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Old 03-11-2018, 08:36 AM   #1
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New Leaf Book Club • April 2018 Discussion • Making History by Stephen Fry

Making History by Stephen Fry is the April selection for the New Leaf Book Club.



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Making History (1996) is the third novel by Stephen Fry. The plot involves the creation of an alternative historical time line, one where Adolf Hitler never existed. While most of the book is written in standard prose, a couple of chapters are written in the format of a screenplay. The book won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.
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Old 04-15-2018, 12:05 AM   #2
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What did you think of Making History?

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Old 04-15-2018, 12:34 AM   #3
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I am using this for the "Book I wanted to DNF" in the Bingo challenge.

I started this almost a week ago and expected it to take 3-4 days to finish...I finished this late last night. I kept finding excuses to not read it. Instead of reading for the first 1/2 of my commute I would instead read the news on my phone, something that normally takes me 5 minutes I stretched out to 30 minutes. On Wednesday I even found a new book and completed it prior to going back to this one. Always feeling ... i should read MH, but I don't want to...

Any book that starts out with a graphic (enough) depiction of someone getting felt up, even in a dream and especially without knowing it, is not going to be my cup-o-tea. And the first couple chapters especially were just a mess. No idea what was going on and I didn't care at all for ANY of the characters.

If it wasn't for the book club that would have been the end of it. I'm glad I pushed through and finished it, the second half was much better than the first and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The premise didn't feel particularly new, the "what if" that turns out worse than the alternative (one of Stephen King's semi-recent works comes to mind, and yes I know this was before that), but it was a different take on it than what I have read before and appreciated that.

The alternate "contemporary" world was interesting. I would have liked to get a better idea of why they had stagnated so much in a some areas while progressing so far in others.

Overall, I enjoyed this but won't read it again. And if it wasn't for the book club wouldn't have finished it this time; the second half did not make up for the mess of a first half to me.
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Old 04-15-2018, 03:53 AM   #4
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I like Stephen Fry as a comedian, as an actor, as a presenter. But as an author I find him often too fond of his own voice. (Or is he so lacking in confidence that he has to keep repeating or elaborating on himself?) In his autobiographical books I am content to accept this excess verbiage, you expect that a writer is likely to be self-indulgent in such work. Stephen Fry is undoubtedly clever and articulate, and some of the lines he comes up with are wonderful, but in a work of fiction - like Making History - I find myself begging: will you please just get out of the way and get on with it!

(Page numbers according to ADE, which gives total count as 355 pages.)

100 pages in and we've wasted pages and pages on things that I seriously doubt this book is going to revisit or otherwise allude to further on. Great long lists of what something is or is not like. A page-long paragraph describing what isn't in Zuckermann's lab. I can't speak for everyone, but I got the point after the first couple of examples, so this sort of thing rapidly stopped seeming clever and became just tedious.

And at page 114 he changes from narrative to screenplay layout. WTF? If I wanted to read a screenplay I'd have bought one! By page 122/3 we're back to narrative and our protagonist explains it's because this is how it felt, and he talks about how movies are better: you make movies in which you don't think, you make things happen. A curious observation - but of the writer and not apropos the story, or is it?* - it's also a rather ironic, since making this observation has all served to stop things happening in the story.

Page 127 we see the supposed twist in what Leo lives with. Strangely perhaps, it was what I had assumed from the start; it had not occurred to me that Leo might be Jewish, so finding out he wasn't was no surprise.

By page 150 or so I am finally starting to get interested, but since Fry has already made me impatient he's having to work extra hard to keep me interested. He lost me a few more times later, heading off on side-tracks or long-winded cleverness that had my eyelids drooping, but overall I think it ended up as a fairly good story (though whether it was worth the effort is less certain, because some of it really was an effort).

This was not a new tale. People have been imagining what might have happened sans Hitler since he first became a player on the world stage.

