Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and
speculative fiction enthusiast.
all of SF, there is nothing quite so speculative as alternate history, and
there is perhaps no other writer who has speculated about history as much as
Harry Turtledove. He is billed as the Master of Alternate History, a title he
surely deserves considering the work he has put into the genre. His monumental oeuvre includes the informally titled Southern Victory series, which assumes that the South is
not defeated in the American Civil War. It’s a series that encompasses 11 titles
from three formal series and a prequel, and covers the time period from the Civil
War through the mid-twentieth century. It’s huge.
it’s also pretty straightforward in its conventions. The book supposes a
divergence in the past that has major consequences in history. It follows that
divergent path logically with attention to the cultural and historical impact
that such a fracture would cause.
Roth did this masterfully with The
Plot Against America,
in which FDR loses the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindberg, giving
rise to a brand of American fascism.
Chabon also proposes an interesting diversion in history with The
Yiddish Policemen’s Union—a
detective novel in which Sitka, Alaska is established as a temporary site for
the settlement of European Jews who were being persecuted leading up to World
much fun as these books are, they are examples of the sober side of alternate
history—the story that imagines a true “what if.” The fun stuff, the books that
go next-level with their possibilities, are the ones I really enjoy. An example
of this is John Birmingham’s Weapons
which places a 21st century naval fleet led by the USS Hillary
Clinton (so named for the "the
most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States")
right into the Battle of Midway. It’s a great bit of speculation that explores,
with surety, not only the introduction of advanced weapons technology to WWII,
but also the cultural shock of a 1940s, white-male-dominated armed forces
coming to terms with a future egalitarianism that counts women and minorities among
the high-ranking positions of power. It’s a go from the opening pages.
Another such alternate history is one that got
its start on reddit.com when a user responded with a short story
about whether a single, well-equipped US Marine expeditionary unit might be
able to take down the whole of the Roman Empire under Augustus. You can read
the hastily assembled version of the story in the previous link, but I believe
it’s in development with a movie studio. I couldn’t track down anything about
whether the author was going to revise the story and actually write a fully researched
novel, but the thought experiment paid off very well with the sale of his idea
to a production company.
It reminds me a little of Harry Turtledove’s Guns
of the South in which Kalashnikovs are introduced into the American Civil War
on the side of the South (Mr. Turtledove really likes it when the South wins). But
what about alternate history that doesn’t depend on political or military points
The Years of Rice and Salt is
one to consider. Kim Stanley Robinson imagines what the world would have been
like had the Black Death killed somewhere closer to 99 percent of Europe’s
population, illustrating a world in which the discovery of the New World comes from
a boat sailing east from China.
Hopefully these recommendations put you on a path
in which alternate history is a part of your future. I’d hate to read a story about
a future in which “what if” doesn’t exist.