Counterclockwise by Roger L Conlee

Anthony G Williams

Jul 14, 2007
Counterclockwise by Roger L Conlee

Having written one myself, I have a particular interest in alternative histories of World War 2; Counterclockwise(published in the USA in 2007) was drawn to my attention a few years ago but it took me a long time to get hold of a copy. It proved an interesting read, taking an individual approach to the subject.

The best-known alternative WW2 novels are concerned with the aftermath of the war, rather than its events. The only one of these to break through the genre barriers and become a best-seller is Fatherland by Robert Harris (published 1992); a detective story set in 1964, twenty years after a Nazi victory. In a similar vein is Dominion by C.J. Sansom (pub. 2012, and still on my reading pile) a political thriller set in the 1950s in a world in which the UK sued for peace after the fall of France in 1940; the country remains independent, but very much under the Nazi thumb. The best known to SFF fans is of course P.K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, reviewed on this blog in August 2009. Another I recall reading is 1945 (Gingrich & Forstchen, pub. 1995), which follows events immediately after a different WW2.

Novels actually describing the events of an alternative WW2 are less common. One well-known work is Turtledove's Worldwar series, but since the difference concerns an alien invasion, that one can be put into a separate category. At the opposite extreme of the probability spectrum come various "counterfactual histories", some by professional historians, concerning what might have happened had some key event turned out differently. Such an event is known as the "POD" – Point Of Departure – by alternative history fans; other key terms being OTL – Original Time Line (i.e. what actually happened historically) and ATL – Alternative Time Line (i.e. what happens from the moment of the POD).

Other novels that I am aware of which describe a different war are a very mixed bunch. I reviewed Priest's The Separation on this blog in July 2008, a review which points out the huge differences in approach between this work and my own The Foresight War. And there is Counterclockwise, which is different again.

Counterclockwiseneeds concentration to follow as it has a complex structure. The protagonist is Tom Cavanaugh, a drug squad detective living in 1988 (OTL), who finds a book published in 1965 by his journalist great-uncle, Jake Weaver; an account of a Japanese attack on Los Angeles in 1942. At first Cavanaugh takes it to be a work of fiction, but evidence gradually builds up to suggest that it is describing an ATL. The scenes then alternate between 1988, in which Cavanaugh begins to experience visions of the past, and 1942 as described by Weaver in extracts from his history. Within this history, the viewpoint switches between Weaver's own experiences (told in the first person) and that of several others whose accounts he subsequently collected, including that of a young Japanese Navy pilot taking part in the attack. Fortunately this potentially confusing structure is clarified to some extent by using a different font for Weaver's story and a new sub-heading whenever the scene changes.

The most obvious characteristic in Conlee's story is that the focus is very firmly on a few days in 1942, with events over that period recounted in great detail. Wider differences in the ATL only get a brief mention at the end of the novel. Two-thirds of the way through the book, the story changes gear with the introduction of a major new element in Part 2, but I can't say any more about it without serious spoilers, so if you want to find out by reading Counterclockwise for yourself, stop reading NOW!


Two characters in the 1988 OTL are elderly ladies, one of whom has a small shop dealing with antique clocks and historical documents which is where Cavanaugh finds Weaver's book. She is the widow of a physicist who had identified the existence of the two separate time-lines and discovered a means of travelling between them; he had also determined that the timelines were gradually recombining, which meant that only one history would eventually survive. The other lady is Cavanaugh's great-aunt, the widow of Jake Weaver. Cavanaugh discovers that these women are not only both fully aware of the ATL but also learned from the physicist a way of travelling to the past, albeit for a period of only a few days.

Cavanaugh realises that the recombining of the time-lines poses an existential threat which he can only resolve by travelling back to 1942 (ATL) – which he duly does, accompanied by Cass, his fiancée and constant companion. Their experiences there, including meeting film stars and trying to avoid being arrested on suspicion of being Nazi spies, are described in entertaining detail. This triggered a memory of similar events in stories I read some fifteen years ago, which I managed to locate on my shelves: the Timeshare trilogy by Joshua Dann (published 1997-9), in which the protagonist works as a guide for time-travellers and, among other things, becomes very personally involved in some of the events of WW2 (although without significantly changing history).

I do have a few criticisms of Counterclockwise, mostly trivial: there are the seemingly inevitable minor errors when non-specialists describe WW2 weaponry, plus the odd piece of carelessness (e.g. the fate of a man killed in 1968 described in the history published in 1965). More fundamentally, while I have no problem with time travel (I used it in The Foresight War) or moving between alternative timelines (included in my second novel Scales, along with the idea of timelines recombining), to include both in one story seems to me to be over-egging the pudding somewhat. For one major scientific impossibility I am willing to suspend disbelief, but two is pushing it! Despite this, I enjoyed this entertaining novel.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)
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