President Ashdown is Retiring
Jack Tindale & Tom Black
Sea Lion Publishing
One of my favourite book-related hobbies is looking around social media for new independent publishing houses related to Science-Fiction and Fantasy, and over the years I’ve come across some brilliant publishers – like Meteor House Press, Dark Regions Press and Snowbooks. However, I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited as when I discovered last week online the existence of Sea Lion Press, which as the name indicates, specialises in one of my favourite subgenres of science-fiction – counter-factual or alternate history. I’ve loved counter-factual history ever since I picked up a battered, second-hand copy of SS-GB by Len Deighton many years ago from my grandfather’s bookshelf. Deighton is a fantastic author, and I instantly felt drawn into the grim and murky world he portrayed of an occupied Britain, nine months after Operation Sealion had successfully taken place; Churchill is dead, executed by a Luftwaffe firing squad, the King is imprisoned in the Tower of London, and the protagonist, police Detective Archer, is forced to work with the occupying German forces to investigate a suspicious murder that eventually leads to a far-reaching conspiracy.
I was hooked, and it wasn’t long before I dived straight into the middle of the subgenre, into the books of Turtledove, Harrison and Tsouras, amongst many others. However, until I discovered Sea Lion Press a few weeks ago, I wasn’t aware of a publisher that specialised in publishing alternate history – I’d assumed it was too niche of a subgenre. I am very happy, however, to be proven wrong in this assumption. I immediately investigated Sea Lion Press’ offerings, and was thrilled to find – despite their title – almost no titles based around a successful invasion of Britain in 1940, and very few mention of the Third Reich in general. To explain: just as Steampunk can very easily be stereotyped as ‘cogs and zeppelins’, so alternate history can easily fall into the category of ‘the Third Reich triumphant’. ‘What if the Nazi’s had won?’ is, of course, a very rich seam of counter-factual history to mine, and has led to a huge number of stories being based around the concept. I should know – I think I’ve probably read most of them over the years – and they can be very entertaining. However, there are countless other counter-factual scenarios that can be posed, and Sea Lion Press obviously agree, as their list of works covers everything from a Russian Revolution without Lenin (The Limpid Stream) to successful coups in Communist China (Bombard the Headquarters!) and even the idea of Thatcher-era Britain being transposed to the 1700s (Dislocated to Success).
This publisher’s speciality, however, appears to be counter-factual takes on modern British politics, and it was one of these titles that first grabbed my attention – President Ashdown is Retiring. Two things stood out to me, browsing through Amazon; firstly, an intriguing title (President? Ashdown? As in…Paddy Ashdown?) and, even more so than that, the striking cover image of a United Kingdom separated into different-coloured voting regions. The covers of all of Sea Lion Press’ titles are quite frankly brilliant – really well-designed with bright colours and simple designs that almost seem to echo propaganda posters. In the flood of thousands of alternate-history titles that litter Amazon, they stand out and immediately draw the reader’s eye to them.
Fortunately, when I started reading PAiR, it was immediately obvious that this was not another substandard title that just happened to have a decent cover, but instead was a well-written, engaging story with a huge amount of thought put into it by the two authors. Often the most interesting counter-factual scenarios are those that have very simple or obscure Points of Divergence (PoD), and PAiR follows this idea; instead of something huge occurring differently, like the Third Reich triumphant or the Colonies losing the American War of Independence, it looks at what would have happened if, when Princess Diana died, the British Royal Family had closed ranks and refused to countenance a state funeral for her. A relatively minor PoD, and yet one skilfully used by the authors to create a different, yet still quite familiar, United Kingdom.
Superficially, the concept of examining a republican revolution in modern British politics, through the lens of a night of BBC election night coverage, sounds like a dull idea, and one that could very easily have become a tedious story, weighed down by an avalanche of statistics and footnotes. In lesser hands, this might well have been the result, but fortunately the authors are more than up to the task. Instead, the result is an absolutely delightful read, with a fractious and lively night of debates, interviews, short documentary films and cut-aways to election results (as well as a series of amusing gaffes as the night lumbers on) allowing Tindale and Black to steadily drip-feed the reader facts about this new, republican Britain and the parlous state of politics.
Both authors obviously know their British politics, down to the most obscure details, as well as Dimbelby and co. who always present the election night coverages, and their portrayals of cast members are always spot-on; from an amusingly carefree Dimbelby who clearly just wants to retire after tonight, to a Jeremy Vine who is increasingly at risk at getting lost in a ‘Matrix’ of B-Grade CGI election graphics. These characters, always affectionately portrayed, leaven the story with enough humour to carry on to the end, particularly as the story slowly piles on fact after fact, expertly portraying a United Kingdom that is clearly increasingly divided, both politically and socially. Particularly interesting is the manner in which the political parties split; a resurgent Labour that is actually perilously close to infighting, while the Conservatives have actually split into two parties as a result of the Presidency, leaving a cluster of political parties (including a UKIP which appears to be close to being the official Opposition) to enter the fray.
In conclusion, this story was obviously a labour of love for the authors to write, and it clearly shows in the engaging story, carefully thought-out political and social background, and a host of easter eggs for politics buffs. This story deserves to be read by anyone with an interest in great alternate/counter-factual history, the evolution of modern British politics, and more generally anyone looking for a good read.