R.F. Dunham’s The Other Side of Hope tells a story that touches the heart as much as it provokes thought. The novel is alternate history, and its storytelling rests far more in the realm of speculative fiction than the more customarily seen science fiction. Rather than trying to describe a scene with characters as puppets, Dunham writes about people in their strangely familiar world.
The point of departure that sets The Other Side of Hope’s world history from our own is the AD 742 Battle of Tours, when the invading Muslim caliphate was turned back by Christian forces in what is now southwest France. In this fictional world, the battle went awry, and the Muslims completed their domination of Europe. While some alternate history novels spend page upon page detailing the economic, political, and social changes cascading through their new timeline, Dunham depicts the world more vividly through the view of its characters.
The Other Side of Hope portrays two young male protagonists at opposite ends of their world. The first is Ethan, who works to make a good life in his impoverished backwater Christian corner of the world. His community adheres strongly to religion, but this strength is turned violently outward by many groups, such as the radical Brotherhood of the Sword.
Much of their rhetoric is easily recognized as similar call-to-arm speeches made by those fearing of being disenfranchised in our own world, prompting images of first-century saints struggling in persecution under Roman authority. Some of those around him seek to join the effort to strike back at the perceived cruel first-world Muslims, but Ethan works to avoid that madness and establish a happy, simple life for himself and his beloved Elisa, if only he could gain his mother’s blessing.
Across the world in bustling Istanbul, the veritable financial and political capital of the world, is Hamid, whose life is caught up in modern, fast-paced appearances, working to keep up with their neighbors, even if he and his wife, Dilara, cannot really afford it. Dilara yearns for a simpler life where she would not need to slave away at her accounting job and instead dedicate herself to writing. Hamid refuses, not seeing how they could afford to live that way. Yet the familial squabbles are cut short when the Brotherhood of the Sword strikes in a terrorist attack.
The issues faced by the protagonists are richly human. Each character is doing his or her best to enrich their lives, something we can all share in our day-to-day goals. Through the course of the novel, however, their worlds are rocked and their priorities change, reflecting the intensity of chaos when it arrives, even in a world turned on its head from our own.
The reversal of the Christian and Muslim worlds presents a bold new perspective to the reader. Although the terms used might be well recognized in a Baptist sermon, the third-world people speaking them will appear in the reader’s mind the next time seemingly distant places like Bagdad and Turkey are mentioned in the news.
An especially interesting turn in Dunham’s portrayal of this alternate world is in its gender relations. Just as the economic structures are flipped in The Other Side of Hope, the stereotypical tight family unit of the third-world and the looser, women-in-the-workplace view of the first leap beyond what we are shown in conservative and liberal views of both Christianity and Islam. Dunham shows once more, even without saying the exact words, that people are people no matter their backgrounds.