Review of Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust

SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 3

Nonfiction Reviews

Review of Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust

Jeremy Brett

Glyn Morgan. Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Hardcover. 214 pg. $120.00. ISBN 9781501350542.

In a world much brighter than our own, the Nazi Holocaust would have occurred only within the fevered dreams (or Iron Dreams, to get Spinradian) of science fiction authors who sought to create the darkest, most dystopian alternate histories of which the mind could conceive. Unfortunately, we reside in this world, where millions of innocent people were murdered between 1933-1945 through the unholy combination of virulent hatred, pseudoscience, and the processes of modern industrial society. As a result, the Holocaust for us is an undoubted, unwelcome fact, one with which we grapple in many realms, including the literary.

Literary analysis of the Holocaust is a tricky business. As Glyn Morgan notes, “[m]any representations of the Holocaust in fiction draw upon the implicit assumption that the traumatic experience cannot, and perhaps should not, be conveyed through art” (1).  Theodore W. Adorno famously said in 1949 that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”—forever misquoted as “it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Whether impossible, or merely barbaric, the Holocaust has had the invocation of silence laid upon it since 1945, and although discussion of it has actually been vast, its legacy has been the convention that the Holocaust is an ultimately inexplicable, unknowable, and unimaginable event, beyond literature (certainly beyond genre literature). With this book, Morgan convincingly makes the case that, in fact, speculative fiction is ideal for expressing the inexpressible –” [w]e are routinely confronted by language which tells us that the Holocaust is Other as an environment of death, survivors and victims are Other in their suffering, and perpetrators are Other in their evil. What is called for, therefore, is a literature intimately associated with describing the Other.” (11). Morgan argues that “the ultimate achievement of SF Holocaust fiction is to allow us to learn something about the Holocaust, to come closer to understanding it, while maintaining the Otherness (estrangement) which the topic insists upon” (13). He gives particular focus in this study to the SF subgenres of alternate history and dystopia as vehicles for carrying out SF’s traditional role of examining the dark and difficult aspects of the human condition through futuristic or fantastical lenses.

Although Morgan references a library’s worth of titles, he focuses on a small group of works (his “key texts”) in particular to explore the various ways that the genre has chosen to confront the Holocaust. He begins with precursor texts, early works that predate both the actual occurrence of the Holocaust and its “rediscovery” in the popular mind brought on by the 1960 trial of Adolf Eichmann. The most significant (even prescient) of these was the 1937 feminist novel Swastika Night (by Katherine Burdekin, under the pseudonym ‘Murray Constantine’), an alternate future history set 700 years in the future. Nazi Germany (with Imperial Japan) has long since conquered the world; its empire is a feudal society in which women have been stripped of all rights and been intensely Othered by the misogynistic Nazi regime. History has been doctored into a legend of a knightly and heroic Hitler and his knights; all records to the contrary were long ago destroyed. The novel is striking for its premonitions about the dehumanization of victims of Nazi terror and, as Morgan notes, “more than any other Anglo-German war novel its imagery and narrative can be found reverberating through post-1945 literature in the works of a wide range of authors of dystopian fiction and alternate history” (24). And a novel that features a government that succeeds by making use of a cultlike reverence for a Leader, the widespread use of ruthless violence, resurgent nationalist feelings, and the deliberate elimination of truth… well, it would be hard to argue that Burdekin’s work lacks contemporary relevance.

Three alternate histories are highlighted by Morgan to show how SF Holocaust fiction has been used to counter the predominant cultural notion that the Holocaust was, and is, “the ultimate manifestation of humanity’s potential for evil, and thus its designers and instigators were the ultimate agents of that evil” (41). That idea renders the Holocaust as close to unapproachable as a subject of comparative history, and history itself something that reaches some kind of final nadir with the Nazi genocide. Morgan, however, notes three works that, in postulating different outcomes to the Holocaust and World War II, problematize this fixed notion of history. In doing so, they “undermine faith in the notion of an absolute evil and call into question issues of historicity, morality, and a hierarchy of suffering” (42). Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man in the High Castle (1962) is no doubt the most famous of all the works Morgan examines in his entire book—set in a conquered United States divided between Germany and Japan, High Castle involves, as do many of Dick’s works, the questioning and perception of our reality and what we believe to be true. Multiple realities exist, suggests Dick, and in every one is the potential, indeed the likelihood, for fascism to triumph: this puts paid to the idea that the Holocaust was a one-time expression of humanity’s capacity for limitless evil. The reality Dick describes in High Castle is one where the Holocaust was not only ultimately successful but committed on an even more terrible scale: not only Jews and Roma have been eliminated but the genocide has spread to Africa, where the continent has been emptied of its natives by a triumphant Germany. History is problematized by Dick’s contention that things could have actually been even worse (a common thread in the alternative history subgenre).

