Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
So you invent a time machine, and what’s the first thing you do? You go back in time and kill Hitler, of course! Except you can’t (TVTropes), because either it doesn’t work or it screws up the timeline even more. Thus resolving one of the burning questions surrounding time travel: if it’s possible, why do we still have Hitler? Stephen Fry tackles this in a best-of-all-possible worlds way in Making History, where his protagonist succeeds in averting Hitler’s birth only for someone more charismatic and cunning to rise to power in his place.
I didn’t like this novel at first. I’m a fan of Fry as a TV personality, but the opening pages of Making History didn’t endear themselves to me. Michael Young is such an unsympathetic character. But he kind of needs to be a jerk. One requires a certain level of hubris to think that one should be responsible for changing history, and Michael certainly has that. Of course, a story where one kills Hitler with no unintended consequences would be boring. So things go wrong, and that’s where it gets really interesting.
When reality adjusts to Hitler’s absence, Michael finds himself not in Cambridge but Princeton, where he is supposed have an American accent. But with Hitler out of the picture, a more charismatic German rose to power. He reins in the anti-semitism, and as a result, Germany develops the atomic bomb first. World War II doesn’t happen, and America exists in a tenuous state of non-aggression with a Fascist/Communist Europe. In many respects this world seems more advanced—it’s 1996 and everyone has mobile phones and tablets—but culturally, civil liberties didn’t happen. Racism and homophobia are normal; a climate of McCarthyism is the country’s response to Germany’s power. And the Jews? Well, in Europe, they got shuffled into a supposed “free state” but haven’t been heard from since.
Making History is a fantastic example of alternate history. I particularly enjoyed how Fry shows the same scene, set during World War I, twice, once from the original timeline and once from the timeline after Michael erases Hitler. It’s an “oh shit” moment as the reader realizes the magnitude of what Michael has done. It’s a foregone conclusion that the new world is going to be somehow less preferable to the old one, but it’s not immediately obvious how that’s the case. Fry reveals more about the new timeline gradually, giving the reader time to acclimatize alongside Michael, who must pretend like everything is cool to throw off some suspicious G-men even while he secretly freaks out and wants to find a way to restore the original timeline.
This is a subject understandably close to Fry’s heart, because he has family who died at Auschwitz. And the Holocaust in any light is a serious subject. So it seems like it would be difficult to poke fun at it … and Fry doesn’t try. The humour in Making History is entirely at Michael’s expense (another reason he is an unlikable protagonist). On one level, the narrative just seems to take umbrage at Michael’s ego and conviction that he can make history better. It mocks him for believing that merely removing Hitler from the picture will somehow defuse the anti-semitism and fascist ideologies throughout Europe in the early twentieth century. Fry makes a serious point here, in that often the vilification of Hitler seems to eclipse the more important underlying issues. But he does it with a lighthearted, humorous tone with regards to Michael’s actions and feelings.
The way that Fry balances the serious nature of the subject with his trademark wit is the most stunning aspect of Making History, and the most rewarding. This is far more than just another what-if story of counterfactual fiction: it moves both through pathos and humour. I wanted to strangle Michael sometimes, but by the end I was starting to sympathize with him. And while he’s still a jerk at the end of the story, he has definitely changed and learned from his rather major mistakes. In this way Fry reaffirms what is most important: the close, personal relationship between two human beings, and the reminder that we are responsible for making a better world.