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The Separation

by Christopher Priest

(Scribner, £10.99, 464 pages, trade paperback, published 2002.)

As a trope, alternate world stories strike me as SF's equivalent of fast food: I may cover scanthink I'm tucking into a nutritious meal for the imagination, but after the first quick tasty rush, I'm left with the feeling it's pretty insubstantial. This isn't to disrespect the great alternate history books gracing us over the years--the usual suspects like Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, Phil Dick's The Man in the High Castle and Keith Roberts' Pavane. Most alternate histories though seem to confuse the cleverness of their what-if conceits with genuine insights into the mechanics of history--or indeed, anything else beyond a smug sense of playfulness. Leaving aside the rare exceptions--Kim Stanley Robinson's recent The Years of Rice and Salt comes to mind--few offer any genuine engagement with how events shape--and are shaped--by the sheer mess of things. Do any of us really care if the Southern states or the Spanish Armada won crucial battles--apart from that comfort-food feeling of being reminded that we probably live in the best of all possible worlds?

If alternate histories are genre fast food, then alternate histories of the Second World War are its McDonalds. You know what you're going to get with each meal ("What if Germany won the war and Britain was overrun by the Nazis ... " yadda yadda) and you know that as soon as you're finished, you'll want to leave quickly. Strange then that of all the playing fields of alternate history for so thoughtful a SF writer to enter, Christopher Priest should choose this for his most recent novel, The Separation.

Like many alternate world stories from writers as diverse as Kingsley Amis and Len Deighton, the book has been slipped out under cover of the mainstream. Put this trade paperback alongside Harry Turtledove's latest and you'd never spot they were cousins under the skin. Like much of the British writer's latter work--what I tend to think of as his The books (The Affirmation, The Prestige, The Extremes, etc.)--Priest's novel plays with traditional SF tropes under what genre ghetto trolls might consider literary camouflage. However, unlike most other alternate WWII books, Priest starts with a very different perspective on the workings of history. Grand events do not arise from crystal clear moments of decision, points where the narrator has to choose whether to cut the red or the blue wire of history, but from the cloud of misunderstandings, small gestures and things left unsaid that make up the mess of our everyday lives. As a result, Priest has crafted a fine fable of how the world is haunted by the ghosts of our what-might-have-beens and the awful sense of our own powerlessness to control events.

Through a fractured narrative that appears to double back on itself repeatedly, the novel follows the diverging paths of two identical twins--Jack and Joe Sawyer--through the early stages of the war. Champion rowers who win medals for Britain at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, conflicting views on the proper moral response to war and love of the same girl lead the two brothers to different, critical junctures in history. Jack does his bit by flying bombers for the RAF. An avowed pacifist, Joe works as a Red Cross ambulanceman in London. Yet both are instrumental--through a mixture of accident, calculated choice and sheer bloody-mindedness--in causing momentous changes in the course of the war.

How these changes are played out is one of the striking features of the novel. At the risk of spoilers, it is soon clear that the tangled lives of the brothers--partially re-told from the present day--has generated a version of events quite different from the typical alternate WWII cliché. The key point of historical 'separation' involves Britain making peace with Germany in mid-1941, before the US has entered the war. But rather than leading to a capitulated world in which the Nazis proceed on to global domination--the kind of kneejerk morale many writers would opt for--Priest displays a more nuanced (if not always plausible) future in which Germany and the US exhaust themselves in empire-building in Russia, a Jewish homeland is created in Madagascar and Britain becomes a leading force in the world. In writing about the war itself, Priest gives careful attention to both the moral imperatives the British felt in resisting Germany as well as genuine horror at how the violence of the war always feeds on itself. While this could be read as a critique of the usual justifications surrounding WWII--and the alternate histories feeding off the period--Priest has been admirably exact in his even-handedness.

Moreover, not just one alternate future is fashioned in the novel's events, but several. Characters cross back and forth between these separate realities, as confused themselves at their passage as those passages confuse the reader. So what at first begins as the usual alternate history ploy of building narrative interest out of a historical puzzle--just which set of events caused the world to become so different--turns into something far more complex and interesting. For Priest, it is less the trails of consequences that are worth detailing, but the original moments where so much seems possible. This is where the paradox of history can be most sharply seen. At the same time as we realize that we have the power to change history, our little actions able to overturn the fate of nations, we understand that we are ultimately powerless, because we are blind to where those moments fall and what decisions to take. In its telling, the novel reinforces the theme by tracing the narratives of the two brothers through diary fragments, letters, eyewitness accounts, even academic studies. In so doing, Priest shows public and personal histories constantly in dispute with themselves, as the stories reveal gaps, contradictions and mysteries that are never fully resolved. It is a powerful metaphor of the way we try to make sense of how events intertwine to form our lives and then how those lives intertwine to make futures.

If the book does have one weakness, it is that it can be difficult to care much for the individual stories. Priest's narrative tricks, his rather clinical style and his repressed characters are familiar features from his other books, but while the combination works well in firing the intellect, it is less effective in seducing our sympathy. I can't say I was particularly bothered about what happened to either brother by the end of the book. If anything, the novel comes over as worthy--not unlike those brown-rice vegetarian meals where you're constantly aware of how much you're having to chew your food. Better than the McDonalds of the world--but maybe not as much fun.

Review by Philip Raines.

The Separation is also reviewed in Adam Roberts' feature on the 2003 Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist.

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