published under that label. In his World Fantasy Award-winning Osama  he told the intensely noir, increasingly hallucinogenic tale of Joe, an apparently background-free detective living in a world where global terrorism is unknown, who is hired by a mysterious woman to track down the equally mysterious pseudonymous author of a series of pulp thrillers concerning the terrorist activities of a fictional hero named Osama bin Laden. Oddly, however, the chapters excerpted from the Osama books, which just happen to be the detective’s favorite reading material, turn out to be straightforward, essentially journalistic narratives, not thrillers at all. As Joe follows clues around the world, paranoia grows, both his and ours, and reality seems to shift before our very eyes. Then the novel goes all apocalyptic on us and ends on an ambiguous, even maddening note during the war in Afghanistan.

The Violent Century, Tidhar’s latest book, is even darker than Osama. Think John le Carré dark. Two British spies meet in a rundown, smoky bar on the South Bank of contemporary London. One, codename Oblivion, has been sent to bring the other, Fogg, an old companion in arms, in from the cold into which he had disappeared years ago. It’s a foggy, wet English day. They’re picked up by a driver in an elegant Rolls-Royce Phantom II who takes them to an anonymous government building on Pall Mall. Just before they enter, another spy, another old comrade, takes a shot at them from the opposite rooftop. Once inside the Retirement Bureau, as their branch of the British secret service is called, they take an elevator down to a dark, windowless room where they meet the Old Man, their boss, who is prepared to interrogate Fogg and discover what he’s been doing during his time out in the cold. Although it’s never directly stated, it’s clear that there’s a very real chance that Fogg won’t leave the room alive.

So, something  like John le Carré, not as a matter of slavish imitation so much, but rather as an evocation of darkness, idealism turning to exhaustion, and moral ambiguity. The Old Man, Oblivion, Fogg, these are men who have been fighting in the shadows for far too long and whatever sense of right and wrong they started out with is now dangerously suspect. But this is also a novel of alternate history and the world these characters live in is not exactly ours. In fact it may have almost as much in common with the seedy world of Alan Moore’s Watchmen  for all of the characters mentioned so far are actually superhuman. Oblivion can make anything disintegrate simply by touching it. Fogg, the ideal secret agent, can create dense fogs in which he can hide and observe or from which he can create monsters to attack or defend. The agent on the roof, Spit, is also a deadly weapon whose abilities should be obvious from her name. The Old Man, a Professor Xavier of sorts (and, yes, the X-Men is another influence), though he lacks the professor’s warmth, is the mastermind who rules over the Bureau with an iron fist and a superhuman attention to detail. The thing is, though, the Old Man has been running things since the mid-1930s and he was old even then. He and all of the other superheroes, many more than are actually controlled by the Retirement Bureau we discover, are immortal, though they can be killed.

In 1932 a boy, Henry, later Fogg, was playing beside a railroad track when something happened.

The ground rumbled underneath him. A train, approaching. Steam rising in the air. Beautiful things, trains. Something  coming.

A bubble of silence rushing outwards, expanding. A distortion that has no name. Time slows, for just a moment. Henry  reaches out, the fog clinging to his hands, that bubble of silence rushes in slow motion, envelops him, holds him, then pops.

Rushes onwards. Disappears.

And everything changes.

Just like that….

A German scientist, Dr. Vomacht, has conducted a table-top experiment in applied quantum mechanics. Around the world a small but not insignificant number of people have been changed. They have superpowers of wildly varying sorts and they are immortal. Some, bewildered by what has happened to them, do their best to hide their gifts. Others, in less civilized parts of the world, become shamans or are seen as monsters. In the developed nations, however, the Übermenschen, as they come to be called, are hunted down by their own governments and drafted into various military or spy services. The Nazis find the concept of the Übermenschen particularly attractive, though the Americans, British, and Soviets are not far behind. When World War II occurs right on schedule, the Changed on each side pretty much cancel each other out during the fighting. Most of the battles of World War II end up in results pretty much similar to their counterparts in our world. As we see in a newsreel Fogg watches, however, when U.S. troops land on Normandy Beach, “The dastardly Huns fight desperately, but they are no match for American heroism!” in the form of a set of flashy superheroes: Tigerman, Whirlwind, The Electric Twins, and the Green Gunman. The Old Man, though, prefers to muster his troops in secret. Fogg, Oblivion and company do the war’s work, but never appear in the newsreels, are never even publicly confirmed to exist.

War is hell, of course, even for supermen. Fogg and Oblivion are at Minsk when the Germans take the city and Leningrad during the siege. They witness the horrors of the death camps. Sometimes they succeed in their objectives, helping the Allied cause in various subtle ways. Sometimes they fail dramatically, outclassed by such powerful German superheroes as the evil Hans von Wolkenstein, der Wolfsmann, who is not only a werewolf, but also has the ability to negate other superheroes’ powers, or Schneesturm, who can call up snow storms and create monsters of ice. When the war ends in a German defeat, the Americans, the Brits, and the Soviets all engage in a wholesale attempt to capture or turn as many of the enemy Übermenschen as possible, promising them, as the U.S. promised a variety of Nazi scientists like Werner von Braun, complete amnesty if they will change sides. Some Nazi Übermenschen accept the offer, while others choose to disappear. The Retirement Bureau’s work is far from done, however, and Oblivion and Fogg, eternally young but increasingly battered by the passage of time, go on to serve around the world in His or Her Majesty’s service, witnessing a war crimes trial in Jerusalem in 1964, the horrors of Laos in 1967, the desperation of cold war Berlin, and the unfortunate 1984 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (with Osama bin Laden playing a small and repellent role). Eventually, Fogg goes AWOL, his actions unrecorded until Obivion tracks him down to the bar on the South Bank decades later.

The Violent Century is told in a series of short chapters. The main narrative, consisting of Oblivion’s bringing Fogg in from the cold to be interrogated by the Old Man, is repeatedly interrupted by flashbacks to Fogg’s childhood and early training after the Change, his meeting with Oblivion, their various missions during World War II and after, sometimes together, sometimes not. Both men live in intense isolation, something the Old Man encourages, though they feel great allegiance to each other and their fellows in the Retirement Bureau, not all of whom survive World War II or the novel. Each man spends a certain amount of time looking for love, though Oblivion’s relationships are mostly one night stands. Fogg, on the other hand, has more success, of a sort. Falling in love with Sommertag, the mysterious daughter of Dr. Vomacht, the Nazi whose experiment in quantum mechanics created the Changed in the first place has its complications, both political and, well, existential.

It’s hard, but not impossible as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey and others have shown, to create a morally complex, artistically ambitious story based on characters whose origins are not that far removed from the simplicity of Superman, Spiderman, and their ilk. Tidhar has succeeded brilliantly in this task. The Violent Century is a masterful example of alternate universe science fiction and can only add to its author’s rapidly growing reputation.

LARB Contributor

Michael Levy teaches science fiction and children’s literature at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. A past president of both the Science Fiction Research Association and the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, he is currently a co-editor at the peer-reviewed journal Extrapolation. The author of three books and many articles, book chapters, and book reviews, he is currently working on The Cambridge Introduction to Children's Fantasy, co-authored with Farah Mendlesohn, to be published by Cambridge University Press.


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