As Harry Turtledove, the master of alternate history, said in the introduction to The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century, even historical memoirs can sometimes be so far from the truth they can be classified as science fiction. He used the example of Civil War veterans who highlighted their successes and blamed superiors or subordinates for the overall failure of the cause (you can probably guess which side he referred to). Or perhaps in retrospect they admit the South never had a chance, but their noble and chivalrous defiance should be celebrated and history should reflect the Union only won because of numbers and not skill.
But what if the Confederacy won the Civil War? How would the authors and their memoirs be different? And what if…they speculated about what would be different had the Confederacy lost the war? Flush from their great triumph in the War of Secession, would they predict the refusal of a “Southron” to submit to Union occupation and carry out partisan warfare even if it took generations?
Just think about how some minor change to history can change a person’s mind.
The above is an example of a “recursive alternate history” or, as it is more popularly known on the forums, a “double-blind what if” (DBWI). This usually takes the form of asking “what if” about something from real history, treating it as if it hadn’t happened. For example, “what if England had resisted Napoleon successfully?” In fact the question is asked in the first ever published form of a DBWI.
In Louis Geoffroy’s 1836 book Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, a character from the alternate universe discusses a fantasy novel where the Emperor suffered an incredible defeat at the tiny town of Waterloo. Here you have a character speculating on what would have happened had history not played out the way it did. Alternate historians do it all the time, the difference here is it is being done in an alternate history and the divergence he speculates on is a real event in our history. What does he think the short-term effects will be on the change? How will the fall of Napoleon (who in his mind secured French dominance over the world) change history? Does he get it right?
Consider what Mark Olson at the “Histories: The Way We Weren’t” panel at Boskone 28 said: “We look at this as the best of all possible worlds, but the French know it isn’t, because most people speak English.” From the POV of Geoffrey’s character, the world is a better place because everyone speaks French. Any reverse is a poorer world at least from the character’s perspective. Or is it? We tell ourselves our history is the best of all possible worlds…but what if it is not?
I mean maybe more people should speak English for this to be a better world. In fact, they should all be united. Sherlock Holmes seemed to think so when he toasted an American couple’s new life together and wished one day their nations will be reunited again in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor“. Winston Churchill wrote about the idea in his short story “If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg“. Yes, you heard me right, Winston “We shall fight on the beaches” Churchill. Before he fought the Nazi scourge, he wrote an alternate history where a historian speculates about what would happen if Lee had lost the Battle of Gettysburg. The historian’s world is incredibly optimistic. Not only does the Confederacy quickly free the slaves, but later on it reunites with the United States and the British Empire to form an English-speaking union.
Such an idea might not seem fanciful since many wished to forestall the inevitable collapse of the Empire by creating an “Imperial Federation“. This idea proved popular in the late 19th/early 20th century as a way to solve the Home Rule problem and prevent the UK from becoming a second-rate power. Fans of the Victorian era would probably love to have an Imperial Federation of Britain where the sun never sets instead of the dinky Commonwealth. Still we must ask ourselves, would this federation be a “whites only” club or would Africans, Indians and others be able to join as well? Would ethnic Brits dominate government positions or would it be open based on merit and not by birth? What happens if the dominions begin to have increased influence over imperial policy or, heaven forbid, those uppity colonials across the pond actually join and bring their economic might to the table?
Yet at the time the idea the British Empire could fall seemed impossible. Sometimes we are so certain about the success of a nation, culture, ideology, philosophy, religion, etc. we do not even stop to consider what if we are wrong. Take the classic The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. In this world the Axis won World War II. Germany and Japan have divided the world between each other and have settled into a nice little Cold War. A minor source of contention between the two superpowers is the best-selling novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen. Banned in the German sphere, but readily available in Japan and her puppets, the novel is an alternate history where the Axis lost World War II. It gets some things right, such as the American defeat of Japan, Rommel’s defeat in North Africa and the Battle of Stalingrad being a turning point in the war. Except it is not the Soviets who get the credit for the victory, but the British who send troops up the Caucasus to relieve the battered Russians. The post-war world features a Cold War between a British Empire which dominates Europe and the United States, allied with Kuomintang China,
Isn’t it interesting how irrelevant the Soviet Union and the Red Chinese are in Grasshoppper? The characters cannot even fathom an alternate history where the Soviet Union is a major power. To them communism is a failed philosophy and the Slavs and the Chinese are too inferior to hold power. Certainly an extreme example, but are there any ideas consigned to the ash bin of history we don’t even think about because the idea of them being successful seems laughable? Are certain events inevitable? Or can the march of history be stopped only if we are willing to face who we are and where we came from?
For a recent example of a DBWI, check out Osama by Lavie Tidhar where we are introduced to a world free from global terrorism and a private detective hired to track down the whereabouts of the author of the popular pulp novels featuring the criminal mastermind Osama bin Laden. In the meantime, before you look to the past (or even the future) don’t be so quick to make assumptions. Ask yourself the real reason why you think it will happen and make sure it is a good reason. Don’t make the same mistake so many characters in fiction have done.