It was not a surprising tale. Almost everything was presaged so clearly that I feel as if I could have given an outline of the book after 60 pages (despite having slept through many of those):
Spoiler:
On the first page we are told the story is a circle, so we know everything comes back. On the assumption of a happy or neutral ending, we can foresee that any change to history will be for the worse and a way will be found to undo the change. On page 58 we are told about the little orange contraceptive pills, and have already been told of the smell of dead rats at the water pump. So there's the outline, everything else is just explanation and filler (some parts of it feel more like filler than others).


But there is a reasonable story in here. With the interspersed look into life in Germany, and life on the front lines of WWI, this could have been a really good story if it wasn't for the author constantly pulling me out of it with changes is presentation or wandering off into long lists that serve only to remind me there is a story teller between me and the story.

And I was right, most of the gratuitous crap at the start (and at times through the middle) has no bearing on the story, and little on the characters. Most of it is self-indulgent fluff that should have been edited out long before publication.

And for me that's the saddest part of most books (that I've read) by Stephen Fry: with a good editor they could all have been very good. He has a good gift with words, but he doesn't have a great gift for editing; he needs help.


Is there a bigger message to this story?

Leo tells us at one point: "a rat does good or evil by changing things around him, by acting. The mouse does good or evil by doing nothing, by refusing to interfere."

Aside from making me wonder how/where Fry came up with this strange (to me) aphorism, the subsequent events would seem to affirm the idea that a mouse, by refusing to interfere, is in the right. Is this what Fry would like us to take away from this story, or is it just an open question?

* One of the many side-tracks that Fry makes is to observe that movies are about making things happen. Movies are like rats? Are we supposed to take the lesson of this story to think that maybe making things happen (movies) is not so great after all? Or is the fact that this book has given us a deluge of side-tracks enough to tell us that there is no such message? (My inclination is for the latter.)


All up: It was not a complete waste of space, I ended up giving it a 3/5 (which is what all books I've read from Stephen Fry have received). But I'd have a hard time recommending it to others.
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Old 04-15-2018, 04:00 AM   #5
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Originally Posted by Dazrin View Post
[...] The alternate "contemporary" world was interesting. I would have liked to get a better idea of why they had stagnated so much in a some areas while progressing so far in others. [...]
Very much this. If you're going to create an alternate world based on a change in history you have to explain why it should turn out as it has. Why would sans Hitler result in a more homophobic America? There are many potential impacts to the change he proposed, but he just skimmed over them so that as a specifically alternative history story this was quite unsatisfying.

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Old 04-15-2018, 07:05 AM   #6
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This book was a great disappointment for me. I thought the best part was the alternate world that Fry imagined, with a very different outcome to the Second World War from the one we know. But like Dazrin and gmw, I did wonder why what happened in Europe should lead to a homophobic America.

I found the protagonist incredibly irritating, though I was presumably supposed to find him charming. For someone who is a PhD candidate in history at Cambridge University, his inability to see that removing Hitler from the picture would not change the disastrous situation in Germany after the First World War, and that of course some other leader would emerge, was frankly unbelievable, despite his immaturity. Had he learned nothing from several years of reading history?

Other irritations included the way the story occasionally turns into a film script, and the way that in the sections dealing with Germans, the English text is larded with German words. This makes as much sense as the old films where Germans (or other nationalities) spoke to each other in English with heavy accents so that we would know they were really speaking in German or French or whatever.

Barely two stars for me, one being for the alternate outcome for Europe that Fry imagined and described well and succinctly. I certainly wouldn't be recommending the book to anyone to read, and I doubt I shall read anything else by Stephen Fry.
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Old 04-15-2018, 07:16 AM   #7
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Well Dazrin and gmw have both said most of what I wanted to say.

