Alternate history as a fruitful genre for re-imagining themes of Liberty versus Power: An Appreciation and Comparison of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation – and an intriguing comparison – of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel:

By William H. Stoddard

The year 2008 saw, for the first time, a tie between two Prometheus Award nominees for Best Novel: Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator (in his Crosstime Traffic series from Tor Books) and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny (in her Small Change series, also from Tor Books).

Ordinarily, each winner would merit its own entry; but there are interesting parallels between the two, which make it especially fitting that they shared the award, and illuminating to examine them together.

Turtledove has been known primarily as an author of alternate history, making his mark with early works such as A Different Flesh (1988), set on an Earth where the Americas are inhabited by surviving Homo erectus, and The Guns of the South, in which South African engineers help Robert E. Lee to victory, with surprising results. The six volumes of Crosstime Traffic are a young adult series about trade between parallel Earths.

Walton’s oeuvre has been more varied, but Small Change is definitely alternate history, set in a timeline where the United Kingdom came to terms with Germany in the 1930s.

It belongs to a subgenre that’s not usually considered science fictional: the cozy mystery, commonly set in a domain of wealthy and privileged people (not very different from the setting of the Jeeves and Wooster stories!) and keeping overt violence and the cruder sorts of crime offstage.

Walton mixes this with a different subgenre, the police procedural, making her continuing protagonist a Scotland Yard investigator. The science-fictional aspect comes from Walton’s careful exploration of the cultural divergence to be expected in her alternate timeline.

Walton’s point of departure is thus the survival of National Socialism after 1945 — ironically, not by military victory, but through fortuitous events that prevented it from achieving the kind of apocalyptic struggle for military triumph that its ideology aspired to.

And that’s what makes Turtledove’s The Gladiator such a perfect bookend for her series: It envisions a twenty-first century where Soviet Communism not only survived but triumphed, where (for example) Italian high school students take courses in Russian, and are startled by the bad grammar and crude language of a pair of Russian visitors.

In these two novels, the authors give us visions of the mid-twentieth century’s two great examples of authoritarian and brutal politics, happily no longer with us, and ask what they might be like had they survived. It would be hard to find two more ideal complements.

Turtledove’s Communist Italy isn’t a totalitarian horror like Stalinist Russia, or even a dystopia like George Orwell’s Oceania. For the most part, it’s simply a drab bureaucratic state, combining economic meagerness, administrative delays, and relentless political infighting.

In the midst of this, a store starts selling games, including a game of competitive railroad building set during the age of capitalism — and comes to the attention of two high school students, who get caught up when the authorities take an interest in these subversive ideas. This isn’t as harshly realistic as some of Heinlein’s juveniles, but its young characters face some real challenges and threats.

Walton’s fascist United Kingdom also isn’t out and out murderous. Much of its corruption takes place through the channels of influence among the “right sort of people.”

In particular, she focuses on a detective struggling to preserve (some of) his integrity under official pressures as he investigates specific murder cases, often politically motivated — while he himself is vulnerable to political pressures that could destroy his career, or worse. Walton’s depth of characterization is greater, offering the kind of pleasure to be found in some of the best classic mystery writers, from Dorothy Sayers to P.D. James.

In a time when government often seems intrusive and liberty imperiled, it’s thought-provoking to read two novels that remind us of how very much worse the twentieth century could have gone, and of what political horrors remain possible.

Harry Turtledove (Creative Commons license)

Note: Harry Turtledove, an American novelist best known for his work in the genres of alternate history, science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction, also has been nominated for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Between the Rivers (in 1999), Opening Atlantis (in 2009), Liberating Atlantis and The United States of Atlantis (in 2010) and Joe Steele (in 2016).

 

Jo Walton – a Welsh and Canadian sf/fantasy writer who won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004, and the Nebula Award for Best Novel for Among Others in 2011, also has been nominated for a Prometheus Award for Best Novel for Half a Crown (in 2008), the sequel to Ha’penny; The Just City (in 2016); and Necessity (in 2017).

Jo Walton (Creative Commons license)

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, the 2009 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Mike Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been a writer, arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Most recently, Michael won the 2019 Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio (for theater reviews) and Best Arts Reporting (which he’s won seven times). He's written for Reason and Libertarian Review magazines, was a regional columnist for years for Backstage weekly, helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword/essay for the first paperback edition of J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among the books he recommends to inform a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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