What if you could alter one event in history, whether in your personal life or your nation, leading to an entirely different outcome? Though the stuff of science fiction, it has also become the serious genre of alternative history. I must confess a certain love for books of this nature, whether it was If the South had won the Civil War, by McKinley Cantor, (which was one of the first of its kind), or the more recent Dominion by British writer C.J. Sansom. (a powerful novel with Germany having won the Second World War and occupied England). Or the What if? series edited by Robert Cowley.
In the book pictured, Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History, historian of the Third Reich Richard J. Evans gives an excellent overview of the history of alternative history, critiquing it yet betraying his own fascination with the different methods and results that can lead to not only entertainment for the readers, but also to serious analysis of historical alternatives. I was afraid at first to read this book, as I did not want it to put me off the genre. But instead it actually sharpened my desire to continue to read into the various ways this kind of writing is done, increasing my sensitivity to the nuances expressed in each one.
Recently I’ve been watching a series on Amazon Prime called The Man in the High Castle. Based on a novel of the same name by my favorite Sci-fi writer after Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, it portrays a world in the early 1960’s where the United States had been defeated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in 1945. They then proceeded to divide up the country into two halves with a neutral zone in between. This is a richly presented alternative history in every way, and if you are interested in these sorts of things, you should not miss it! It is highly suspenseful, and if you’ve read the novel you already know the twists that will happen.
Of course we do not want to spend all our time imagining a different past. This can lead us to a lack of contentment in the present, wishing somehow things were different. Or it can cause us to endless speculation on how the future could be different, if only. But the strength of this kind of writing, or visual presentations, is not only in its entertainment possibilities, but also to get us to think or feel a different way about history.
I teach very often on history, and it is a rare audience that has not found their history teaching in school boring at best. Somehow the way history was taught, perhaps as endless facts or timelines, did not awaken an interest or passion in the majority of people. I have written before of two different history teachers in my schooling experience. One taught us with overhead slides and countless facts and dates that we had to memorize for the exams. But the other history teacher, fortunately my first, taught us with story and great passion and imagination. He awakened my love for history, its battles and different roads taken.
The potential of alternative history is that it can help awaken this imagination. It is not meant to be, and should not be, the sum total of serious historical research. But for many it can be a way of creating a path from science fiction and fantasy into a life long interest in history, as it was in my life. Perhaps a reason for this is that at its foundation, history is all about story. And to be able to imagine a different part of a story, and how that can affect an outcome, intrigues most of us. We may not be trained historians, but we love a good story!
For those of you that found your schooling in history boring, and still shy away from the subject, I encourage you to try out alternate history. It may open up your imagination to new places, new twists, new outcomes. And the next time I see you, you may just be reading a history of your own nation or another!!