#8 – Making History

June 2, 2008

When I was a kid, I had a picture book that my parents got for me from a booth at the mall. They had this computer which would fill in characters in the story with the names of me and my friends and family, and print out a personalized book. (You might also know this idea from The Simpsons: “Lisa’s favourite book is: magazines!”) I can barely remember my story, just that it involved me going back in time and meeting dinosaurs (awesome), but I remember loving it because it was about me. I bring this up now because, with Making History, Stephen Fry has done basically the exact same thing. The main character of this book is a quiet, nervous 24-year-old university student who is finally finishing school after years of work. He studies History, which he finds interesting, but claims his real passion is for films, music and literature. However, he claims he would never be able to study them academically, because he loves them too thoroughly to be able to put forward any valuable critique. Fry might as well have called this A Book About Calum MacLeod, If He Were British and Had Access to a Time Machine.

Okay, so – the time machine. The fascinating premise of this book is: Michael Young, a student at Cambridge, has just completed his doctoral thesis on the birth and childhood of Adolf Hitler, his research on which has made him about the preeminent expert in a very specific field. Through a chance encounter, he meets a physics professor at the university who has just completed work on a time machine. This is far from Back to the Future style time travel here. It’s not even quite Terminator level. The best point of reference is the old LucasArts game Day of the Tentacle, I think: people can’t go through it, but small objects can be sent one-way to a specific place and time. Good enough to start Michael and the professor thinking – with their collective knowledge, they could arrange it so Hitler was never born. This seems to be about the most common thing for people to do with a time machine, besides hunting dinosaurs and killing their own grandfathers, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the travellers actually succeeded. And here’s where Fry poses an interesting question: what if, without Hitler there to take control, the National Socialists were led by somebody more charismatic, more politically savvy, and even more sinister than him?

In the second half of Making History Fry explores this premise, and it’s pretty impressive. I don’t want to reveal too much of it here, because at the start of the second section Michael finds himself in a present he doesn’t recognize, Back to the Future Part II style. His confusion as he slowly figures out what is happening matches the readers, as information is very gradually doled out and keeps raising more questions. In fact, I think my favourite chapter in the book is one where Michael just sits in the library reading a textbook. Fry has written such an interesting and rich alternate history that I think the narrative of the novel actually suffers in comparison – despite how much I related to Michael at first, I no longer cared about him by the end, I just wanted more discussion of the global effects of Hitler’s nonexistence. When a romantic subplot shows up out of nowhere, I got annoyed that it was dragging Michael out of the library where he could read more history books.

I had never read any of Stephen Fry’s books before this, I basically just knew him from Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. So I was naturally expecting this to be funny, and it kind of was. It was really funny for a book about Hitler and the geopolitical ramifications of persistent European fascism, but apparently not as funny as Fry’s previous books, which have less dense subject matter. So this may have been a poor introduction to him as an author for me, because I was looking for some hardcore English hilarity. I’m not going to say I didn’t like Making History, because it was very well-written and I couldn’t put it down at parts, but I think the potential it showed at first kind of fizzled out the more the narrative went on. I’d still recommend it, but I’m more looking forward to reading Fry’s The Hippopotamus now.



  1. First off, I’m mildly embarrassed – not that I too had one of those awesome name-in-the-book dinosaur time travel books, but that I actually got that Simpsons reference despite it being in one of the late, and therefore unfortunately uneven, seasons.

    Second off, I should read more books. I’ve got time.

  2. Ha! Glad you remembered that one. I actually have no idea what episode it was from, but I think even when The Simpsons were at their lowest, they had moments of pure brilliance.

    Second, absolutely you should. Has The Elder gotten you to read World War Z yet?

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