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A few days ago I said I was going to do something further on Hard SF to follow up on my posts of a few days ago. Well, I’m several hundred words into it, but it looks like it might end up being longer than originally imagined, so it might be another few days before it appears. So I started casting around for another reprint to appear here and happened upon this essay about alternate history. It is clearly something I wrote, but I have no memory of writing it, I have no idea who I might have written it for, and I have no record of whether it was actually published anywhere.

‘Give me one firm spot on which to stand,’ Archimedes once wrote, ‘and I will move the earth.’ The spot necessary for those who would change our past, and our present, is one not-so-firm moment in history when things might have gone either way. Such a turning point is the first requirement for anyone who would essay an alternate history, and there are plenty of them. History is remarkably fluid, and very few of the certainties which made the world turn out the way we know it are as sure as all that. Rumour has it that whenever military colleges carry out wargaming exercises that refight the Battle of Waterloo, they invariably end up with Napoleon winning.

Of course, the starting point that can set an alternate history on its way does not have to be a battle. In his new novel, The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines that the Black Death was even more devastating than in reality and wiped out the population of Europe. In Pasquale’s Angel Paul McAuley has Leonardo da Vinci kick off the Industrial Revolution three hundred years early. And in the linked stories, collected as Agent of Byzantium, that first made his name as a writer of alternate histories, Harry Turtledove imagined that Mohammed became a Christian saint.

Nevertheless, the turning point that most alternate historians choose is war or revolution. These are treacherous times: a lucky shot, a slight delay, a mislaid order, a misunderstood report can all affect the outcome not just of one battle but of an entire war, and therefore all that might flow from its result. ‘For want of a nail,’ the old rhyme has it, ‘the battle was lost’, and alternate histories are all about the want of that nail. Sometimes that nail can be the loss of an important leader at a vital moment: Keith Roberts, in Pavane, has Queen Elizabeth assassinated just before the Spanish Armada sails; MacKinley Kantor, in If the South had Won the Civil War, has General Grant thrown from his horse and killed at a crucial point in his Vicksburg campaign; in The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick has Franklin Roosevelt assassinated in 1933. More often it’s a change of fortune on the field of battle. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry actually does foment the slave rebellion he dreamed of, as Terry Bisson describes it in A Fire on the Mountain; the Nazi high command heeds a premonition and does not invade Russia in 1941 in Hilary Bailey’s ‘The Fall of Frenchy Steiner’; and vital orders are not lost on the eve of Antietam in Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain.

But there is another reason why so many alternate historians choose war or rebellion as their turning point. Alternate history needs more than just a twist in time; it needs something to depend upon that twist. There have to be consequences spinning out from that moment of change so that in some significant way the resultant world is different from the one we know. What is the point of finding a dramatic turning point, only for it to make no difference whatsoever? That is why, if you go to something like the Uchronia web site (www.uchronia.net) and look at their Points of Divergence (the term they use for what I call, more simply, turning points) you will see huge clusters around certain key dates, notably the 1860s and the 1940s. The American Civil War and the Second World War are gifts to the alternate historian, not just because they are stuffed with appropriate turning points (look closely at the Battle of Gettysburg, for instance, and you will find at least a dozen points during those three crucial days when the outcome could easily have gone the other way), but also because the consequences of a change in history are so great. Upon the Civil War hinged the unity of the United States (with all that implied for its future international wealth and power), and the fate of the slaves, a moral issue that still has repercussions today. Upon the Second World War hinged the independence of most of the countries that make up Europe (with all that implies for our current well-being), and the fate of the Jews, a moral issue of unimaginable importance. In other words, one horseshoe nail lost during either of those wars could totally overturn everything we take for granted in the world around us, and all the moral certainties we possess.

