Fatherland

I think I drafted the piece printed below in 1995 for Maura McHugh, who was (I think) editing the programme book for that year’s Octagon, which I attended with Anna Russell. But that’s all guesswork on my part, as I have no record of ever having seen or received a published version of this short commentary on the non-genre UK press’s response to Robert Harris’s Fatherland. The draft I’ve just found in my files is palpably rough. So I’ve tweaked it a bit here.

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It’s hard to believe it was the same book. If you read only what the extraordinary savants (whom God defend) of the establishment press in the UK have said about Robert Harris’s Fatherland (*1992*), you could be forgiven for assuming that their pal — Harris is a journalist of some stature — had deciphered Linear B, and for the first time too. You might well have assumed that his novel — which was based on the familiar thought-experiment assumption that, in some Alternate Version of History, Hitler had won World War Two — was a work of astonishing originality. Not mere sci-fi at all (as at least one reviewer deposed), but a Serious Look at the stresses and fissures marking Western humanity’s response to the terrible events of this 20th century, the first century we can claim real responsibility for, given the boasts. . . sort of thing.

As a working sf reviewer, I (and several others like me) also covered Robert Harris’s Fatherland. It was as though we’d reviewed entirely different books. My notice was pubished in Interzone (June 1992). Here is how it starts: “It is not a new thought that Nazi Germany will live forever, and Robert Harris has not had a new thought in Fatherland. As with most alternate histories of the 20th century, he has worked out an hypothesis or two — in his case a few mild twitches at events in 1942 — which allows Hitler to win World War Two . . . ” and so on. I then instanced “a victorious Reich, a corrupt but highly photogenic obergruppenfuhrerlederhosenfabrikengesellschaft, and architecture by Albert Speer”, and went on to mention various similar visions from the net of interwoven associations and memories that makes up the genre of sf. I mentioned Sarban, and Philip K. Dick, and Keith Roberts, and Len Deighton. I could have mentioned a dozen more — and indeed have done so, in a moderately long entry called HITLER WINS in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (*1993*), which I co-edited, and where I cited Fatherland, in the centre of a large paragraph citing similar texts. To close the review, I repeated my contention that Robert Harris had contributed little or nothing to the conversation of sf on the matter.

As most of us may know, Fatherland sold hugely, and Harris’s next novel, a dangerously unoriginal-sounding rehash of World War Two material, has been touted in the quality press, and its author widely interviewed in the role of grave mentor. This may make guttersnipes like myself feel wry, but that’s not what’s mainly amiss here. I would put forward two related contestations:
1) That literary critics who attempt to understand a work of genre — and make no mistake, Harris’s Fatherland is pure (though not very good) sf — without attempting to understand something of the complex dance of precedent that governs works written in any genre (and which governs “pure” mimetic novels too, by the way), are not literary critics at all. They are gum in the grammar of discourse. A stillicidium in the words we live by.
2) That a literary establishment which shuddersomely eschews whole branches of the written word — while simultaneously valorizing clubbable crap because it was written by someone who occupies a position within that establishment’s horizon of expectation — should not be called a literary establishment, a term which implies some earned merit, and maybe even a moderate openness to change, over time. It might better be called a freemasonry, and book reviews generated by its membership recognized for what they are: signage of the secret handshake.

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