Weaver by Stephen Baxter

Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont

Weaver cover

The venerable Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson once pointed out, in a 1973 piece about Brian Aldiss' Starship, that :

One of the supreme functions of SF as a genre is the estrangement, in the Brechtian sense, of our culture and institutions—A shocked renewal of our vision such that once again, and as though for the first time, we are able to perceive their historicity and their arbitrariness, their profound dependency on the accidents of man's historical adventure.

What Jameson is trying to get across is the idea that, by looking at possible futures, SF illustrates how the future can be radically different from the present and how what today appears to be the product of immutable and unavoidable facts about human nature can, in truth, be the product of chance, of whim, and of fashion. Counterfactual history, such as that carried out by Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 series or Niall Ferguson's Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, has a very similar aim.

The reason I mention this is that unlike the previous three books in Stephen Baxter's Time's Tapestry series, Weaver is an actual work of counterfactual history. Whereas the previous novels in the series are explorations of real historical periods that some individual from the future was trying to disrupt, Weaver is largely concerned with a counterfactual history in which the Nazis butchered the British at Dunkirk and then launched an invasion of the British Isles. However, despite venturing into what is arguably the most popular period for counterfactual histories (even Philip K. Dick took a crack at it with The Man in the High Castle), as well as a period colonised by the eerily simple-minded technological fetishism of the Discovery Channel and other popular history forums, Weaver is a book of considerable intelligence and subtlety that uses an alternative Second World War as a backdrop against which to explore the role, both in the macrocosm and the microcosm of history, of the conflict between ideology and expediency. Weaver is a book devoted to the concept of moral compromise.

The book has two narrative streams. The first deals with attempts by the Nazis to manipulate history in their favour after. Two graduate students attempt to arrange the murder of the Emperor Constantine in order to prevent Christianity from taking on the more authoritarian and intolerant bent it picked up after the First Council of Nicaea in the year 325. The second narrative deals briefly with the invasion of Southern England and the inevitable American-aided counter-offensive, but is dominated by the lives of a German Wehrmacht soldier and the British family he is lodging with. The two streams are ably tied together by the story of an American soldier and his mother (who works for British naval intelligence) who gradually uncover more and more about the Nazis' attempts at historical manipulation. These different sets of actors account for some of the various "camps" that attempted to manipulate history in the previous books in the series. I say some of the attempts, because others explained away as the result of either future manipulations or attempts at manipulation from now-defunct timelines.

Given the tendency of the Second World War to attract the sort of historical analysis that focuses more on tank models and Nazi regimental insignia than upon people and politics, and the fact that Baxter's Emperor fell into exactly that trap, I must admit that my heart sank when I saw Gollancz's cover featuring a German soldier standing above a bombed-out London. As a doyen of the Hard SF scene, Baxter has traditionally put abstract ideas above people, even going so far in Emperor as to draw attention to the works of third Century SF pioneer Lucien Samosata in order to head off his critics by stressing that characters and plot aren't necessarily the point in works of SF. Indeed, as my reviews of Conqueror and Navigator show, my warming to this series has very much correlated with the extent to which Baxter was willing to set the science aside and look at the real currency of history: the people that experience it. In this respect, Weaver exceeded my expectations as it takes place over a much shorter time span (three years as opposed to hundreds) than any of its predecessors, in about the same number of pages. So rather than examining how the face of a society or a civilisation change, as Conqueror and Navigator do, Weaver is able to focus its energies on a smaller group of characters and therefore explore their world and their transgressions in greater detail.

Particularly worth looking out for is Baxter's depiction of male sexuality in a prisoner of war camp. Unlike cinematic depictions of this type of situation that only acknowledge sexuality in the shape of pin-up girls and wistful memories of old girlfriends, Weaver features British prisoners of war "on the down low," as blokey exchanges of sexual banter fade into actual sexual relationships, prompting one freed character to nostalgically mention his days of sexual freedom as a prisoner of the Nazis. Also featured in Weaver's cast is an aristocratic British character who becomes a member of the SS on the grounds that to the British aristocracy, being ruled by Hitler was preferable to being ruled by a socialist government. If these social vignettes seem familiar then it is because similar situations feature in Jo Walton's Farthing (2006), a counterfactual set during the same period but which presupposed a British decision to appease the Nazis, rather than fight them and lose as is the case in Weaver.

