My rating of Making History (1996) by Stephen Fry: 8.7 / 10
Publisher: Arrow Books (a Random House subsidiary)
Stephen Fry isn’t among the more popular authors among the Indian book-reading public, so I decided to review a book by him today. How did I find out about him? Why, Douglas Adams of course! Stephen Fry was a good friend of Douglas Adams; he voiced audiobook versions of books written by DNA, voiced characters in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series and the h2g2 movie. He is also one of the most popular – and the most prolific – users that Twitter has (his Twitter handle is @stephenfry).
Moving on with the book review. Making History doesn’t have anything to do with a cat trying to eat a goldfish. It’s a story whose basic premise revolves around the question – what would world history be like if Adolf Hitler never existed? Although it is never mentioned, the idea of ‘many worlds’ is an interpretation of quantum mechanics (in case you don’t what it is the preceding link should give you an overview of what the topic is about). Don’t worry if you aren’t that much into physics because the book barely gets into any scientific details, instead choosing to focus on the human angle.
The story’s protagonist is a history PhD student at Cambridge called Michael Young who is fascinated by Hitler’s origins. He writes his dissertation on the childhood / youth of Hitler and how that affects him to where he reached later in life – not in the form that most theses are written in but in the form of a story. At this point in the beginning of the novel, chapters alternate between what is happening in Michael’s life and a fictionalized account of Hitler’s childhood. The latter gives moment for pause and makes you think about the place (not geographically speaking) that Hitler came from. I point this bit out not as a spoiler but because his parents are referred to by their first names (Alois and Klara) without ‘Hitler’ being mentioned – to those who didn’t know this bit of historical fact, those chapters might seem confusing at first.
Serendipitously, a physicist at his college called Leo Zuckerman comes across this dissertation and becomes fascinated by it, since he tortured by the guilt that his father supervised executions of Jewish people at Auschwitz. Leo has been working on a device allows small quantities of matter to be transmitted to the past. Soon, Michael and Leo get it into their heads that they must change the course of by ensuring that Hitler is never born. They plan to do this by infecting the water supply of the town Hitler was born in with a new, highly potent contraceptive substance nicked by Michael from his girlfriend’s laboratory.
I won’t give rest of the story away, for this is where it kicks into high gear. Michael wakes up the day after they try their little experiment to find that he’s woken up in America – at Princeton University. At first he doesn’t realize what is going on, and his sudden change in behaviour alarms his friends. It turns out the the Michael we know in the last few pages has replaced the Michael in this parallel universe – a universe in which Hitler was never born. The novel continues alternating between Michael’s life and scenes from (the now altered) world history. Michael soon finds out that his plan didn’t exactly work out.
The novel is a bit long, but Stephen Fry goes to great lengths to keep you interested. By mixing up chapters from the past and the present he keeps you wanting to read finish a chapter as fast as possible to find out what is happening in the other story thread. Yes, the stories are intertwined, so you can’t just skip chapters. Fry also throws in variations, like writing certain chapters as screenplay for a movie.
Making History is an engaging novel which makes you ask a lot of philosophical questions – can we really change the course of history, and even if we can do we want to / should we? It shows how the smallest changes can set off a chain reaction that grows into something immense. Also, if you’re a history buff – or even a guy who doesn’t know much about this period of world history – then this book is quite informative. The parallel universe history is fictionalized but it still has hints of actual history from our world.
Do grab a copy of Stephen Fry’s Making History or read other reviews.
Originally posted at Youthpad.