Len Deighton, in his memoir relating to James Bond and film making (James Bond, my long and eventful search for his father) remarks on how the film director can build the tension by revealing things that the hero cannot know. In historical fiction the reader can have superior knowledge to the protagonists. In SS-GB Len exploites the reader’s knowledge of the atomic bomb and how it will fundamentally change warfare. At times Kellerman and Mayhew seem to be negotiating over the atomic secrets as though the atomic bomb were just some new type of hand grenade. The reader knows, as they cannot know, what an atomic bomb means.
The tension thus generated keeps the reader engaged throughout. In fiction 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 Douglas avidly as he makes his way through the horrific world of a German occupied London.
Yet some things are the same. The England revealed here is one where life for the aristocracy seems to have continued almost unchanged. Defying the Germans yet retaining a comfortable life. It is the middle class professionals like Douglas and the working people who carry the brunt of the suffering.
The traditional British social structure is intact and somehow cherished, as we see in the signal box scene towards the end of the book. The ex-soldiers belong to a special club that somehow facilitates the British class system. ‘Our rulers may be bastards, but at least they’re our bastards’. Men such as Mayhew are at least as ruthless as Huth, he sacrifices even the King of England to the cause, but it is only since occupation that Britain has had concentration camps and execution squads. (Though elsewhere in the Empire they had certainly existed.)
So Britain’s soldiers, though finally defeated, fought valiantly. We see the compassion for men at arms that runs through all 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. Nowadays forget the ones with their lives ruined after being crippled in battle.
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 failed 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 why?
The primary German fighter aircraft used in the Battle of Britain was the Messerschmidt Bf109E. Taking off from France this varient 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 described in Len Deighton’s 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.