Monday, January 23, 2012

Why Alternate History?

That’s a good question that I’ve been asked many times. Why do I choose to write this “genre fiction” rather than attempting the Great Novel? Traditionally, it's been the Rodney Dangerfield of the genres, garnering no respect from non-genre audiences.
I enjoy reading it - and writing it - because alternate history often poses questions in ways others can't.  I’ve also always been a fan of history and find its twists and turns (often on something minuscule) fascinating.
        For Harry Turtledove, in How Few Remain, that miniscule incident is the recovery of Lee’s Special Order 191, lost prior to the Battle of Antietam in September, 1862, which outlined his plans for the forthcoming battle. In our history, the lost orders were picked up by Union troops and the Union scored a decisive if bloody victory. As a result, Lincoln was able to add a moral dimension to the Civil War by making it war on slavery through his Emancipation Proclamation. In Turtledove’s history, Lee’s orders are recovered by the Confederates, not only leading to a Confederate victory at Antietam but also, with the intervention of the British Empire and France, an eventual Southern victory.
            If you happen to be one of the three people in the world who has not read the ensuing "Southern Victory" series, I encourage you to do so. It’s clearly the best of his work. Why this series works so well is that the reader can easily imagine it happening exactly that way. 
            When it’s done right, the genre makes you think. Novels such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland (and the subsequent HBO movie) offer a spooky guided tour of a victorious Third Reich where the Holocaust has been brutally swept under the rug.  Len Dieghton’s brilliant SS-GB (my first exposure the genre as a 16 year-old) shows how ordinary people in Great Britain find their own ways to get by in the face of a Nazi German occupation. Of course, there’s Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man in the High Castle, which works on so many different levels.
             There are two more examples – but little known. I refer to William Overgard’s The Divide that posits a defeated America cut in two by Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. The novel has been singled out by how it shows the willingness of everyday people to collaborate.  In David C. Poyer’s The Shiloh Project, it’s over a hundred years after Lee defeated Meade at Gettysburg. I find this novel fascinating for the detail it goes in to show the Confederacy’s slide into decay and the steps some would do to stop that from happening.
            The victory of the Confederacy and the Third Reich are perhaps the most popular “what-ifs” of alternate history, but by no means are the only ones.  For example, Harry Harrison’s  jaunty A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! posits a world where the Revolutionary War failed, Washington was hung as a traitor and an enlightened British Empire continues to thrive into the 20th Century.  Similarly, the survival of the Roman Empire until the 20th Century is discussed in Kirk Mitchell’s  superb Procurator trilogy.
            At its best the genre of alternate history helps illuminate our own past from a different aspect.  It is this very part that makes the very best of it worthy of the title “great novel.”  I’ll talk more about this aspect in a future article.


My two contributions two the genre, Elvis Saves JFK! and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History,  are available for just $0.99 and $2.99, respectively.  Of course, they're both free to preview.  Both books are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.


  1. There's also William Weintraub's novel (and play) "The Underdogs."

  2. Thanks for the feedback... hope you keep reading & commenting. When I googled Wientraub and found him (Where else?) on WIkiipedia - I do remember as a kid some of the ruckus that surrounded his plat. He was definitely twisting things around to make a satiric point.-Mike