Welcome, my dear readers, to the first of our latest showcasing of alternate history's more terrifying creations. To open this little segment of horrors, I figured we'd delve into a timeline that delves into one of fictions darker worlds itself.
In the world of fiction, you'd be hard pressed to find a world more bleak or dystopic than George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. This timeless tale of a man trying to maintain his sanity in the face of an all-powerful totalitarian regime, one that is not only unbeatable and inescapable, but is in the midst of its final triumph over free will. From its first pages to its final four words, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother and Ingsoc have become the face and form of the very sort of inescapable ever-present dictatorship that haunts the nightmares of almost any person who values freedom. In the words of O'Brian, 'Imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever', and you have a phrase that captures the very essence of Oceania.
Nineteen Eighty-Four has sparked debates ever since it's release, quite a few of them concerning the world it takes place in. How much of the world is a fabrication? Is Oceania really a pan-Continental superpower, or is that just a lie used to keep the populace of a far smaller nation in check? What happened to the Royal Family? Is Big Brother a real person, and if so, who is he? Will the regime ever fall? Perhaps most of all, what chain of events could have possibly have led to such a dark world? It is to answer many of these questions, Will Ritson created his masterful alternate history Images of 1984 - Stories from Oceania.
The slow, agonizing decent into dictatorship begins with two seemingly minor PODs. The first is that Oswald Mosley and his 'New Party' merge back into Labour in the early thirties, allowing for Mosley to become one of Labours more powerful members. The second is the early death of Sir Waldron Smithers, whom was responsible for a lot of anti-communist legislation of the era. From here, we see a far bloodier liberation of Europe that ends with a nuclear bomb getting dropped on Hamburg. Decolonization kicks off after the last Governor General of India, Sir Eric Blair, manages to convince Nehru and Jinnah to keep India united as a single nation, which becomes independent in 1947. Butterflies continue to effect the wider world, with some of including Joseph P. Kennedy being elected President in 1956 and Che Guevara abandoning the Castro brothers in Cuba in favor of supporting the Ingsoc revolution in Britain.
Of course the big change of the TL comes to Britain, which post war fails to see either a post-war economic recovery or strong political leadership. As a result the island sees large scale political upheaval, with the final elections for Parliament held in 1953, and various emergency governments rising and falling afterwards, without revealing too many spoilers, we get to see several factions headed by real and fictional figures before what will become the Oceanian government begins to consolidate it's power base in the late 1950s. At the TLs current point, the new government is moving the capital back to the twice-ruined London, and is discussing the construction of the buildings that will come to house the four infamous ministries. Against this, we get the common citizen's perspective of the fall of Britain and rise of Oceania through the eyes of the young Winston Smith. As a whole, it is a grim and chilling read, one made all the more frightening with little hints dropped here and there about the dark future we all know lays ahead.
There is one huge change here, in the form of a light at the end of the tunnel for this Oceania. Interspersed between some of the entries, are brief glimpses of the future, one where the Oceanian government has fallen to an Arab Spring style popular uprising. Just as it was the telescreens that formed the key to subjugating most of the populace, the Internet would prove the key to their liberty, with the story hinting at the revolt begins among students after the China-esque web filters fail, allowing them a glimpse of the real world. The post-Ingsoc Britain is portrayed much as how you might expect to see North Korea in the future -- impoverished, struggling to rebuild, dealing with demons from the past, occupied by American and Commonwealth troops, and an increasing number of Brits seeking a better life abroad. Though things are looking better for Britain than they have in half a century, even in this light, there is darkness.
The attention to detail is superb, with the author showing supreme knowledge of both post WWII Britain and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Two examples that I remember specifically are the stories behind the nuking of Colchester and the 'non-existent' photograph of Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford, both done well and believably, and in the case of the former, very chilling. Of course in addition to the novel's own cast, we see OTL figures from Oswald Mosley, Margaret Thatcher, and even Winston Churchill himself have a hand in leading Britain bit by bit down the path to tyranny, telescreens and Thought Police.
And that is the key to what makes Images of 1984 as haunting as it is. While it manages to capture much of what made the Orwellian novel chilling, it also manages to be terrifying in a different, and very important way. That being that the back story and cast - many of whom are familiar to anyone who knows their history - adds an all too human element to the story, one that reminds the reader just how painfully easy the descent into such tyranny is. Though 1984 certainly struck a chord, this TL manages to strike a very personal one as you watch post-WWII Britain transform itself into a dictatorship that makes North Korea look like Candyland.
Tragically, Images of 1984 is one of all too many superb alternate histories around the web that lie half-finished and for the most part abandoned. The writer, Will Ritson, has a habit of updating when there is enough demand on the thread, so with any luck, my dear readers, this thread can get enough attention to have him finish this superb and all too real tale of the rise, rule, and fall of Oceania.
Soldier, scholar, writer and web-voyeur, Sean CW Korsgaard has been active in the alternate history community since 2006, and was recently elected to succeed Mitro as President of the Alternate History Online facebook group. In addition to his contributions at the Alternate History Weekly Update, he writes for several websites, including his own, which can be found here.