The Literary Horizon: Swastika Night, Farthing

Alternate history is a particular favorite of mine—I love the idea of how just one event can change the course of the world, and seeing that changed world. On top of that, contrasting it against our world usually brings up some very interesting issues. Today, we’re looking at two alternate history novels that take Nazi domination as their divergence point from our own history.

Swastika Night by Katharine Burdekin

Published in 1937, twelve years before Orwell’s 1984, this novel projects a totally male-controlled fascist world that has eliminated women as we know them. They are breeders, kept as cattle, while men in this post-Hitlerian world are embittered automatons, fearful of all feelings, having abolished all history, education, creativity, books, and art. Not even the memory of culture remains. The plot centers on a “misfit” who asks, as readers must, “How could this have happenned?” Ann J. Lane calls the novel a “brilliant, chilling dystopia.” “This is a powerful, haunting vision of the inner and outer worlds of male violence.

via Amazon

Swastika Night is not, technically, historical fiction. At the time it was written, it was science fiction—to this day, it’s compared to 1984. But as time has marched on, it has, essentially, become alternate history, and I’m curious to see a world where Nazis win World War II—an admittedly common alternate history trope—from the historical vantage point of someone who lived when that was a possibility. Chilling.

BookGeek at Reading Under the Influence enjoyed the feminist angle as well as the dystopia, although she found the dialogue a bit hard to get through. Darragh McManus writing for the Guardian finds it to be chilling and absolutely worthy of its comparisons to 1984.

Swastika Night was published in 1937.

Farthing by Jo Walton

One summer weekend in 1949–but not our 1949–the well-connected “Farthing set”, a group of upper-crust English families, enjoy a country retreat. Lucy is a minor daughter in one of those families; her parents were both leading figures in the group that overthrew Churchill and negotiated peace with Herr Hitler eight years before.

Despite her parents’ evident disapproval, Lucy is married–happily–to a London Jew. It was therefore quite a surprise to Lucy when she and her husband David found themselves invited to the retreat. It’s even more startling when, on the retreat’s first night, a major politician of the Farthing set is found gruesomely murdered, with abundant signs that the killing was ritualistic.

It quickly becomes clear to Lucy that she and David were brought to the retreat in order to pin the murder on him. Major political machinations are at stake, including an initiative in Parliament, supported by the Farthing set, to limit the right to vote to university graduates. But whoever’s behind the murder, and the frame-up, didn’t reckon on the principal investigator from Scotland Yard being a man with very private reasons for sympathizing with outcasts…and looking beyond the obvious.

As the trap slowly shuts on Lucy and David, they begin to see a way out–a way fraught with peril in a darkening world.

via Amazon

I love Jo Walton—Tooth and Claw and Among Others were wonderful, but I hear a lot about Farthing. So this is, in fact, just a natural chain of events.

Jenny at Jenny’s Books loved it, to the point she almost cried when Lucy wasn’t in the sequel. Memory at Stella Matutina enjoyed it as well, and was pleasantly surprised to find it also deals with queer issues. I love alternate history that deals with queer issues, so that’s definitely a bonus.

Farthing was published on August 8, 2006.

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