Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer fell into my lap through fortuitous chance. I learned of it through BookBub, an email service that gives subscribers book deals. That is how I came to Daniel Schenker’s debut novel — and what a debut it is!
Arthur Waldmann is a strange collection of attributes: ethnically Jewish, religiously Lutheran, living in Germany in the interwar years, obsessed with rocketry. Although a recent ancestor converted to Christianity (as many Jews in Germany did in the period), Athur grew up with the wisdom of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. He is a man thoroughly at war with himself over who he is in light of his ancestors and his society, and how he trespasses against those in trying to pursue his passion.
From the very beginning of the book, the specter of Nazism hangs over Arthur’s life. He meets multiple people, with steadily increasing resources behind them, to build machines that will take humankind into space. This is harmless enough at first, but becomes very murky when he and his compatriots are contracted to build rockets for the German military and the country rearms in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Arthur begins to see the deal with the devil he has made, including the imposition of Nazi race law. He nevertheless soldiers on, having to see the nightmare unfurl as he enables it.
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Chris Nuttall is a prolific writer of various genres, including alternate history.
In Storm Front, the opening of a series, he writes in that well-worn area of alternate history, the “Nazi Victory”. It’s 1985, and the United States is one of two major world superpowers (this may sound slightly familiar). The other is a German Third Reich which stretches into Africa and the former USSR, now named Germany East. The status quo is about to be upended, and it’s viewed through the eyes of many people, from the top to the bottom of society.
The Harry Turtledove influence here (and not just in the form of a character with that name as an obvious reference) is gigantic. Namely, this contains two big similarities.
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Often, but not always, paired with Nazis in Antarctica and Nazis on the Moon is the Nazi UFO or flying saucer trope.
The trope has a tenuous basis in reality. The Nazis really did develop strange aircraft, including a flying wing, and Allied pilots did claim to spot “foo fighters” over the skies of Germany near the end of the war. This was when Hitler was banking on his “wonder weapons” to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
German flying discs, though, were invented after the war by conspiracy theorists and ufologists — and eagerly exploited by dieselpunk creators.
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I finished my review of Overlord, the fantastic 2018 World War II zombie movie, with a call on Hollywood to be so bold as to green-light more movies like it. I was greatly pleased when I encountered Ghosts of War, a 2020 World War II horror film that seemed to be following in Overlord‘s footsteps. I’m an alternate historian, and so I’m a sucker for anything that mashes up history and the supernatural like this.
The film revolves around five American soldiers after D-Day who are tasked with holding a chateau in the French countryside from the Germans until a relief force comes. It’s a simple plot, at first, and a natural way of combining two wildly different genres.
The vast majority of actors here are people you’ve likely never heard of, with the exception of Theo Rossi, who you may recognize from Luke Cage on Netflix.
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The idea that the Earth is hollow has been disproven for centuries, yet, not unlike the Nazis who have made their home there in dieselpunk fiction, it refuses to die. It returns as myth, pseudohistory, fiction or hoax, most recently in the Hollywood movie Godzilla vs. Kong, where Hollow Earth is home to all sorts of monsters.
The Ancient Greeks and early Christians placed the underworld or Hell in the interior of the Earth. Ancient Tibetans imagined a much nicer place: they thought the spiritual kingdom of Shambhala could be found somewhere in the middle of the planet. Other civilizations had similar myths.
More recently, John Cleves Symmes Jr., an American Army officer, suggested in 1818 that the Earth’s interior could be accessed through holes at the North and South Poles. This isn’t true either (people have been there), but it has become a staple of Hollow Earth mythology.
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When I first learned of Overlord, I thought that it sounded like something out of the Alien Space Bats subforum of alternatehistory.com. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen threads with the exact premise of this movie: zombies in World War II. What studio executive green-lit this?
Pay close attention to the film, though, and you will see it has antecedents. It has a whiff of Inglorious Basterds and the zany historical carnage of a Wolfenstein game. If you’ve seen many World War II movies, you will notice something very clever: that this is not a zombie movie in Occupied France, but an old-fashioned World War II movie with zombies. The characters match the archetypes of midcentury war epics: gallant American servicemen, resourceful French resistance fighters, sadistic SS officers. This is a decision that makes the whole enterprise more original than it otherwise would be.
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One of the most compelling things about any Axis victory alternate history, when done well, is the all-consuming sense of dread that pervades the entire enterprise. How could it not be? The very conceit is the triumph of one of the most bloodthirsty, sadistic regimes this world has ever known. There is something that sends a chill down my spine when reading the details of Generalplan Ost, the plan that made the bloodshed of the war look like small pickings in comparison.
That’s the hurdle all Axis victory works need to reckon with: the sheer, unrelenting, nauseating horror that is inherent to the very premise.
Many alternate histories have done this well. I consider Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992) some of the best dystopian fiction ever written, even beyond their allohistorical content. C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012, review here) is a more subdued portrayal, but no less haunting for it. Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003, review here) has a silent terror lurking in the background as a German color revolution seems to take root.
So it has been proven, quite conclusively, that this genre can be done well. Which brings us to Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich.
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One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history,” he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre.
It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after The Guns of the South (1992), alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.
Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner.
Whatever the reason, The Man with the Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.
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Reichbusters: Projekt Vril is cooperative action-adventure board game by Mythic Games set in late 1944. The Nazis have discovered a mysterious energy source known as vril that could change the outcome of the war. An elite team of over-the-top Allied operatives, called the Reichbusters, are sent in to eradicate this new threat before it is too late.
The art is by Guillem H. Pongiluppi from Barcelona, Spain.
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It took quite a few years, but the long-awaited sequel to 2012’s Iron Sky has landed! (Pun intended.)
The sequel takes place 29 years after the events of the first movie (our review here), which you’d have to see to understand what’s happening in the second. Considering the first is an absolute dieselpunk classic, you absolutely should if you haven’t already!
I won’t go into the plot of this movie. Suffice to say that, like the first Iron Sky, it is utterly and completely out there and I’m here for it. Old villains, old heroes, new villains, new heroes. A total sarcastic approach to non-fictional personas, dieselpunk tinkering and utter madness: it’s Iron Sky alright.
Continue reading “Iron Sky: The Coming Race”