The way that alternate history highlights the fragility of the past and the spectacular consequences that might result from a very small change has always fascinated historians. That is why so many of them have experimented with the sub-genre, from the contributors to J.C. Squire’s If It Had Happened Otherwise in 1931 (G.M. Trevelyan, A.J.P. Taylor, Winston Churchill) via William L. Shirer’s ‘If Hitler had Won World War II’ to the contributors to Robert Cowley’s What If? in 1999 (John Keegan, David McCullough, James M. McPherson). Though it has to be said, few enough of them have been able to turn their speculations into compelling narratives. Of course, you don’t need to be an historian to find a simple, significant turning point and examine the consequences that have flowed from it. Terry Bisson, after all, wrote a biography of the slave rebel Nat Turner, while MacKinley Kantor researched the Civil War for decades, resulting in the award-winning novels Long Remember and Andersonville, before he turned to the alternate historical speculation of If the South had Won the Civil War. But this is where Harry Turtledove wins out, for he is an historian with a great storytelling ability, a combination of talents which, if not exactly unique, has at least made him pre-eminent in the field of alternate history.

His PhD was in Byzantine history, an area of expertise that comes out in his first venture into alternate history, Agent of Byzantium, and also provides the setting for his excellent straight historical novel, Justinian, published under the not exactly opaque pseudonym of H.N. Turteltaub. In collaboration with the actor Richard Dreyfuss he has also played with the American Revolution as a turning point in The Two Georges. The second edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says of Turtledove: he ‘has never failed to be exuberant when he sees the chance’, and this light-hearted book which makes fun of technology and historical figures while keeping up a fast-paced mystery plot illustrates the point precisely. Other than this, though, most of his attention has been focused on rewriting the last 150 years, particularly those two great nodes of alternate historical speculation, the Civil War and the Second World War. The resultant string of novels – The Guns of the South, How Few Remain, the four Worldwar novels, the three Colonisation, the three Great War and now the beginning of a new sequence, American Empire: Blood and Iron – have revealed both strengths and weaknesses in Turtledove’s approach to alternate history. The weaknesses include a tendency to use ahistorical turning points – time-travelling Afrikaaners, alien invaders – and a perhaps overly exuberant love of teasing out the consequences of change to the extent that seven novels have so far been needed to consider the effects of an alien invasion in World War II; five, with more to come, to consider the effects of a Confederate victory in the Civil War. His strength is the way Turtledove can use such apparent weaknesses to his own advantage.

The 1993 edition of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction concluded its entry on Harry Turtledove by saying: ‘he has not yet written any single book that has unduly stretched his very considerable intellect.’ But the year before, in 1992, he had done just that with the publication of The Guns of the South. It is a novel which shows, at every juncture, it was written by an historian. There is the precisely chosen moment of change, the eve of Grant’s Virginia campaign in early 1864 when the Confederacy had no realistic hope of victory, but when the judicious introduction of a new weapon – the AK47s provided by our time-travelling Afrikaaners – could still turn the tables. There’s an historian’s sensibility obvious in the first small but notable effect of these weapons, which lies not in their killing power but in their lack of sparks. One of the most horrific incidents in the war occurred during the Battle of the Wilderness, the first battle in the Virginia Campaign and Lee’s first opportunity to put the AK47s to use. It was fought in dense, tinder-dry woodland that was set alight by sparks from the muskets in use at the time. In the night, after the first day of fighting, wounded soldiers between the lines were burned to death by the fire. With the AK47 contributing no sparks, in this history there is no fire.

