There is a small but fascinating list of alternative history novels where the author imagines a world after the Nazis defeated Britain and won World War II. Robert Harris’s Fatherland, just now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is perhaps the most well known. Philip Roth's The Plot Against America saw Charles Lindbergh become the President of the United States. C. J. Sansom’s Dominion will be the newest novel in this line. Older examples are Len Deighton’s SS-GB and Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. And before any of these was Vita Sackville-West’s Grand Canyon. (I would welcome any additions to this list – please comment if you know of more.)
Grand Canyon is unlike any of the others in a few ways. Firstly, and most significantly, Vita Sackville-West wrote this novel during the war itself and it was first published in 1942. By being so close to the events, and without yet knowing that ultimately they’d be defeated, her vision of Nazi Germany triumphant feels less like the thought experiments of the later novels and more a living nightmare that could be all too real.
Here is the author’s note that introduces the book:
In Grand Canyon I have intended a cautionary tale. In it I have contemplated the dangers of a world in which Germany, by the use of an unspecified method of attack, is assumed to have defeated Great Britain in the present war. Peace terms have been offered on the basis of the status quo of 1939 and the Germans have made a plausible appeal to the United States Government (who have meanwhile satisfactorily concluded their own war with Japan) to mediate in the name of humanity to prevent a prolongation of human suffering. For the purposes of my story I have allowed the United States Government to fall into the Nazi trap and to be deluded into making this intervention as “the nation which, in its hour of victory, brought peace to the world.” The terrible consequences of an incomplete conclusion or indeed of any peace signed by the Allies with an undefeated Germany are shown. Such a supposition is by no means intended as a prophecy and indeed bears no relation at all to my own views as to the outcome of the present war.
Secondly, the writing style is not the sort you normally encounter in alternative history novels, which are more often thrillers. The prose is stylised and lyrical, and the thoughts and conversation of the characters are intense but quite abstract. Indeed, for much of the first part of the novel the alternative history aspect is only hinted at in the vaguest of terms. But don’t worry, when it comes, it’s awesome.
Set in a hotel on the edge of the Grand Canyon, Mrs. Temple and Mr. Dale are two English exiles amongst a mixed group of guests and staff who live a life detached from the new world order, contained within the community of the hotel. Dinner, drinks and dancing are the stuff of their days. As the story starts, soldiers from the nearby base are enjoying a night out at the hotel. The fun is interrupted, however, by the sound of approaching planes. A fight breaks out, a fire starts, and the invasion of America begins.
It was just like an English siren. Just the same wailing cry. She had somehow expected it to have an American accent but it was the same note as she had heard rising and falling across London, across Sussex, across Cumberland, across Wales. Why, oh, why, she thought with a sudden anguish of anger and pain, why couldn’t these ingenious Americans have devised a siren of their own? Not reproduced exactly the same sound that we endured during all those years? They had copied us, they who had known nothing of our suffering or our temper or our fear, nothing of our destroyed cities and villages, nothing of our cratered pastures, nothing of our crops and forests set alight, nothing of our men and women who went out night after night fire-beating to save our harvest, nothing of our men and women driving madly through walls of fire in our cities to save streets of flame when the water-supply had given out. What did the Americans know of this? They knew nothing; they had never experienced it. They had helped us, yes, with material, with bombers, with their Lease-and-Lend Act; they had been fine allies; yes, splendid, helpful; but, in the last resort, they had never had the real thing in their own country, not the real thing poked home at them; not this real thing that was now coming at them and which they now encountered by an imitation of the English siren-blast—Whoo-oo-oo Whoo-oo-oo Whoo-oo-oo, dying away gradually like the cry of an owl, a fading-out, and then a waiting for death to descend.
The final main point of difference is a difficult one to describe without spoiling the plot a bit. Suffice to say it’s a bit fantastical and you’ll know when you hit it, at the very end of Part One. It’s this final element, together with the future projected out from the present of 1942, that makes this book SF/F.
Part Two describes the invasion, and the lot of the hotel folk who have retreated to the floor of the Grand Canyon. What struck me most when reading this book is the overall shift from the almost idealised beauty of things at the start, to the really very well described horror of the attack. The author builds the initial tension well, and then builds the intensity of the vision of invasion on top of that, so that the whole is very effective indeed. It sweeps you away into a future that feels like something somewhere between Dystopia and the afterlife.
On the fifth day a young man fell into the Canyon with his plane. He fell as the Indian boy had fallen, crashing from rock to rock; but it was not only his own soft body that crashed, it was the fabric of the plane, the wings, the fuselage, the cabin, all smashing and splintering with the noise that a plane makes when it breaks up, a noise disproportionate to so dragon-fly a thing. Only those who had already heard it happen could recognize so particular a noise, but even they had heard it only in open country or at most in the streets of a town; they had never heard so strange a reverberation as that which woke those stony echoes and ran up the ravines and returned to break again upon opposite walls and die away in further recesses until silence was left to be filled by the roaring river once more. The fall had been as beautiful as the fall of a shot bird; sudden as a plummet from the sky, the plane had hit the Rim and bounded out to strike the first crag and then to drop with one shattered wing between hundreds of feet of precipice, then struck again, and bounded again, and struck again, till, crumpled and broken and no longer recognizable, it came to rest on a sandy bay beside the river. A tiara of flames, pale in the daylight, rose through black smoke near Phantom Ranch. The body of the pilot lay apart, arms outstretched in the attidude of crucifixion. There was no sign of injury, only the eyes were closed and the grace of youth was lapped in sleep. It was Louis.
Beauty and death are the twin themes of Grand Canyon and Vita Sackville-West explores them in her own signature style. If you don't normally read literary or classic novels, I'd encourage you to give this one a try anyway - the SF/F fan in you will find plenty to enjoy.