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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Postmodernism's willingness to entertain notions that Victorian and Modernist alike would have frowned upon has given contemporary novelists almost complete freedom over their subject matter. The past is no longer fixed like cement: It can be played with. John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman was, in 1969, the first historical novel in decades to be taken seriously as a work of literature, and by no coincidence, it exhibited a full set of what we now call postmodern characteristics.

But postmodernism is not the only element in the emergence of alternate history. The pressures of modern publishing have also helped, as alternate histories lend themselves almost uniquely well to what publishers call "high concept." The central idea behind most alternate histories is so straightforward as to be iconic--sometimes conveyed in the title, but often reducible to a single image, which publishers have been happy to employ. An early instance was Knopf's memorable dust jacket for Len Deighton's 1978 SS-GB, which showed, with perfect economy and clarity, a British postage stamp with Hitler's visage upon it, postmarked late 1941.

Such a potent design strategy had always been clear to science-fiction publishers. A 1976 reprint of Lest Darkness Fall shows a modern American male instructing Roman soldiers in the use of a catapult, an image prospective buyers could understand instantly. Since then, the high-concept cover has dominated alternate history. All editions of The Guns of the South show Robert E. Lee with a machine gun in his hand, and a series of anthologies edited in the mid-1990s by Mike Resnick (I should note that I contributed to a few of them) bore covers that wittily epitomized the volume's central conceit. The best of them, Alternate Presidents, shows the 1948 Republican presidential candidate jubilantly displaying a newspaper whose headline reads "Truman Defeats Dewey."

This is the appeal of the high concept: You can package it in a phrase or a single striking image. And no story is better suited to high-concept treatment than alternate history. Suppose that Charles Babbage had actually completed his Difference Engine and unleashed the Information Age on pre-Victorian England--as a Hollywood producer would say, That's high concept.

Writers of alternate history would bristle at the suggestion that they conceive their novels around the envisioned cover designs. But it is fair to suggest that the vivid, compressed, and electrically intense experience--the preview that gives you a speeded-up miniature of the entire movie, the three-minute drama on MTV--is popular today for the same reasons alternate history is popular: They offer not moments recollected in tranquility, but a rush.

BUT THERE'S MORE to the success of alternate history, for it is also a surprisingly adaptable genre. A children's book can be alternate history, and so can a mystery, or a spy novel, or even a romance. Jasper Fforde's The Eyre Affair is plainly alternate history--the setting is a 1985 in which the Crimean War has raged for 130 years--but it is also a detective novel, and a fantasy as well (the protagonist must investigate the kidnapping of Jane Eyre from the confines of her novel).

The loss of literature's sense of high mission has also helped alternate history. The novel has been wriggling free of its old moral prescriptions for the past hundred years, and cultural critics still willing to judge literature by how well it embodies Matthew Arnold's "grandeur of spirit" or F.R. Leavis's "maturity" are a dwindling rear guard. Once you accept that alternate history is not merely moral laxness about getting the facts right, you can enjoy the imaginative freedom it affords. One problem in reading, say, Frederick Forsyth's 1971 The Day of the Jackal (a thriller about an assassin stalking Charles De Gaulle) is that you know how it has to end. In alternate history, you don't.

And who will deny that a vision of mechanical computers, unwieldy but still revolutionary, spreading across pre-Victorian England and disrupting its social institutions, can be imaginatively exciting?

AND YET, alternate history--not simply a narrative set in a contemporary world that contains some fantastical element, like the hidden magical community in Harry Potter or the sorcerous nineteenth century of Susanna Clarke's just-published Jonathan Strange and Mr. Morrell, but one in which some crucial past event happened differently and subsequent history carved a different course--has an appeal that is not always pretty.

Most alternate histories are tales of battles with new endings, and there is something disturbing in the multivolume alternate history (a recent development, now immensely popular) that allows Civil War strategists and World War II buffs to follow extended variations of their favorite campaigns. Alternate history's emphasis on replaying the outcomes of wars--almost invariably the coffee-table favorites--seems to take the history of armed conflict, that inexpungeable mural of human misery, and reduce it to something like a board game.

The scenario known as "Hitler Wins" was sufficiently well established to have its own entry in the 1992 edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, where editor John Clute could write that "Half a century after WWII, new Hitler-wins stories are less common." Within a few years, Clute's statement was no longer true, and recent years have seen an upsurge of stories about the Nazi triumph--as well as stories in which Nazism never arose, but something enticingly like it did, only worse.

Presumably those who relish such stories do not actually wish to see the political developments they enjoy reading about, just as those who love violent computer games are not usually sociopaths. But the readiness of alternate history to purvey straightforward wish-fulfillment is one of its abiding features, and it is evident when the genre presents a less morbid and more patriotic cast.

The Final Countdown balked at facing its implications and becoming alternate history, but it did pause to savor one of the genre's characteristic pleasures: the reflection that United States brain and firepower could do some serious conquering if granted access to the past. I don't understand how contemplation of this thesis--at once inarguable and fatuous--can gratify so many readers, but the books are on the bookstore shelves, fat volumes with sequels beside them, often with covers showing anachronistic battle scenes in which an American flag is prominent.

