Stephen Fry’s 1996 Making History is an alternate history. It won the 1998 Sidewise Award1.
To his biochemist girlfriend Jane Michael, “Puppy” Young is a charming, bumbling idiot who cannot be trusted unattended in a laboratory. He’s an amusement, but not a man with whom she could possibly spend her life. To the world at large, Puppy is a feckless graduate student working toward a PhD in history, a field he believes is (like Puppy himself) cruelly unappreciated by the world. His grand ambitions run up against reality when his advisor reveals to Puppy that large swaths of Puppy’s thesis on Hitler are utter crap.
This academic setback isn’t the only downer; Puppy finds out that Jane is moving to Princeton without him. It’s at this moment of utter personal failure that some misaddressed mail provides Puppy with an introduction to physicist Leo Zuckerman. It is an encounter that will reshape history.
Leo Zuckerman was born Alex Bauer, son of Dietrich Josef Bauer. The senior Bauer was an avid Nazi. Leo’s father used his medical skills to carry out inhumane experiments on Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. As war’s end approached, Leo’s father concluded the Nazi cause was lost. Determined to save his son and wife, Leo’s father gave the pair the identities of a dead Jewish woman and her son.
Leo forgot his childhood as the son of a Nazi doctor. As far as he knew, he was one of the lucky few who survived the camps. On her deathbed, his mother proudly revealed to Leo his forgotten history. Since Leo is an essentially decent man, discovering that he was the son of a war criminal came as a terrible shock.
Like Puppy, Leo is a man obsessed with history. In Leo’s case, his obsession produced a device capable of peering into the past. But the images received chaotic nonsense; as a time-viewer, it’s a failure. Lacking the scientific acumen to know that he’s suggesting the impossible, Puppy wonders if the device could be reconfigured to sent an object into the past. This is, it turns out, all too possible.
The pair decide to rewrite history by removing Hitler from it. Jane’s research has produced a male pill, a chemical that sterilizes men who ingest it. Leo has the means to deliver a stolen pill to a crucial moment in the past. Puppy knows the perfect time and place to drop the pill: into the well in Braunau am Inn from which Hitler’s father drank, prior to Hitler’s conception.
Puppy wakes to a world transformed. The most obvious change is that Puppy is now American for some reason. Removing Hitler from history has indeed rewritten the past … but not for the better. Depression-era Germany was still vulnerable to the appeal of a strongman. With Hitler gone, that role was taken by Rudi Gloder. Gloder was every inch as malevolent and bigoted as Hitler but he was much smarter. Under Hitler, Germany was reduced to a collection of smoking ruins. Under Gloder, the Greater German Reich conquered half of Eurasia, including Puppy’s native Britain. Where Hitler’s Nazis killed most of the Jews in Europe, Gloder’s Nazis exterminated them all.
While the America to which Puppy’s parents fled is better than Nazi-dominated Europe, that is a very low bar. America is a racially segregated, conservative nation where none of the liberal reforms of our history have succeeded.
Puppy isn’t bothered by the mistreatment of black people (there are no personal consequences for him). However, the criminalization of homosexuality does affect Puppy, who is falling for this world’s version of his friend Steve.
Just as Puppy and Steve exist despite the changes, so does a Leo (born Alex Bauer) haunted by his knowledge of his father’s war crimes2. In this timeline, Alex’s father had developed a pill that sterilized every Jewish man within the Greater German Reich.
Like the Leo that the original Puppy met, Leo has developed a time-viewer. Could this be used to change history again? Perhaps. But this time, government agents have learned of the device and may intervene to stop the ambitious pair.
Many people might be distressed to learn that their whimsical intervention in history led to the total extermination of the Jews, as well as the atomic destruction of Moscow and Leningrad, not to mention all the other consequences of Nazi (and Imperial Japanese) victory. For the most part Puppy manages to ignore all that. One even gets the sense that he finds other people’s struggles a bit comic.
‘Thanks. You know,’ I said, ‘where I come from there’s this thing called political correctness. (It) means you get into trouble if you don’t give equal rights to women, disabled people, people from all ethnic backgrounds, black, Asian, Hispanic, American Indian, whatever, and of course gays. That is, lesbians and … you know, fruits, or whatever you call them here. If they so much as suspect you of being offensive, or bigoted or even faintly patronising to any of those groups you can get fired from your job, sued in court … you’re an outcast.’
It’s only when he realizes that he and Steve cannot be a couple without living in the closet, risking jail time if discovered, that Puppy acts.
I suspect this was supposed to be a comic novel. I have an established inability to appreciate genocide-based yucks, which no doubt reflects poorly on me (Don’t ask what I think about Life is Beautiful.). As well, the central character and the self-centred world view he embodies are disagreeable enough that I couldn’t warm to this book at all. Judging by sales and the Sidewise Award, I am in the minority here.
1: I don’t know why a 1996 novel won a 1998 award.
2: Does historical inertia only work for privileged white people? It’s hard to imagine that East Asian populations wouldn’t have been further decimated by Japanese domination. Likewise, nobody descended from survivors of Nazi camps can exist in this world.