May 29, 2007

BOOKS: Farthing, Jo Walton (2006)

Alternate history in which England negotiated peace with Hitler in 1941, due to the efforts of a group of upper-class politicians known as "the Farthing set," after the country estate where they planned and plotted.

The novel is set in 1949, and Lord and Lady Eversley have invited their friends to Farthing for a country weekend, an anticipatory celebration of the upcoming vote in which one of their group is expected to become the new Prime Minister. They have also invited their daughter Lucy, which is unexpected; Lucy has been somewhat estranged from her parents (especially her mother) since marrying David Kahn, who is Jewish.

There is a murder at Farthing, and the evidence points to David; Lucy begins to suspect that they were invited so that there would be a convenient suspect to draw suspicion away from the real killer. The chief detective from Scotland Yard, Inspector Carmichael, shares her suspicions, and has secrets of his own that help him to look beyond the planted evidence.

Farthing is a nominee for this year's Sidewise Award, given each year to the best alternate history novel. It was also a nominee (but did not win) earlier this year for science fiction's Nebula Award. I confess that nomination puzzles me; I am not among those who believe that all alternate history should automatically be considered science fiction. There is no SF content here, and I can't find any reason to think of the book as such.

It's a terrifically entertaining book, though, a success both as murder mystery and as alternate history. The mystery story plays fair, and it should be possible for a sharp reader to figure out whodunit; the fascist England that Walton creates is vivid and frightening. Kudos especially to Walton for not wimping out in the final chapters; the ending is not entirely happy, but it perfectly suits the bleak vision of the story.


shsilver said...

I was on the jury that selected Farthing for the Nebula Awards, so I can say something about it, but rather than anything specific to Farthing, I'll focus on AH as SF.

First of all, the Nebula is not just for Science Fiction, but also for Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. AH is definitely speculative in nature. One of the reasons it is often lumped in with SF is because like SF, it extrapolates from a single idea. The difference is that rather than ask "What if man reaches planet Zoggo and finds alien life there?" the question causing the extrapolation is "What if England dropped out of WWII and became fascist?"

Keith said...

Welcome, and thanks for stopping by.

My problem with the term Speculative Fiction (to save time and avoid "SF" confusion, I'll use SpecFic and SciFi from here on) is that it's so broad as to be meaningless. Isn't all fiction speculative in nature?

Every novel is extrapolating on a "what if" question. For instance, what if...

...young lovers were kept apart by their feuding families?
...a young man realized that the escaped slave he's travelling with is a better person than anyone he's ever known?
...a tranquil New England town was actually a hotbed of sexual secrets and hypocrisy?

All speculative, all "what if" -- but I don't think anyone would consider Romeo and Juliet, Huckleberry Finn, or Peyton Place to be SpecFic, and a term that's so broad as to include anything is so broad as to mean nothing.

To be sure, SciFi and Fantasy don't lend themselves to precise, crisp definitions -- Damon Knight's "SF is what I point at when I say SF" still rings true -- but at least there are boundaries, fuzzy and nebulous as they may be. What are the boundaries of SpecFic?

And so, since (at least from this end) SpecFic doesn't actually define anything, I have to return to those pieces of the Nebula's purview that actually do, and I can't for the life of me see how Farthing qualifies as either SciFi or fantasy (unless you want to argue that history is a science, which I think is a huge stretch).

AltHist certainly can overlap with either SciFi or Fantasy -- Turtledove's World War series; Novik's Temeraire books -- but I don't think that AltHist per se qualifies a book as such.

Just in case it's not clear, my quarrel is not with the quality of Farthing at all; I think it's a fine book, and certainly as good as most of the Nebula nominees I've read in years past; I just can't find any logical way to see it as falling under the Nebulas' umbrella.

I'm curious to hear what definition of SpecFic you(or anyone else who might be reading) use that makes the term more precise and useful.

Paul Deane said...

Interesting review. Would you mind if I quoted a few sentences on a website I'm working on? I will of course attribute the quote to you and link back to this page.

Keith said...

Paul, proably OK to quote, but I'd like to know specifically what you'd like to quote and where. I've temporarily turned on e-mail access in my profile, so you can reach me with details.