The point of any alternate history is not the moment or nature of the change; that’s a matter for more academically-minded counterfactuals. The point is what happens after the change. If the two issues that make the Civil War such an obvious choice for the alternate historian are the disunity of the States and the moral dilemma of slavery, then one really must examine how authors have dealt with these issues. Turtledove’s distinguished predecessors in the field have tended mostly to focus on the issue of disunity. Winston Churchill, in ‘If Lee had not Won at Gettysburg’, imagines a divided America which does not dominate the world stage. His curious essay-story is actually very little about the effects upon America, but rather how British political history is changed: the great Tory Prime Minister Disraeli becomes a leader of the radicals, the great radical Gladstone becomes the leader of the Conservatives. Ward Moore, in Bring the Jubilee, imagines an impoverished North until his hero travels in time and effectively puts history right. MacKinley Kantor imagines North and South being gradually drawn back together through their involvement in world events, until on the centenary of the war they are reunited. Turtledove is the only alternate historian of any note to focus on the South after the war, and in so doing makes the issue of slavery, or rather of black emancipation, the central issue of his book. This is emphasised by the device which puts his plot into motion: the Afrikaaners have travelled back in time to establish a state in which blacks continue to be subservient. Once the war is over, therefore, the drama centres upon the struggle between the White Supremacists, the Afrikaaners and their ally Nathan Bedford Forrest (the genius of the Confederate cavalry who, in our history, went on to found the Ku Klux Klan), and Lee, inevitably swept into the Confederate presidency, and his allies who are trying to create a modern and viable Confederate state. Churchill had Lee free the slaves, and so does Turtledove. Again this is the mark of an historian: the real Robert E. Lee freed his family slaves, was never more than ambivalent about the institution, and late in the war incurred the wrath of his political masters by suggesting that slaves be freed in order to recruit blacks into the Confederate army.

(For further evidence that this is the work of a serious historian fully engaged with his period, just turn to the back of the book where you will find a detailed, state-by-state breakdown of the popular and electoral college votes in the first post-war presidential elections North and South. The figures are plausibly extrapolated from actual voting patterns before, during and after the war, and provide the sort of detail only an historian would think to provide.)

The exuberance that the Encyclopedia spoke of might also be termed playfulness. Even in so serious and powerful a work as The Guns of the South there is an element of play, the sense of an historian having fun with the idea of turning events on their head. One such incidental pleasure in the novel is the role played by Henry Pleasants. In our history Pleasants devised a plan to tunnel under the Confederate lines at Petersburg and set off a bomb. It was a brilliant idea, spoiled by the execution. The Union officer charged with leading his men through the breech in the Confederate lines spent the entire incident drunk under a table. His men were untried coloured troops who were not told to go around the crater rather than into it, and were not equipped with any means of getting out of the hole once they were in there. The fight, known as the Crater, was a fiasco. But, of course, it happened after the point at which Turtledove’s history changes and is unknown to the participants in that story, until Lee discovers a history of the war brought by the Afrikaaners. He and Pleasants are then able to replicate the Crater, successfully this time, at a crucial point in the plot. It is this sort of resonance between the alternate history and our history that is one of the chief joys of this sort of novel if it is done well. Turtledove tends to do it well.

Turtledove’s examinations of history have always tended to concentrate on character, and I suspect that one of the things he likes doing most in his novels is looking at how real people might have behaved in very different circumstances. The Worldwar books, for instance, use the character of Skorzeny in much the same way Pleasants was used in The Guns of the South. In our history, Skorzeny was the dashing hero of the Nazi cause responsible for a succession of daring exploits such as the rescue of a recently-deposed Mussolini from jail in 1943. In this alternate history he is equally dashing, equally devoted to the Nazi cause, but here his exploits are subtly transposed into attacks upon the alien lizards.

I make no great claims for the Worldwar sequence; I think it is an example of Turtledove’s natural exuberance winning out over the more sober historian. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a romp. Turtledove loads the dice shamelessly: the aliens expect human technology to be no further advanced than Roman times and are constantly astonished by human ability to adapt to rapid change. They are further hampered by the climate (Earth is far colder than their worlds) and by a suddenly discovered addiction to ginger. Turtledove even makes his invaders the archetypal green scaly monsters. The British publisher, depicting these aliens fairly faithfully on the covers, created the sort of garish work that sensitive souls might once have wrapped in brown paper rather than be seen in public with such books. And Worldwar is a garish sort of work. It is not meant to be taken seriously. At least, I hope it isn’t. But having chucked a bloody great rock into the pool of history, Turtledove then watches the ripples with careful attention. And along the way there are innumerable incidental delights for the historically minded. The distrustful relationship between the Soviet government and the Nazi high command is beautifully judged. The decision of Polish Jews to work with the aliens against the Germans is shockingly perceptive. The casual anti-Semitism experienced by a Jew in the British army is disturbing because it rings so true. It’s almost jokily done, but again Turtledove tackles the great moral dimensions highlighted by this change in history.

