Random House, 1992, 338 pages, C$26.50 hc, ISBN 0-679-41273-5
I’m not a big fan of alternate-history fiction, but even casual readers familiar with the concept know about Fatherland, Robert Harris’ highly successful 1992 debut novel. Whereas the alternate history sub-genre is often seen as a creation of science-fiction storytelling, Fatherland owes more to a blend between historical studies and crime fiction. While this may make the novel more accessible to general audiences (It was published by Random House, after all), I suspect that it also makes it a slight disappointment to experienced SF readers.
Fatherland takes place in 1964, in a very different Germany. The Reich has won World War II by playing it smarter on the Russian front and then coming to an arrangement with the United States. Don’t expect many details: Harris apparently thought it better to stay vague and not give any ammunition to overly critical readers. It’s not as if any of the counter-factual details are important anyway: the real intent of the novel in not to reimagine WW2 as much as it’s to explore what it would be like to live under a victorious Nazi regime.
As a “Nazi victorious” vision, it’s certainly more developed and interesting than, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which laboured under the handicap of taking place too soon after the Nazi victory. Here, things have had time to change. The German population is living the life of imperial citizens and the centrepiece of this victorious Nazi Berlin is a trip through a rebuilt Grand Avenue, an imperial showcase in which the 80ft Brandenburg Gate is a mere architectural footnote when placed next to Hitler’s Palace, the 400ft Arch of Triumph, the 3 miles long Grand Avenue or the 1,000ft-tall Great Hall. It’s no accident if the hardcover’s flyleaf contains an illustration of the area, or if all of Chapter 3 is a guided tour of the area.
But before you start applauding Harris for this spectacular setting, keep in mind that the details of this imperial Berlin were set out in Albert Speer’s architectural plans. Fatherland is not a work of imagination as much as it’s a work of historical scholarship, a fact that becomes obvious once the curtain starts rising on the book’s biggest revelations.
Plot wise, Fatherland begins with the discovery of a body, a discovery that, in time-honoured noir tradition, will reveal bigger and darker secrets, leading SS investigator protagonist Xavier March straight to the secrets of the Nazi regime. This “secret” is all too familiar to us real-world readers, so don’t expect to be surprised by the story as much as be a witness to March’s own aghast surprise.
Hence lies, I believe, the crucial difference between genre readers and general readers when looking at Fatherland. For genre readers, living in a Nazi regime is a hook and (perhaps more importantly), a good jump-off point to other things: If SF writers have taken so well to alternate history, it’s because they can then play with “what if?” scenarios and develop them in ever-wilder speculations. Here, living in a Nazi regime is the big concept and the point of the novel; all else plays within the margins set out by this cadre. I imagine mainstream readers reading this and going “Wow, Nazi Germany victorious!”, but genre readers going “Nice… but is that all?”
It certainly doesn’t make Fatherland a bad book: The investigation proceeds at a decent pace, the characters are interesting (especially March’s own growing dissatisfaction) and the emotional punch of the novel does manage to wring some interest out of familiar elements. It succeeds very well in presenting a society that has integrated the banality of evil, and has even convinced itself of its righteousness despite a gaping blind spot in its recent history. Early twenty-first century readers may want to read the novel with an eye on imperial mechanics, and how a steady stream of far-away terrorism and dirty little wars on the empire’s outskirts are seen as good for “perpetual alertness”.
On strictly literary qualities, Fatherland delivers more than enough interest to keep you reading. It certainly has found an audience over the past twelve years: Made in a movie in 1994, Fatherland has sold well and earned Harris a steady place on the best-seller lists with every one of his three other novels so far (Including Enigma, reviewed earlier). While a bit basic for SF fans, it’s a strong fiction debut, a satisfying read and conceivably a good introduction to the whole alternate history sub-genre.