Sunday, 26 June 2016

Len Deighton's SS-GB

BBC television is producing a mini-series based of the novel SS-GB. It will likely be sold to the USA and many other regions.

I re-read Len Deighton's novel again recently when I first heard the news of the upcoming TV version. Over the years I’ve read long passages from SS-GB out to friends as I’ve tried to share with them my love for this tense and moving book. It was no chore to pick it up again.

SS-GB is in one sense a straightforward detective story. A crucial difference, it is set in an alternate universe where the Nazis occupied London in 1940. But Britain has not yet lost everything, it still has some secrets that the Germans would like to get their hands on.

Len Deighton, in a memoir relating to film making remarks on how the film director can build the tension by revealing things that the hero cannot know. In historical fiction too the reader can have superior knowledge to the protagonists. In SS-GB Len Deighton exploits the reader’s knowledge of the atomic bomb and how it will fundamentally change warfare. The reader knows, as they cannot know, what an atomic bomb means.

The tension thus generated keeps the reader engaged throughout. In fiction I think there are three legs, world, character and plot. In a sense the plot and characters are only there to keep you turning the pages while you visit the world the writer has created. And so we stick with the hero, Douglas Archer as he makes his way through the horrific world of a German occupied London.

Yet some things are the same. The traditional British social structure is intact and somehow nostalgically cherished, The ex-soldiers, officers and men, belong to that special club that somehow facilitates the British class system. ‘Our rulers may be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards’. British aristocrats such as Mayhew are just as ruthless as Nazis like Huth, yet it is only since the Nazi occupation that Britain has had concentration camps and execution squads.  And the England revealed here is one where life for the aristocracy seems to have continued almost unchanged. They are defying the Germans yet retaining a comfortable life. It is the middle class professionals like Douglas Archer and the working people who are carrying the brunt of the suffering.

In a sense Len Deighton knew this world. He was a boy in London when these events were/would have been happening. Britain’s soldiers, though finally defeated, fought valiantly. We see the compassion for men at arms that runs through all of Len Deighton’s work. The scene in the artificial limb factory where the young man, probably an ex-soldier, struggles with his new artificial leg never fails to move me. When I was a child in England in the 1950s people missing arms and legs were a relatively common sight, and here too in Germany.

At the heart of the book is another mystery, one that Len Deighton does NOT reveal in the final chapter. Just how did Britain come to lose the war and be occupied by Germany? He reveals a few snippets. There’s a German amphibious landing at Dover. Tanks on Wimbledon Common and plucky resistance by civilians. The Royal Navy engineers tried to destroy certain port facilities at Portsmouth.

We need to go further back, back to the Battle of Britain. My understanding of the importance of that battle is that Germany would have needed to have defeated the RAF before launching an amphibious invasion. Germany would have needed air superiority over the English Channel to suppress the Royal Navy who would otherwise have repelled the invasion force.

In our world, after failing to destroy the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Hitler turned eastwards, he broke his secret pact with Stalin and the invasion of Britain was consigned to the ‘alternate’ history books. Did the RAF lose the Battle of Britain in the world of SS-GB? Yes, says Len in the new introduction. But he doesn't say why.

The primary German fighter aircraft used in the Battle of Britain was the Bf109E. Taking off from France this variant could only spend about 15 minutes over British territory. One suggestion is that by fitting the aircraft with extended range fuel tanks they could have spent longer over England engaging Britain’s Spitfires and Hurricanes and shooting more of them down.

Certainly, later versions of the Bf109 had extended range fuel tanks. Could such a technical change have swung the Battle of Britain and thus the war? This is a very intriguing question, potentially a real butterfly effect. Indeed, losing the Battle of Britain might have led to another possibility. Rather than face invasion Britain might have thrown in the towel and sought terms with Germany somewhat as discussed in another of Len Deighton’s novels, XPD.

Such are the questions we find in SS-GB. I first discovered Len Deighton’s writing about 45 years ago. At the time I was a huge science fiction fan. After I’d read Len Deighton I wished that he would turn his hand to science fiction. Then along came SS-GB and it seemed he had.

Yet SS-GB springs from a wealth of real-world research that gives it a verisimilitude that no science fiction story has ever had. The world of SS-GB so nearly might have been. This book, with it’s tension and compassion, is a wonderful and powerful work, let’s hope it becomes a great TV series.

No comments:

Post a Comment