This curiosity about what might have changed and what might have stayed the same is, I think, the driving force behind all of Turtledove’s work. It can lead him, as I think it has done in Colonization, the sequel to Worldwar, into something not much different from militaristic soap opera. But it can also lead him into glorious perceptions of the nature of history and of historical characters. That is what you find in Turtledove’s return to the Civil War, How Few Remain. This is a genuine alternate history with no trace of time travel, his turning point is an historians’ delight, one of those curious incidents that chroniclers of the war love to recount. In the days preceding the battle of Antietam, a couple of Union soldiers found three cigars in a field. The cigars were wrapped in an order issued by Lee which described in detail how he had divided up his army. History does not record what happened to the cigars, but the orders went straight to General McClellan. McClellan was, at this time, the ranking field commander in the Union army, but he had a propensity for finding any excuse to avoid action. A few months before, during the series of battles known as the Seven Days, he had won all but one of the battles, but he had still retreated until he comprehensively lost the campaign. Now, for the first time in his career, he had detailed and accurate knowledge of the disposition of the enemy troops. He still delayed long enough for the Battle of Antietam to be, in strictly military terms, a draw, but Lee was forced to withdraw from the field so Lincoln could claim the victory and issue the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the nature of the war. So those cigars made a very big difference. Turtledove imagines they were never lost.

As I said before, there’s no point in writing an alternate history of the Civil War if the South doesn’t win; it’s what comes after that matters. This time, Turtledove has North and South going to war once more in the 1880s. Again, there are the touches, the insights that only come from an historian’s perspective. We have, for instance, a hyperactive Teddy Roosevelt getting into cavalry charges twenty years before San Juan Hill. More interestingly and intriguingly we have Lincoln, escaping assassination in this history, touring the West delivering lectures that are all but communist in tone, though what he says is largely and cleverly derived from what he actually said in life. Despite such wonderful moments, however, How Few Remain is not a great success as a novel, largely because it is simply there to provide a point of transition leading up to his next (and current) sequence of novels which portray an alternate First World War. But there are good reasons for a historian to provide such a point of transition.

If you have ever wondered why we are positively overburdened with alternate civil wars and visions of Hitler winning World War Two, while there are virtually no alternate versions of the First World War, the answer is twofold. In the first place, apart from a couple of possible moments during the Germans’ headlong dash towards Paris in the first days of war, the Great War is not over-endowed with turning points. There just aren’t the possibilities for tweaking events enough to make a difference. Secondly, changing the course of the war wouldn’t necessarily have had a great dramatic effect anyway. Unlike the prospects of slavery continuing or concentration camps proliferating, no great evil was defeated by the First World War, there was no huge moral dimension hanging over the static network of trenches and wasted lives. So the alternate historian is lacking the two most basic tools at his command: a place to make a change, and a difference to make. Looking back half a century gives Turtledove his necessary turning point; it also gives his novels their point: with North and South on opposite sides, he gives the First World War a chance to have a greater effect upon the character of the world. And now, carrying the story forward with American Empire, he begins to add a moral dimension to the mix: in this post-war world of the 1920s America is not a land of flappers and Hollywood, but rather of socialism in the North, fascism in the South.

In The Guns of the South we have one of the finest alternate histories yet written. That achievement alone would be enough to make any author worthy of serious attention. But if Harry Turtledove’s subsequent alternate histories have tended to be more exuberant, they have never shirked the serious moral questions that are raised whenever anyone tries to change the world. It is not given to everyone to be able to produce novels that are so briskly readable yet which are able to contain within them nuggets of genuine and often disturbing thoughtfulness.