Having read quite a few alternate history novels, novellas and short stories, there appear to be a few distinct ways that you can write a piece of counter-factual fiction. The author can present it purely as a story, written like any other piece of fiction, as is the case with stories such as T’Yorkshire Assembly by Jack Tindale, The Only Winning Move by Max Johansson, or Red Delta by Mark Ciccone. Another way that authors can chose is illustrated by A Greater Britain by Ed Thomas, where the narrative is delivered by excerpts from fictional texts, such as newspapers, government reports and textbooks, but is also bolstered with a great deal of historical information in the form of footnotes, which provide further context and thematical grounding without detracting from the overarching story. Until I read The Unreformed Kingdom by Dr Tom Anderson and published by the ever-reliable Sea Lion Press, I wasn’t aware that was also a third way: write a piece of counter-factual fiction that ruthlessly interrogates the concept of what the author calls ‘historical whiggism’, i.e. the belief that history drives irresistibly towards the concept of ‘Progress’, while also offering a detailed Foreword and Afterword that provide background and context for a reader who may not be particularly familiar with some of the more complex electoral and historical issues raised in the story.
The nature of these questions certainly placed The Unreformed Kingdom in an entirely different category to any other story in the alternate history genre that I had read, or even come across, and I did wonder whether Dr Anderson would be able to effectively bring together and then balance two potentially disparate notions – writing a good story, while also composing a piece of historical analysis. By the end of the title, however, I had absolutely no such concerns – The Unreformed Kingdom is not only an excellent piece of writing, but it also manages to successfully ask some often discomforting questions of the reader about the nature of liberalism, conservatism and the definition of such a nebulous term as ‘Progress’. After a short but somewhat brutal opening chapter in which several key politicians (or would-be politicians) in the early 19th Century are efficiently eliminated from the timeline, the story then moves forward to take place in the early 21st Century. The rest of the narrative is provided in the form of a series of transcriptions from audio logs made by Andrew Harrison, a low-level political researcher for an American Senatorial candidate, and who has been sent to Britain to conduct research for future foreign policy debates. It’s a clever narrative tool, as it allows the author to use the protagonists’ off-hand comments and musings to lay out subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) clues about how this universe is different to our timeline.
Slowly but surely these clues begin to build up to form a picture of a Great Britain that, while still fundamentally the same on some vague and basic level (it is still a democracy, if only for certain definitions of ‘democracy’, there are mobile phones, apps, cars, trains and so forth) is actually quite radically different thanks to the deaths of those key individuals at the start of the story, and how history adapted as a result. These changes are communicated very effectively, actually, by the cover art provided by Jack Tindale; while all of Mr Tindale’s covers are eye-catching, this one is particularly informative, by blending the real and the unreal. There is a mobile phone with icons for apps, the sort of thing that we each scroll past a hundred times a day, yet one of those icons is of a noose – a grim reminder that public hangings are so common in this timeline that there is an app for scheduling reminders to ensure the user doesn’t miss watching them.
Yet these tidbits would be nothing without the cement that is provided by the core of the narrative, a series of interviews by the protagonist with politicians scattered across this Unreformed Kingdom. Given the relatively short length of the story, Dr Anderson is able to give some very effective and humanising pen portraits of MPs and other elected officials who, while they might share the same names and titles as those in our own timeline, are often radically different. And while the identities and views of some of those are quite obvious from the start – such as the amusingly modified Jeremiah Corbyn, Radical Party MP, and Jeremiah Clarkson, prospective Mayoral candidate for Doncaster – there are others that had me guessing until the last second, such as the identity of the shadowy and Machiavellian Mayor of London whose interview gives a great deal of insight into how the political process works (or rather doesn’t) in this version of Britain.
By the time that I had finished The Unreformed Kingdom, I had been forced to question the nature of our current timeline and the allegedly consistent and inexorable progress of, well, ‘Progress’. Dr Anderson very effectively portrays a Britain that is still recognisably the one that we inhabit on the surface, and yet underneath is incredibly sectarian and ‘backwards’ in others. It is a piece of writing that deserves several rereads, especially the Afterword, and it has inspired me to undertake some further reading on British electoral reform – something particularly relevant as I write this review on the Centenary of the Representation of the People Act. I would therefore urge anyone with an interest in alternate history, British politics, or the overarching nature of historical progress to purchase a copy of The Unreformed Kingdom and read it as soon as possible.