Indeed, the differences between Weaver and Farthing show not only how varied counterfactuals of the same period can be but also how different authors can have completely different perceptions of the same phenomena. For example, Walton's take on sexuality, with her closeted detective and prim Greek euphemistic classification schemes, betrays a very Freudian taxonomic view of sexuality wherein one has a true sexuality that is "discovered" allowing one to be pigeonholed. Baxter, by contrast, takes a more fluid approach seen in the concept of the "down low" and the MSM label (man who has sex with men). Indeed, applying the terms "gay" and "bisexual" or even "queer" to Baxter's prisoners of war seems to miss the same point one might if one were to refer to the Spartans as "swinging both ways". Similarly, while Walton seems to have cast her British nazis from the same mould as those of Kazuo Ishiguru's The Remains of the Day, Baxter's British SS member is more similar to the Petainistes explored in Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity (a documentary about French collaboration which quotes French officers as saying "Rather Hitler than Leon Blum", a Jewish politician of the time.) These little social observations, mentioned only in passing, are fascinating on their own terms but also serve to set the theme that dominates the book, namely that of moral compromise.

The most obvious area of moral compromise is that of the choices made by the British living under Nazi occupation. The father of the Miller family is a conscientious objector who refused to compromise his principles in order to protect his country. Due to the guilt he feels and the minor acts of vengeance taken against his family by the community as a result of his refusal to fight, he is the most unforgiving character when it comes to the moral compromises of others, frequently abusing all those who show any signs of friendship towards the enemy including his son and daughter, while his wife, unbeknownst to him, commits the ultimate act of moral compromise for the sake of a few extra rations. This pattern extends to idealistic teachers who become prostitutes, British policemen who keep the peace in the occupied territories and even Nazis who work with Jews to advance their own ends. Together all of these little vignettes are reminiscent of the concept of "Friction" espoused by the military theorist Clausewitz: a form of intellectual entropy that inevitably gets in the way of even the most precise and meticulous of military plans. Baxter's point is the same as Clausewitz's, that surviving a war is all about compromise and a willingness to surrender to the forces of chance. This message is particularly powerful when weighed against the image of indefatigable resistance that many Britons acquired following the events of the Second World War exemplified in the Dunkirk and Blitz spirits. Baxter points out that, but for a refusal on Hitler's part to compromise his plans for the sake of a possible armistice with Britain, the image of the British bulldog could have been replaced with that of a roast beef-eating surrender monkey.

On a more mundane level, despite the compressed time-line, Weaver is similar to the other Time's Tapestry books in that it has a rather abstract plot that relies upon slices of life to get ideas and situations across rather than thumping action and romance. So if you're looking for high adventure, seek elsewhere, this is a slow and meticulous book that rewards careful attention and consideration over adrenaline-fuelled page flipping. The characters are compelling and nicely drawn, we do get a reprise of one of Baxter's favourite templates in the shape of a hugely manipulative woman, but I think the appearance and reappearance of this character throughout Time's Tapestry and Baxter's "future history" Destiny's Children series is largely due to the way history is taught in schools. Indeed, until fairly recently, schools taught history as a procession of battles and kings, neglecting much of the more social stuff where women were in their element. When one discovers how important all of the social stuff is to a full understanding of history the obvious next move is to create a character who exemplifies the sort of soft power that didn't appear in the history books.

Weaver is arguably the strongest book in a series that has systematically improved with every volume. Weaver is an interesting and worthy companion piece to Jo Walton's Farthing and Ha'penny, albeit with very different takes on some of the same material. Indeed, by taking on a German invasion of Britain, Baxter shows his willingness to take on counterfactual history's most popular setting and make it his own.

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Jonathan McCalmont lives in the U.K., where he writes and teaches.