Saturday, 11 April 2015

Counterclockwise by Roger L Conlee

Having written one myself, I have a particular interest in alternative histories of World War 2; Counterclockwise (published in the USA in 2007) was drawn to my attention a few years ago but it took me a long time to get hold of a copy. It proved an interesting read, taking an individual approach to the subject.

The best-known alternative WW2 novels are concerned with the aftermath of the war, rather than its events. The only one of these to break through the genre barriers and become a best-seller is Fatherland by Robert Harris (published 1992); a detective story set in 1964, twenty years after a Nazi victory. In a similar vein is Dominion by C.J. Sansom (pub. 2012, and still on my reading pile) a political thriller set in the 1950s in a world in which the UK sued for peace after the fall of France in 1940; the country remains independent, but very much under the Nazi thumb. The best known to SFF fans is of course P.K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, reviewed on this blog in August 2009. Another I recall reading is 1945 (Gingrich & Forstchen, pub. 1995), which follows events immediately after a different WW2.

Novels actually describing the events of an alternative WW2 are less common. One well-known work is Turtledove's Worldwar series, but since the difference concerns an alien invasion, that one can be put into a separate category. At the opposite extreme of the probability spectrum come various "counterfactual histories", some by professional historians, concerning what might have happened had some key event turned out differently. Such an event is known as the "POD" – Point Of Departure – by alternative history fans; other key terms being OTL – Original Time Line (i.e. what actually happened historically) and ATL – Alternative Time Line (i.e. what happens from the moment of the POD).

Other novels that I am aware of which describe a different war are a very mixed bunch. I reviewed Priest's The Separation on this blog in July 2008, a review which points out the huge differences in approach between this work and my own The Foresight War. And there is Counterclockwise, which is different again.

Counterclockwise needs concentration to follow as it has a complex structure. The protagonist is Tom Cavanaugh, a drug squad detective living in 1988 (OTL), who finds a book published in 1965 by his journalist great-uncle, Jake Weaver; an account of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles in 1942. At first Cavanaugh takes it to be a work of fiction, but evidence gradually builds up to suggest that it is describing an ATL. The scenes then alternate between 1988, in which Cavanaugh begins to experience visions of the past, and 1942 as described by Weaver in extracts from his history. Within this history, the viewpoint switches between Weaver's own experiences (told in the first person) and that of several others whose accounts he subsequently collected, including that of a young Japanese Navy pilot taking part in the attack. Fortunately this potentially confusing structure is clarified to some extent by using a different font for Weaver's story and a new sub-heading whenever the scene changes.

The most obvious characteristic in Conlee's story is that the focus is very firmly on a few days in 1942, with events over that period recounted in great detail. Wider differences in the ATL only get a brief mention at the end of the novel. Two-thirds of the way through the book, the story changes gear with the introduction of a major new element in Part 2, but I can't say any more about it without serious spoilers, so if you want to find out by reading Counterclockwise for yourself, stop reading NOW!


Two characters in the 1988 OTL are elderly ladies, one of whom has a small shop dealing with antique clocks and historical documents which is where Cavanaugh finds Weaver's book. She is the widow of a physicist who had identified the existence of the two separate time-lines and discovered a means of travelling between them; he had also determined that the timelines were gradually recombining, which meant that only one history would eventually survive. The other lady is Cavanaugh's great-aunt, the widow of Jake Weaver. Cavanaugh discovers that these women are not only both fully aware of the ATL but also learned from the physicist a way of travelling to the past, albeit for a period of only a few days.

Cavanaugh realises that the recombining of the time-lines poses an existential threat which he can only resolve by travelling back to 1942 (ATL) – which he duly does, accompanied by Cass, his fiancée and constant companion. Their experiences there, including meeting film stars and trying to avoid being arrested on suspicion of being Nazi spies, are described in entertaining detail. This triggered a memory of similar events in stories I read some fifteen years ago, which I managed to locate on my shelves: the Timeshare trilogy by Joshua Dann (published 1997-9), in which the protagonist works as a guide for time-travellers and, among other things, becomes very personally involved in some of the events of WW2 (although without significantly changing history).

I do have a few criticisms of Counterclockwise, mostly trivial: there are the seemingly inevitable minor errors when non-specialists describe WW2 weaponry, plus the odd piece of carelessness (e.g. the fate of a man killed in 1968 described in the history published in 1965). More fundamentally, while I have no problem with time travel (I used it in The Foresight War) or moving between alternative timelines (included in my second novel Scales, along with the idea of timelines recombining), to include both in one story seems to me to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. For one major scientific impossibility I am willing to suspend disbelief, but two is pushing it! Despite this, I enjoyed this entertaining novel.


Fred said...

I vaguely remember a film many years ago that was about an attack on Los Angeles in 1942 or sometime around then. I never looked into it, but I figured, based on the date, that it was probably by the Japanese.

Is there any connection here?

Anthony G Williams said...

I don't know, Fred, I don't recall the film.

Bill Garthright said...

This sounds interesting, Tony. I, too, enjoy alternate history World War II stories (definitely including yours), although I'd have no idea if they got the details wrong.

Here's another I remember: "A Damned Fine War" by William Yenne has Stalin attacking American troops at the very end of the war in Europe.

Rather different, the Axis of Time trilogy by John Birmingham has modern military vessels transported back in time to World War II, with very bloody results.

There's also another series, but I can't remember the title or the author, maybe because I didn't read much of it. Just that World War II naval vessels are transported to an alternate Earth where two intelligent species (lizard and mammal) are fighting a genocidal war.

The first two I mentioned were interesting enough to be entertaining, though I wouldn't recommend them too enthusiastically. The third was not for me, much as I wanted to like it.

Anthony G Williams said...

I haven't read any of those, Bill, although I have heard of the Axis of Time trilogy.

There is a film whose name I forget concerning a modern USN aircraft carrier transported back in time to just before Pearl Harbor.

Conversely, I recall one story (A Tapestry of Magics) by the excellent Brian Daley in which a German army unit from WW2 is transported to a more primitive place and/or time. I really must read that one again, I have forgotten everything else about it!

dlw said...

"A Tapestry of Magics" has some Templars and a group of Waffen-SS briefly in the background, along with a guy in powered armor and the name "RICO" stenciled on the front. They were just background, not part of the story.

"Doomfarers of Coramonde" and "Starfollowers of Coramonde" were about an armored personnel carrier magicked off a battlefield in Vietnam by a mage who was trying for a tank to use against dragons. The APC's .50s did OK, though.

> USN aircraft carrier

"The Final Countdown." I'm pretty sure there were at least two different novels, one of which was supposedly the basis for the movie.

James P. Hogan had a very detailed alternate-WWII, with time travelers trying to change a Nazi-dominated future to something more to their liking. "The Proteus Operation", I think.

Fred said...


I think the title of the time traveling aircraft carrier film is THE FINAL COUNT DOWN.

Anthony G Williams said...

Thanks for the help, gentlemen.

I have the Coramonde duology and although I don't remember what the stories were about, I do remember enjoying them greatly, mostly because of the humour.

Mention of The Proteus Operation rang a faint bell, so I searched my shelves and discovered that I have a copy! I must have read it shortly after it came out in 1985 and had since forgotten all about it. Another one for a re-read....

Anthony G Williams said...

An afterthought: reading the blurb for The Proteus Operation sparked a memory - I'm certain that I've seen a movie or TV drama with a plot which sounds very similar, but I can't find any reference to it.

I did stumble upon this, though: