A common trope in alternative history writing is to take a group of politicians who assumed high office (i.e. Prime Ministers or Presidents) in a certain country within a certain historical period, and then rearrange the order in which they took office. Something ahistorical occurs as a PoD (Point of Departure) – such as a death, a lost election or some form of scandal – to allow this reshuffling to take place. An excellent example of this form of writing is Shuffling The Deck by Tom Black and Jack Tindale, which uses the early death of Winston Churchill during the Second World War to rearrange the order in which Britain’s historical Prime Ministers assumed office: Anthony Eden finally has his chance to shine, Margaret Thatcher is barely a footnote in history, and John Major is transformed from a grey and slightly boring figure to a massively charismatic and corrupt politician.
When done correctly, ‘shuffling the deck’ is a hugely enjoyable trope, and when I received a copy of Events: Prime Ministers During the Alien Era from the author in return for a fair and honest review, I was intrigued to say the least. What would our reality look like from the perspective of No. 10 Downing Street if alien life actually did exist, and made contact with our planet? And what if that contact was often far from friendly? While I was mildly disappointed to see that the ‘Alien era’ only truly began under Harold Macmillan (expectations of Winston Churchill personally ejecting a multi-tentacled, amorphous blob from the Cabinet Office at the barrel of a Thompson sub-machine gun were left sadly unfulfilled), Mr Murphy’s consistently high quality of writing, and the intriguing premise that he presented soon drew me into the book.
Presented in the form of a chapter per Prime Minister, Murphy gradually draws a picture of the senior figures in the post-war British government coming to terms with the fact that Earth is not alone in the cosmos, and that the visitors from space rarely seem to have humanity’s best interests at heart. Britain is not alone in this knowledge – Murphy highlights that the United States at the very least is also aware, and other major powers soon follow – but the Ministries of the 1950s and 1960s are forced to struggle with the need to defend Britain and the Empire/Commonwealth from ‘outer space’ while at the same time dealing with all of the issues that historically faced the country in the post-war period. These early chapters are by far my favourite in the entire book, as Murphy deftly shows how the likes of Macmillan, Douglas-Home and Wilson juggle decolonisation, economic issues and other mundane issues whilst simultaneously trying to find the economic and political capital to fund defensive measures against alien intrusion. The chapter on Douglas-Home in particular is an enjoyable read, as the author begins to explore the wider implications of the alien presence, including the infiltration of the British political parties, while also making a unfortunate example of the Prime Minister.
By the time of the 1990s, the alien presence within the solar system, and their increasingly frequent intrusions onto Earth, has become public knowledge, and several full-scale invasions take place that Britain and the other major powers are forced to unite to fend off – though not without consequences each time. Even as these battles take place, Murphy is still able to effectively blend together political analysis of each Prime Minister with an invasion narrative. Without wishing to spoilt the last third of the book, events rapidly come to a crisis point, and Britain (and the world’s) reality becomes very different. As events significantly diverge from any historical basis, the nature of the book does change slightly from its early chapters, and in my opinion there are a few sections that didn’t seem to gel as well, or appear to be ill-judged (particularly the references to Putin and Trump and their respective habits). However, Murphy does ensure that the narrative is internally consistent, and these sections are still enjoyable overall, so I would imagine each reader will form their own view. Finally, there are some interesting appendices to Events, including one that presents a list of alternative history works based on the concept that Events occurred, but certain elements of its timeline did not – effectively creating alternative history timelines within another alternative history timeline (including, interestingly, an alternative-alternative history version of Black and Tindale’s Shuffling the Deck).
I greatly enjoyed reading this title. It has a deeply interesting premise, a good level of writing throughout, and is able to effectively pair potted political biographies of Prime Ministers (real and fictional) with an overarching alien contact/invasion narrative. I recommend it to any lovers of science-fiction or alternative history, and look forward to reading other works by Mr Murphy.