I did enjoy it but there were things that took me out of the story:
  • the first few historical chapters turning out to be his thesis. This just literally made me stop and go "what?" so that I was thinking about the format of the writing rather than the story. Similarly...
  • screenplay formatting. Why? Screenplays are working documents for making a movie, they are not made to be read. I wondered if this had originally been a screenplay and got converted to a novel and he ran out of time. Probably not.
  • the Jane-Michael relationship. I alternated by being irritated by how patronizing she was to him with how immature and jerkish he was to her. I get that it wasn't supposed to be a good relationship but it didn't endear me to the main character early in the book. I did end up rooting for him, but despite the impression this section left with me.
  • Michael being gay/bi. So I suppose the relationship with Jane was meant to hint at this. But it didn't read that way to me. It just read as a bad hetero relationship not a sign that he was closeted or unaware of his own sexuality. I can see how it might be read that way now, but if that was the intent it was a little too subtle. Maybe Fry didn't want to tip his hand. So what it meant was that when "the kiss" occurs it felt like it came out of nowhere. It felt a bit too neat and deus ex machina. You know what? Now that I think of it, this also could have worked better if in the second part of the book the Mikey-Steve relationship was played as a bit more romantic from Mike's end. It was clear from the start that Steve was into Mikey but there could have been a gradual realization from Mike's side. Rather it read like a lot of understandable gratitude then a sudden gearshift.
  • pacing. By which I mean in the second part it took a long time to get to the obvious things you wanted to know i.e. how is the world different? Instead we got tiny glimpses then back to a long historical passage. And those passages were fascinating, but it felt like it took a long time to get to the modern day changes. At one point early on Mikey is startled when he see the cars in the street. At first I was thinking they were different in some technical sense, rather than simply driving on the other side of the road.
  • lists, lists, lists. gmw gave one example, I'll give another. When his parents turn up in the second half, his mum notes how the place where they are to stay is nice, "like an English hotel". Mikey, mentally, gives a list of what English hotels are like ending with "when were you last in an English hotel?" out loud. This is clearly a joke. But the joke is ruined because it takes half a page to get to the punchline. Two or three things suggesting that English hotels can be somewhat sad naff places and then the question.

That said, I did enjoy it. It was worth a read and the how-would-things-be-different is a trope but it's one that exists for a reason, it's fascinating to speculate.
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Old 04-15-2018, 07:17 AM   #8
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I found the start rather off-putting because of the style. Since the lead character is slmost nothing like Stephen Fry, it's a bit odd that his writing should have so much in it that only sounds OK when heard in Fry's voice.

The movie script stuff was also not for me.

But I did enjoy the latter parts of the book, although it wasn't really well enough done for science fiction. But I suppose that's not surprising since it's not really a science fiction novel.

It was OK. I probably wouldn't have pushed through the first couple of chapters if it wasn't for the book club.
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Old 04-15-2018, 07:27 AM   #9
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On the question of why America was homophobic, it was a more conservative society in general. Less swearing, lots of referring to people as "sir" and fines for long hair. I think perhaps this was supposed to be because America was locked in a cold war with Nazi Europe much earlier and longer and that tends to lead to more conservatism? I don't know. It wasn't something that was explored much.

Oh, and I did like the alternate versions of computers. I liked that things weren't really that different just different names and tweaks to what we have (had in '96). Apart from voice recognition. It's a wonderful technology in many ways but it's never going to replace keyboards. I wouldn't want to dictate the few hundred words in this post never mind a full thesis. And can you imagine the noise in offices and classrooms?
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Old 04-15-2018, 07:29 AM   #10
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No one's mentioned "Steve Burns" yet. My reaction throughout was the term gmw employed, "self-indulgent." Naming a character after himself encapsulated this for me.
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Old 04-15-2018, 07:47 AM   #11
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No one's mentioned "Steve Burns" yet. My reaction throughout was the term gmw employed, "self-indulgent." Naming a character after himself encapsulated this for me.
Why didn't I spot that? Despite the fact that I was thinking Steve was a "Mary Sue" character.

Fry is happily married now but he was single for a long time and I remember him being public about being celibate*. This could have been written during that time, not sure of the dates, and it would make a certain amount of sense. As I said in my first post, I don't think the romantic relationships, gay or straight, feel particularly real.

