Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What If Part deux

In my previous blog I stated that there are three main categories alternate history. There are the straight forward alternate histories which tell a story derived from a historical point of divergence. The author may or may not tell the reader what the POD is

One of the best examples of the straight forward alternate history is Robert Sobol’s For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga. As you can guess by the title it's point of divergence takes place During the Revolutionary War. In Sobol's scenario the revolution failed. What makes Sobol's book so fascinating is that it was written as if it were an actual book of history from this alternate universe. It comes complete with footnotes, several appendixs and a fictional bibliography. Written in 1971 when Alternate history books were few and far between, Sobol's book did not garner much notice although it was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. Alternate history was regarded as a subset of the Science fiction genre and most science fiction fans would have not had much interest in the history laden content of For Want of a Nail. Sobol's book remains one of the classic books in the genre.

Contrasting with Sobol's massive tome is Mackinley Kantor's If the South Had Won the Civil War. Written a decade earlier than Sobol's book, Kantor piece was originally written for Look magazine. It too was written as if it were a historical text complete with footnotes. Although expanded from its magazine format at 127 pages the novel is a slim but interesting work, although some people believe that how he ended the novel was unrealistic.

This sort of straight forward pseudo-scholarship format appealed to the historian in me. Back when I was in college and was studying education I created lesson plans derived from using alternate history as a teaching tool. My fellow social science students critiqued my plans as unrealistic and without real world value. At this time, alternate history was still considered a subset of science fiction and so was "out there". A few years later hower some serious historians began using what if as a tool to examine how the historical process worked-- how crucial was the one man theory, were events inevitable, etc. To explore these avenues of reasoning they asked the same questions that previous alternate historians had, however since they were historians and not fuzzy headed science fiction writers they labeled their thought exercises as counter-factual history. Although the counter-factual historians proclaim that their work is much different than the alternate history stuff the basic difference is that counter factual historians don't attempt any science fictional explanations for their what if scenarios and their works are pure (pseudo) scholarship.

One of the first counter-factual books was Irving Stone's They Also Ran. Stone is most famous for his series of biographical novels such as The Agony and the Ecstasy about Michelangelo and Passion of the Mind about Sigmund Freud. They Also Ran is a book of short biographies about defeated Presidential candidates. At the each of mini-biography, Stone speculates on what type of President the candidate would have made.

In addition to pseudo-scholarly examinations of the straight forward alternate history, there are many novels that use that format. The novels use the alternate history as background or a a plot device to explore the lives of fictional characters. One of the most famous straight forward novels of alternate history is Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. This novel which takes place in a world where the Axis conquered America explores the lives of several people, including an author who wrote an alternate history novel about the Allies having won the war. This version however is also drastically different than our world.

1966's Pavane by Keith Roberts also explored an alternate history in a rather disconnected way through the lives of various characters. Unlike The Man in the High Castle their isn't a narrative thread that ties the book together. Rather it is a series of vignettes, slice of life stories about people living in an England in which the Spanish Armada had invaded England.

One of the first realized alternate history novels was The Gate of Worlds by Robert Silverberg. This is set the near future of a Islam dominated Europe written from the viewpoint of a young English trader. In the Middle Ages the invasions by the Ottomans went unchecked. The main character travels to a Mexico still dominated by the Aztecs.

Another straight forward alternate history classic, which does have a science fiction twist to it, is Harry Harrison's Tunnel Through the Deeps. In this Captain Gus Washington is the lead engineer of a project to dig a tunnel beneath the ocean floor that would connect England and America. Gus Washington is the descendant of the defeated and disgraced George Washington and is attempting to redeem the family name.

Before Martin Cruz Smith won fame and fortune as the author of the Arkady Renko series... Gorky Part and its sequels, he wrote a short, entertaining if implausible alternate history named The Indians Won. This was a novel exploring how the Indians could have beaten the US Cavalry in the 1870's and the modern day consequences of these actions.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita also wrote a rather lengthy alternate history novel entitled Ada or Ardor: A family chronicle which chronicles the story of one family living in a Czarist dominated America.

Recently alternate history has become more mainstream and is often considered to be its own genre rather than a subset of science fiction. However this is the more mainstream, straight forward alternate history which does not depend on science fictional elements such as time travel or interdimensional travel to tell their tales. One of the most, well probably the most popular author working in this vein is Harry Turtledove whose works have proven fairly popular.

Turtledove works in all three of the alternate history categories. His first couple of works were in the straight forward categories. As professor of Byzantine history his first stories reflected this interest. He wrote a series of short stories about Basil Agyros, a spy for the Byzantine empire. In this particular history however Byzantine did not fall because Islam never came about. Mohammed converted to Christianity instead.  His second series dealt with a what if dealing with evolution. He wondered what would have happened if homo sapiens had not entered into the New World until the age of exploration. When explorers did land on the new world they found it inhabited by australopithecines and megafauna.  His most massive work, the Southern Victory series which explores in great detail a history unfolding from the south winning the civil war. The series progresses from a second war between the Confederacy and the Union over Mexico and Cuba to the first world war and ending with the Second World War. In this series Turtledove reimagines the Confederacy as an analog for the Germany. He has written a couple of other noteworthy straight forward alternate histories. One is the Infamy series which consists of two novels which deal with the consequences of Japan invading Hawaii after Pearl Harbor. Rule Britannia takes place in an England dominated by Spain in the wake of a successful Spanish invasion. Unlike Pavane however, England is ready to throw off the yoke of Spanish rule. One of Turtledove's more recent novels was The Man with the Iron Heart which posits that instead of accepting defeat after WWII Germany instead launched a terrorist campaign against the occupation forces. This effort was led by Reinhard Heydrich, who in this timeline escaped assassination. While making a plausible story, Turtledove also manages to draw parallels between a defeated Germany and the current occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and the War of Terror.

Two other classic novels that were written in a fairly straight forward fashion are Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee and John Brunner's Times Without Number. Moore's novel is set in the Union after its defeat from the Confederacy. Brunner's novel is set in a world dominated by Spain. However in the end both end up having elements of time travel in them so they should be placed in the next category which is time travel derive alternate history. I will deal with these on my next post.

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