Harry Turtledove followed up the success of The Guns of the South with a pair of astonishingly protracted alternate-history series, one about a Southern victory in the Civil War (which leads in later decades to further wars, each accorded its own trilogy) and a Hitler-wins variant in which World War II is interrupted in 1942 by an invasion of--I'm sorry to say--aliens from outer space, a race of regimented and bureaucratically hidebound reptiles. The militarily powerful but rather obtuse lizards force the warring humans into an alliance that allows the Nazis to survive for decades as repeated man-vs.-alien battles are played out. Projected to run to eight volumes (seven have so far appeared), this preposterous series avoids being offensive only by its silliness.

When a story of mine, published in one of Resnick's anthologies, was nominated for an award, I composed a few paragraphs in which I lamented the genre's "morally objectionable nature," which ended up annoying several colleagues. For its proponents, alternate history offers the opportunity to conduct "thought experiments" concerning human nature and the workings of history. But such a high-minded enterprise doesn't really describe tales of giant lizards interrupting World War II, or modern cities being flung by comic mishap into the seventeenth century to change the course of the Thirty Years' War (another popular series, devised by Eric Flint and currently being elaborated by several writers).

In any event, both genre and mainstream publishers continue to invest in alternate history. Today's mail brought a copy of Harry Turtledove's Settling Accounts: Return Engagement, 623 pages of detailed alternate history, the eighth volume of a ten-book series about eighty years of Yankee-Confederate warfare. And earlier this month came The Rebel by Jack Dann, subtitled "An Imagined Life of James Dean," in which the famous actor survives his car crash and lives through the 1960s, getting involved with Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, and other prominent figures of the time (an abiding interest of alternate history is to portray famous people encountering and reencountering each other even when the events that made them famous have been radically altered). While much alternate history is still produced by authors of military science fiction--writers whose response to the word "postmodern" is a growl--The Rebel caters to liberal pieties: James Dean exorcises his demons and discovers his social conscience, defeats Reagan to become governor of California in 1966, and two years later dies saving Bobby Kennedy.

ALL OF THIS is not to say there aren't some good works out there--although the finest alternate history novel I have read in the past dozen years, Christopher Priest's The Separation, has not yet found a publisher in America, and another remarkable one, Martin J. Gidron's The Severed Wing, was published only by a small university press. Some of the short stories in the genre are particularly enjoyable.

Steven Utley and Howard Waldrop's 1976 novelette "Custer's Last Jump," for example, retells the Battle of Little Big Horn, when Crazy Horse's Krupp-built monoplanes destroyed the dirigibles that carried General Custer's 7th Cavalry and 505th Balloon Infantry. "Custer's Last Jump" contains most of the genre's subsequent signature characteristics--the gonzo conceit, the tells-it-all title, the famous personages (among the narrative sources are interview notes from Mark Twain's unwritten Huckleberry Among the Hostiles)--and may well be responsible for many of them. It nonetheless manages, in its odd juxtaposition of high spirits, funhouse-mirror reflection of American history, and a haunting summoning of almost-real voices, to turn a clever notion into something strange and finally moving.

The tension between imaginative free play and the moral imagination comes sharply into focus in the compressed and ebullient "Mozart in Mirrorshades" by Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner, which vividly dramatizes a mid-1770s Europe that has been colonized by a time-traveling future intent on exploiting its oil resources. While troubled plant managers fret over the civilization whose natural resources and cultural treasures they are looting, the teenaged Mozart--resplendent in buzz cut and silvered sunglasses, entranced by twenty-first-century technology and not particularly interested in composing symphonies he can hear on tape anyway--ecstatically embraces the future world. The story offers all the glitz and dissonance of alternate history, but without the peepshow voyeurism.

In many respects Sterling and Shiner's story presages The Difference Engine, the celebrated novel that Sterling wrote with William Gibson (yes, science-fiction writers collaborate a lot--they're as bad as minor Elizabethan playwrights) that dramatizes Babbage's exhilarating yet sinister revolution. It is a novel that takes every imaginative gaud, holds it up for our enjoyment, and then shows us the cost that it brings. It is a far cry from the moral disingenuousness of so much alternate history, in which one scene of outlandish bloodletting leads merely to another.

If there is something troubling about the current vogue for alternate history, it does not lie exactly in the form itself or with any specific subject matter. But its defining tropes and conventions are the occasion for readers to retell to themselves their own favored stories, reinforcing personal narratives rather than finding in a text something new. The ethical imperatives of reading cannot be itemized, but one of them is certainly the obligation to acknowledge the real world that--in however complex and mediated a manner--profoundly informs even the most fantastical text. Alternate history, for all its pleasures, invariably brings with it the temptation to do otherwise.

Gregory Feeley is a widely published science-fiction author and critic.