WHAT IF . . .
Most science-fiction ideas don’t come naturally. Most take a degree of intellectual sophistication that came only with the Industrial Revolution. It’s hard to write about the effects of technology before there’s much in the way of technology to write about. But alternate history isn’t like that. It’s as natural as those two mournful little words up there. What if . . .
What if I’d married Lucy instead of Martha, George instead of Fred? What would my life be like? Would I be richer? Happier? What would our kids have been like, if we’d had kids? What if there hadn’t been that traffic accident that clogged three lanes of the freeway, so I wasn’t late to the interview? How would things have looked if I’d got that job? Or—let’s not think small—what if I won the lottery? How would I live if I had sixty million dollars in the bank?
In our own lives, we endlessly imagine these scenarios. We can’t help it. There’s always the feeling that we’re inside God’s pinball machine, bouncing through life and off bumpers at random, and that we could have ended up elsewhere as easily as where we did.
It’s certainly true for me. If I hadn’t read a particular book—Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp—when I was about fourteen years old, I wouldn’t have ended up with the degree I have (a doctorate in, God help me, Byzantine history), wouldn’t have written much of what I’ve written (I surely wouldn’t be working on this introduction now), wouldn’t have met the lady I’m married to, wouldn’t have the kids I have. Other than that, it didn’t change my life a bit. If someone else had taken that novel out of the secondhand bookstore where I found it . . .
And from there, from the sense that individuals’ lives might be plastic, mutable, comes the sense that the wider world might work the same way. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Richard III cried. What if he’d got that horse, instead of going down to defeat and death because he didn’t? What would England be like today? No different at all? A little different? A lot different? How can we know?
Well, we can’t know, not in any absolute sense. Whatever else history may be, it’s not an experimental science. How can we make plausible guesses, interesting guesses, entertaining guesses? This is the way in which the alternate-history story was born.
The subgenre is a lot older than you might think, too. As I’ve noted, alternate history doesn’t require a relatively high-tech background. All it requires is the ability to extrapolate from the individual to the wider world, the intuitive leap that lets you see that, just as small things can change individual lives, they can also change wider affairs.
The first person of whom I’m aware who made this leap was the Roman historian Livy, who wrote about the time of Christ. In Book IX, sections 17–19, of his monumental (so monumental that it was frequently abridged and extracted, and does not survive complete) History of Rome from Its Foundation, Livy wonders what would have happened if Alexander the Great had turned his attention to the west and attacked the Roman Republic in the late fourth century B.C. With fine Roman patriotism, he tries to show that his countrymen could and would have beaten the Macedonian king. My own opinion is that Livy was an optimist, but that’s neither here nor there. He clearly invented the game of alternate history—not a small achievement for a man who has been criticized for the past two thousand years as one who made his history with scissors and paste, taking it all from the works of those who went before him and piecing those works together into a continuous narrative as best he could.
Livy proved to be ahead of his time, as inventors sometimes are. In his case, he was further ahead of his time than most: about eighteen hundred years ahead. Not till the aftermath of Napoleon’s downfall did alternate history rear its head again, with several French novelists wondering what might have been had the defeated emperor proved triumphant.
It is not till the twentieth century that most—not all, but most—alternate history came to be reckoned part of that new and sometimes strange kid on the literary block, science fiction. To this day, some people wonder why this identification was made. I have a couple of reasons to propose. For one thing, people who wrote other forms of science fiction also came to write alternate-history stories. And, for another, alternate history plays by some of the same rules as (other) varieties of science fiction. In many science-fiction stories, the author changes one thing in the present or nearer future, and speculates about what would happen in the more distant future as a result of the change. Alternate history goes down the same road, but from a different starting point. It usually changes one thing in the more distant past and speculates about what would have happened in the nearer past or the present. The relationship seems obvious.
The American Civil War has offered aficionados of the subgenre a playground full of toys ever since a still fell at Appomattox. In fact, many Civil War officers’ memoirs read as if they were alternate history, with the authors trying to seize credit for everything that went right anywhere near them and blaming incompetent subordinates and superiors for everything that went wrong. But, as their purpose was to make themselves look good rather than really to examine what might have been, they cannot in fact be included among early alternate historians.
The crowded, chaotic twentieth century saw the true rise of alternate history. Murray Leinster’s seminal story, “Sidewise in Time” (after which the Sidewise Award for alternate history is named), introduced this type of story to the science-fiction pulp magazines. But alternate history was also the province of intellectuals on a lark. In 1931, for example, Winston Churchill’s essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” examined the possible consequences of a Northern victory in the Civil War in a world where the South won it—a neat double twist. And, in the second volume of his A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee, in “The Forfeited Birthright of the Abortive Far Western Christian Civilization,” postulated a world in which Celtic Christianity had survived along with the Roman variety, and in which the Muslims defeated the Franks at the Battle of Tours in 732.
This latter speculation was later fictionalized by L. Sprague de Camp in his classic novella, “The Wheels of If,” which imagined a modern lawyer from our world transported to the twentieth century of that one. That novella, along with de Camp’s even more important novel, Lest Darkness Fall,in which an archaeologist is dropped back into the Rome of the sixth century A.D., and seeks to keep the Dark Ages from descending on Europe by propping up the Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy against the resurgent Byzantine Empire and by improving technology, finished the job begun by Leinster’s story and brought alternate-historical speculation into the orbit of science fiction.
In the years following World War II, a few writers followed de Camp’s lead and produced thoughtful alternate histories of their own. H. Beam Piper’s Paratime stories and Poul Anderson’s tales of the Time Patrol (and, in a different vein, his stories collected inOperation Chaos, in which magic reappeared in the world as a technology around the beginning of the twentieth century) stand out among these.
