The Magazine

The Way It Wasn't

How what-if history grew from a minor literary curiosity to a bestselling genre of popular fiction.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By GREGORY FEELEY
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One can see this in the 1980 film The Final Countdown, which transports a present-day battleship, by some storm-induced time warp, into the Pacific a few days before Pearl Harbor. The crew is startled to realize that they can shoot down the Japanese attack and alter the course of history, and the audience is invited to be equally startled by the idea. In the film, a second storm takes the boat back before the sailors can act, which renders the disconcerting possibilities moot. Such an approach was typical of the time: The implication of alternate history--the foundation-dissolving notion of an unfixed past--was quickly followed by a retreat in the end to a reaffirmed status quo.

This changed abruptly in the early 1990s. The year 1992 saw publication of Fatherland by Robert Harris, an international bestseller, and Harry Turtledove's The Guns of the South, which has sold 350,000 copies over the past dozen years. Three years later Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen published 1945, which posits that Hitler was lying in a coma in December 1941, and so could not declare war on the United States.

All these novels were marketed to a much broader audience than had ever read alternate history before. Unsurprisingly, they all stick to simple deviations at well-known points of history--to the big two, in fact: Nazi Germany and the American Confederacy. Fatherland posits a victorious Third Reich, while 1945 dramatizes a World War II in which America's crucially delayed entry allowed a threatening series of Nazi developments.

Turtledove, whose early ventures in the genre were informed by his love of the ancient world (he has a Ph.D. in Byzantine history), turned to a less recondite setting with The Guns of the South, which relates with a straight face what happens when a rogue pack of time-traveling South Africans gives Robert E. Lee all the AK-47s he can use. The quintessential novel for the armchair historian who likes to imagine how his favorite war would have played out had the losing side been equipped with contemporary weaponry, The Guns of the South reached beyond the established genre audience to tap into the very large body of Civil War enthusiasts.

Since then, alternate histories have flourished, with their own genre prize, the Sidewise Award, and dozens of novels and anthologies every year. And they now appear poised to break into the literary mainstream. Philip Roth is about to publish The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election: the first novel of forthright alternate history to be written by an American of high literary reputation. Michael Chabon is said to be readying another for publication next year.

Meanwhile, Gingrich and Forstchen are back, with the first two volumes of a trilogy about the South threatening to win the Civil War, and Peter G. Tsouras, a military think-tank analyst in Virginia, has just published Dixie Victorious, the latest in a series of historical speculations that include Third Reich Victorious, Rising Sun Victorious, and so on.

THE HISTORICAL NOVEL in English, a nineteenth-century innovation, was judged in good part by the accuracy of its imaginative evocation: However attractive the edifice the novelist raised--and it was practiced by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, William Makepeace Thackeray, and Charles Dickens--the novel was thought unsound by the reading public if its historical basis was faulty. Even after the historical novel ceased (for various reasons) to be a candidate for "serious" literature and was demoted to the demimonde of popular "entertainment," the rules persisted: Lack of fidelity to the historical record was a flaw, excusable in Shakespeare but not in modern writers. The past was knowable, and one got it either right or wrong.

Old-fashioned writers of historical fiction were often attracted to the imaginative possibilities of what we would now call alternate history, but they also mistrusted it. Nathaniel Hawthorne justified his dramatization of Byron and Shelley living into old age in his 1845 story "P.'s Correspondence" by introducing a frame device that made his text the writings of a madman, and H.G. Wells explained away the alternate history of his 1905 A Modern Utopia by claiming that the story took place on a planet just like Earth but "beyond Sirius." The Modernists who followed the Victorians knew historical fiction to be, like fantasy and ghost stories, unsuited to serious literature.