But What If…? An Odyssey Through Counterfactual Historical Fiction

Multiverses and “what if” scenarios are all the rage these days from superhero sagas to historical timelines quite different from our own. The latter has held a recurring interest for me since almost the time I became seriously interested in history itself, and has in its own way influenced how I perceive my chosen discipline. While counterfactual speculation can only really be of specific, limited use in academe, fiction authors are seldom constrained by such things as responsible methodology and peer review, and thus can explore questions of contingency and causality much more deeply–and entertainingly–than we academics usually can. This does not mean that all alternate historical fiction gets a pass from me, however; far from it. In one of Francis and my many rambling discussions, I was recently reminded of the different variations of this subgenre, their strengths and weaknesses, and which ultimately I enjoy or stay away from.

Contingency is Key

For me, alternate historical fiction is at its best when it embraces that core tenet of my own study of history, that nothing is preordained and any number of pivotal events turned on something as simple as the weather, a wrong turn, or dropping a pack of cigars, This last forms the inciting incident of Harry Turtledove’s landmark series chronicling a timeline in which the Confederate States of America won the American Civil War, ultimately allying with Britain and France and changing the face of twentieth-century world history. Images of Teddy Roosevelt leading the North during a North American Great War–trench warfare in the Shenandoah Valley, dogfights above Niagara Falls–captivated high school Bryan’s imagination like few other series. My standards were set high early on, particularly the demand for a logical stepping off point that historically might have happened. The farther out Turtledove took his timeline, however, the more glaring its own weaknesses appear in hindsight. With less and less actual historical material to draw from, parallels with reality became more and more frequent. Some, such as a Holocaust-like genocide of black in the South during the Second World War, strike a thematic cord; others, like the implausible later occurrence of the battles of Fredericksburg, Missionary Ridge, and Stalingrad with reskins, are just there as Easter eggs for the discerning historian. And of course, if the fiction approaches veracity too closely, there’s always the danger of not being quite sure whether you’re remembering an actual fact or something that sprung from the mind of an author.

Action Figure Sandbox

Not every alternate historical fiction author is quite so “responsible,” however. Often, these kinds of stories are a form of wish fulfillment for their authors wherein they get to live out their fantasy of a world in which history went in a direction more personally satisfying to them or simply pit historical movements or peoples or countries against each other in a version of children playing with action figures from different franchises. I still remember discovering a novel in my local Borders during high school that set up a conflict between the United States and Imperial Germany at the turn of the century; ridiculously, the Kaiser had demanded America hand over its newly-won imperial possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific, invading Long Island (from Germany!) when his ultimatum was rejected. While nothing that actually did happen in history was ever inevitable, there are certainly things that didn’t happen that never could have, and so many of these less realistic alternate scenarios certainly fall into that category, essentially becoming no more than works of fantasy set in a completely different, made up world.

Science Fantasy

Alternate historical fiction does not always attempt to be even somewhat as grounded, however. Ironically, Harry Turtledove has delivered both my favorite “realistic” alternate history and my favorite absolutely outlandish, science-fiction story: what if time traveling white supremacists from South Africa gave Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia AK-47s in 1864? Yes, that really is the plot of the infamous Guns of the South, and yet for all its absurdity, it does a fantastic job of driving home valuable themes from actual history, namely, that the South was fighting for the preservation of slavery and a white supremacist state. As such, these kinds of fantastical stories based only very loosely on reality can sometimes be the most entertaining for the discerning student of history, not to mention the most memorable.

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