(*he used to talk about being gay as being a bit like having a car in the garage, it's a bit what kind it is if you never drive it.)
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Old 04-15-2018, 08:58 AM   #12
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On the question of why America was homophobic, it was a more conservative society in general. Less swearing, lots of referring to people as "sir" and fines for long hair. I think perhaps this was supposed to be because America was locked in a cold war with Nazi Europe much earlier and longer and that tends to lead to more conservatism? I don't know. It wasn't something that was explored much.

Oh, and I did like the alternate versions of computers. I liked that things weren't really that different just different names and tweaks to what we have (had in '96). Apart from voice recognition. It's a wonderful technology in many ways but it's never going to replace keyboards. I wouldn't want to dictate the few hundred words in this post never mind a full thesis. And can you imagine the noise in offices and classrooms?
I got the impression that he was presenting an America (socially) locked in the 50s, but couldn't work out why. At the time this was written the cold war with Russia had not long faded, so why should we think a cold war with Germany would have been so different?

Now if he'd highlighted that the world had missed out on The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Beatles, The Animals and more, then maybe we could all see just how big the disaster was and know that history had to be fixed.
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Old 04-15-2018, 09:10 AM   #13
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Aside from the major issue of how well he dealt with well-established tropes, there was a constant stream of minor irritants that took me out of the story. For example:

Quote:
Originally Posted by gmw View Post
I got the impression that he was presenting an America (socially) locked in the 50s, but couldn't work out why.
And 50s Princeton had no women undergraduates. There were black students at Princeton well before women. Yeah, I know, you can ascribe all anachronisms to its being an AU, but still.

Quote:
Now if he'd highlighted that the world had missed out on The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, The Beatles, The Animals and more, then maybe we could all see just how big the disaster was and know that history had to be fixed.
I've never seen the word mohel spelled "moil" before. Is that the British spelling? Because I couldn't help thinking that he was trying to emphasize the implications of the band name "Oily-Moily" with that spelling, just in case we missed it. Not all that clever at that, anyway. It's clear we dodged a major one, since the band sounds dreadful.
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Old 04-15-2018, 09:45 AM   #14
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Similar to others, I found the book got better as the story progressed. I like the conceit of the plot, even though it has now been done many times ("what if you could go back and stop Hitler...") and I though he dealt with the way things developed without Hitler pretty well. He'd clearly carried out quite a bit of research into the early history of Germany and the rise of Nazism.

I also though the plot device used to effect "time travel" was quite clever - sending the pills and birds back, without actually travelling themselves.

One of the biggest plot holes for me was the fact that Leo/Axel had no recollection of his previous life after history had been changed the first time, even though he was within the event horizon with Michael, and yet Stephen (who wasn't) clearly remembered his previous life after the second change to history (when they put the dead rats into the cistern). Didn't make sense to me.

I have vacillated between awarding it 3 stars or 4, and have settled on 3, as it is a bit amateurish in parts (the movie script episodes; the attempts to show us how immature Michael could be, presumably to highlight the fact he was a prodigy and much younger than his achievements would suggest; his over-long lists of "stuff etc. etc.). It's definitely his least-good novel in my opinion, and nowhere near as good as his autobiographical works.
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Old 04-15-2018, 09:52 AM   #15
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Location: Australia
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Quote:
Originally Posted by issybird View Post
[...] I've never seen the word mohel spelled "moil" before. Is that the British spelling? Because I couldn't help thinking that he was trying to emphasize the implications of the band name "Oily-Moily" with that spelling, just in case we missed it. Not all that clever at that, anyway. It's clear we dodged a major one, since the band sounds dreadful.
I can't find any suggestion that "moil" has been used in place of mohel ("moil" has several senses defined in the OED but none relating to mohel). The emphasis applied in the text it may have been to indicate that his mother didn't know the right way to spell it ... maybe.

The thing with "Oily-Moily" almost got lost amid his incessant lists that I inevitably end up skimming over. Curious that "Oily Moily" has since come into use - albeit for a minister in India rather than a band.
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