For the centennial of the War Between the States, Pulitzer Prize winner MacKinlay Kantor wrote If the South Had Won the Civil War, an optimistic scenario in which the severed parts of our nation reunite in the 1960s. Also coming into prominence during the decades following the end of the Second World War were stories in which the Axis won, which have challenged stories of Confederate victories in the Civil War for popularity. Three of the best of the earlier ones were Sarban’s The Sound of His Horn, C. M. Kornbluth’s great novella, “Two Dooms,” and Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning novel, The Man in the High Castle.
In the 1960s, two Englishmen, John Brunner and Keith Roberts, produced stimulating alternate histories on a subject particularly relevant to British hearts: a successful invasion by the Spanish Armada. Brunner’s Times Without Number examined why travel between different time lines doesn’t happen more often, while Roberts’ beautiful Pavane looked at, among other things, the consequences of slowing down technological growth (strictly speaking, Pavane isn’t an alternate history, but a first cousin: a recursive future). At about the same time, Keith Laumer, in Worlds of the Imperium and its two sequels, did a first-rate job of combining alternate history with fast-moving adventure.
But alternate history really became a more prominent subgenre in the last two decades of the twentieth century. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, with our much greater knowledge of the true nature of the solar system, we have found that it looks much less inviting than it did a couple of generations ago. There are no canals on Mars, and no Martians, either; nor are there oceans on Venus full of reptilian monsters. Before the space probes went out, these were scientifically plausible speculations. No more; brute facts have killed such possibilities. Furthermore, more people trained in history have begun writing science fiction, and have naturally gravitated to areas with which they find themselves familiar: S. M. Stirling, with a law degree and an undergraduate degree in history; Susan Shwartz and Judith Tarr, both with doctorates in western medieval studies; and myself, with a doctorate in Byzantine history (a subject I was inspired to study, as I’ve said, by Lest Darkness Fall).
Stirling’s Draka universe, commencing with Marching Through Georgia, is as thoroughly unpleasant a place as any ever envisioned by an alternate historian, but, especially in Under the Yoke, alarmingly convincing as well. His more recent trilogy, beginning with Island in the Sea of Time, drops the entire island of Nantucket back to about 1250 B.C. and examines the consequences with fine writing, splendid research, and careful logic.
Shwartz and Tarr have both combined fantasy and alternate history in intriguingly different ways. Shwartz’s series that begins with Byzantium’s Crown looks at a magical medieval world that might have sprung from Cleopatra’s victory over Octavian, while Tarr’s beautifully written the Hound and the Falcon trilogy and other succeeding books examine what the world might have been like if immortal elves were real rather than mythical.
My own book-length work includes Agent of Byzantium, set in a world where Muhammad did not found Islam; A Different Flesh, in which Homo erectus rather than American Indians populated the New World; A World of Difference, which makes the planet in Mars’s orbit different enough to support life; the Worldwar series, which imagines an alien invasion in 1942; The Guns of the South, in which time-traveling South Africans give Robert E. Lee AK-47s; and How Few Remain and the Great War books, which embroil an independent Confederacy and the United States of America in World War I.
In a slightly different vein, Kim Newman has imagined the Victorian age and the early years of this century controlled by vampires in Anno Dracula and The Bloody Red Baron. The really frightening thing about the latter book is that the World War I he imagines is no bloodier than the one we really had. Newman’s entertaining Back in the USSA looks at a Red revolution in the United States rather than Russia, with Al Capone in the role of Stalin.
And alternate history has not become the sole province of escaped history buffs. Aerospace engineer Stephen Baxter’s Voyage looks at a journey to Mars in 1986 that might have happened had John Kennedy not been assassinated. This is hard science fiction at its best, as is Gregory Benford’s award-winning Timescape, which touches on ecological disaster along with its main theme of communicating across time lines.
Nor has alternate history remained the sole province of science-fiction writers. Spymaster Len Deighton produced SS-GB, a chilling account of a Nazi-occupied Britain. And journalist Robert Harris’s Fatherland became an international best-seller—certainly a breakthrough for alternate history.Fatherland, another tale of Germany triumphant, is carefully researched; its principal flaw seems to be a conviction that the discovery of the Holocaust twenty years after the fact would be a world-shaking event rather than a nine days’ wonder, if even that.
Several anthologies have also highlighted alternate history in recent years. Gregory Benford edited, with Martin H. Greenberg, Hitler Victorious and the four volumes titled What Might Have Been, which examined different ways in which the past might have changed. And the prolific Mike Resnick edited and wrote for a series of Alternate anthologies, including such titles as Alternate Kennedys and Alternate Tyrants. Alternate-history stories have found homes in magazines as diverse as Omni and Analog.
And there is a renewed interest in alternate history outside the confines of science fiction and fantasy. Articles on the topic have appeared in such mainstream publications as USA Today and American Heritage, and academic alternate histories, the parlor game of the 1930s, are respectable once again. Serious historians have played the game in two collections of essays edited by Kenneth Macksey, Invasion: The Alternate History of the German Invasion of England, July 1940 and The Hitler Options: Alternate Decisions of World War II. Peter Tsouras’s recent Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944 and Gettysburg: An Alternate History recall, in their detail and fictional critical apparatus, Robert Sobel’s classic For Want of a Nail, which imagines a failed American Revolution and the subsequent 180 years of history from the perspective of a college history text.
The stories in this collection, in their quality and their variety, show where the field went during the last century. I have no doubt that, with so many talented writers wondering what might have been, we will continue to see many more fascinating, thought-provoking stories in the century just being born. The purpose of any good fiction, after all, is not to examine the created world alone, but to hold up that created world as a mirror to the reality we all experience. Alternate history gives us a fun-house mirror that lets us look at reality in ways we cannot get from any other type of story. That, to me, is its principal attraction—along with the joys of storytelling. Have fun!