In Robert Harris’ alternative history thriller Fatherland (1992), the Holocaust has occurred but been hidden from history by a victorious Germany, assisted by the willful ignorance of the people of the Reich and the normalization of German fascism in a conservative American government (led here in 1964 by President Joseph P. Kennedy). Based around the work of a Berlin police detective to uncover a murder conspiracy tied to the Holocaust, Fatherland is a work of SF Holocaust fiction that, like High Castle, calls our understanding of received history into question, by “challenging our expectations about the truth and validity of our own historical narrative” and by placing the Holocaust and its perpetrators onto a “relative scale of morality” (53) that, again, questions the Holocaust as the far and unapproachable end of history. Morgan also discusses Stephen Fry’s 1996 novel Making History in this vein: a time travel story gone wrong, Fry’s work depicts a world where an attempt to stop Hitler from being born results in a new timeline wherein a man named Rudolf Gloder arose to replace Hitler. The historical circumstances that produced Hitler remained, and removing him from the equation did not remove the Germany that Hitler made his own, nor the Germans that would follow him. The Holocaust under the smarter and more stable Gloder was perhaps less brutal, but even more horribly complete: mass sterilization wiped out the entire European Jewish community in a single generation. Again, Morgan demonstrates how SF Holocaust fiction not only presents worlds worse than our own, but in doing so forces us to ask whether Hitler is truly the Ultimate Evil of History or our Holocaust the worst possible outcome, shocking as either case might be to consider.

Morgan takes another group of novels as the centerpiece for discussing how SF Holocaust fiction has viewed the Holocaust through alternatives to the historically saved and the destroyed. The Boys from Brazil (Ira Levin, 1976) and The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (George Steiner, 1981) look, in very different ways, at worlds where Hitler escaped the justice of history—literally, in Steiner’s case, with an aging Hitler being captured by an Israeli commando team after having escaped to South America; and figuratively by Levin, where a refugee Dr. Mengele is genetically engineering clones of Hitler that can one day take up his mantle and secure his legacy. Both these works problematize the idea of justice and deserved culpability, just as Dick, etc. did so for the very notion of received history. Morgan also talks about Michael Chabon’s 2007 alternate history The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, set in an Alaska where Jews fleeing Europe before World War II were allowed by the US government to settle. In this world, the Allies won the war (in part thanks to a nuclear bombing of Berlin) and the Holocaust was what Morgan terms “a diminished catastrophe” (89). Chabon uses this alternative situation to compare and contrast the treatment of the Jews to that of the real-world Palestinians and Native Americans and to “place the Holocaust among the realms of other atrocities, and so highlights the extent to which the promotion of the Holocaust’s exceptionalism influences the world” (96).

In his last chapter, Morgan considers several texts that use the Holocaust and alternative histories to shine lights on contemporary fears, and to show that the horrors of Nazi Germany might easily be enabled or copied by allies, bystanders, and hypocritical politicians. Philip Roth’s 2002 The Plot Against America deals not explicitly with the Holocaust but, as so often in Roth’s work, the American Jewish experience. In this case, Roth dramatizes the growth and danger of domestic American right-wing politics by giving the reader a 1940 where Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Presidency. Lindbergh, in addition to instituting a neutral policy in Europe, launches an effort to uproot urban Jews and resettle them in rural locations across America, ostensibly to make them more “American.” Conflicts lead to a brief but tyrannical police state in the US, though the book ends happily (clumsily so, both Morgan and I would argue). In Jo Walton’s murder mystery Farthing (2006), the British (thanks to Rudolf Hess) negotiate a 1941 peace with Nazi Germany, and by 1949 the UK is a soft fascist state governed by the pro-Nazi British establishment and infected with quiet, “acceptable” anti-Semitism. Walton wrote Farthing (and its two sequels) in emotional response to the eruption of the Iraq War and the US/UK aggression in the Middle East. Lavie Tidhar’s beautifully clever A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) gives us an alternate Hitler, working as a private detective in London after fleeing there following a Nazi loss to the Communists in the 1936 German elections. Hitler’s London is one in which he and the reader hear echoes of the anti-Semitism and nationalism of his lost Germany and which are growing worrisomely louder in our own time.  (That potential for renewed racist and nationalist feeling is reinforced in Howard Jacobson’s 2014 J.)  Bringing attention to the dangers of our own age through examinations of our fictional or alternative pasts is, as Morgan notes, a key achievement of these works.

Morgan’s remarkable achievement with Imagining the Unimaginable has been to show that SF Holocaust fiction is not only a real possibility, but a rich subgenre of speculative literature that escapes the paradox of a historical event so vast that it “cannot be spoken of” yet is written about in countless literary works. What this kind of fiction, as Morgan frames it, does is “demonstrate that speculative fiction in its alternative approach to the Holocaust, less burdened by the critical discourses associated with realism, brings a much-needed diversity to the literature of trauma and genocide” (159). That is a valuable project indeed: the Holocaust is an event that demands repeated evaluation and attempts to make sense of it. Science fiction through its history has been invaluable for helping us to understand the mind and the life of the Other—let that legacy continue here, and be directed towards granting us a better understanding, however incomplete, of this event, its perpetrators, and the millions of innocents destroyed by it.

Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.

Published by


SFRA Review is the flagship publication of the Science Fiction Research Association since 1971.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s