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Someone asked for more of my Cognitive Mapping columns, so here’s another one. In fact, this is the first one I wrote. It appeared in Vector 186 (December 1995). To be honest, I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the term ‘alternate history’, one cannot help feeling that grammatically it ought to be ‘alternative’, but usage means we are stuck with it. As a sub-genre, however, it is one of my favourites.

The quaint conceit of imagining what would have happened if some important or unimportant event had settled itself differently, has become so fashionable that I am encouraged to enter upon an absurd speculation. What would have happened if Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg? Once a great victory is won it dominates not only the future but the past. All the chains of consequence clink out as if they never could stop. The hopes that were shattered, the passions that were quelled, the sacrifices that were ineffectual are all swept out of the land of reality. Still it may amuse an idle hour, and perhaps serve as a corrective to undue complacency, if at this moment in the twentieth century – so rich in assurance and prosperity, so calm and buoyant – we meditate for a spell upon the debt we owe to those Confederate soldiers who by a deathless feat of arms broke the Union front at Gettysburg and laid open a fair future to the world.
“If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg” (1932)
The Right Honourable Winston S. Churchill, MP

The book is set now, more or less, and in this mythical world North America is an even greater centre of manufactures than it is in truth, but it still keeps Negroes and Indians in bondage as farmhands. The author is too ignorant to see how machines would take the place of slaves… “Scientific romance” my arse – no science and no romance to it that I can see: just someone who doesn’t write very well proving it at great length. A world that never could be, not in a thousand years.’ He let out a noise half snort, half guffaw. The book was too preposterous for words.
The Two Georges (1995)
Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove

It is curious to think of Sir Winston Churchill as one of the great founding fathers of science fiction, but it is possible to see him as creating the sub-genre of alternate history stories. Counter-historical speculation had long been popular with scholars, and in 1907 one of the most respected of English historians, G.M. Trevelyan published a popular counter-historical essay, “If Napoleon had Won the Battle of Waterloo”. It was this essay that, in 1931, prompted J.C. Squire to put together a collection of counter-historical speculations, If it had Happened Otherwise, which included contributions from G.K. Chesterton (“If Don John of Austria had Married Mary Queen of Scots”), Hilaire Belloc (“If Drouet’s Cart had Stuck”), Harold Nicolson (“If Byron had Become King of Greece”) and A.J.P. Taylor (“If Archduke Ferdinand had not Loved his Wife”) among others. But these were, for the most part, straightforward speculations about the ripples that might spread out if a slightly different rock were tossed into the pool of history. It was Churchill’s inspired additional twist, looking from the other world back at our own, which took the step of turning speculation into fiction.

Churchill also introduced one of the two themes that have most exercised practitioners of alternate history. The question, what would have happened if …?, is one of the most potent in our language, it is after all one of the basic questions that underlies the whole of science fiction. Counter-historical thought is obviously popular with historians because it tests the strength of the historical imperative, and since so much of what they study rests upon the changes which constitute the onward movement of our historical progress it is valuable to consider what value those pivotal moments actually hold by considering the possible alternatives. But the hinges of history are of no less interest for the rest of us, writers and readers, because we are precisely the people who would have been caught in what Churchill calls “the chains of consequence”. So it is natural that we should turn again and again to those moments when history might have changed most dramatically and which, because of their nearness to us, might have had the most drastic effect.

One such persistent theme has been, following on from Churchill, if the South won the American Civil War, which has featured in such works as Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee (1953), MacKinlay Kantor’s Look: If the South had Won the Civil War (1961) and Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South (1992). The other, even more persistent, has presented the consequences of the Axis winning World War Two, a concept that has been explored in works as varied as “If Hitler had Won World War II” (1961) by William L. Shirer, The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick, “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” (1964) by Hilary Bailey, “Weinachtsabend” (1972) by Keith Roberts, SS-GB (1978) by Len Deighton, Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris and Worldwar: In the Balance (1994) by Harry Turtledove.

Other writers have taken turning points further back in history. Harry Turtledove, a historian who has been prolific in his use of alternate history, has looked at what might have happened if Mohammed had become Christian (Agent of Byzantium, 1986); in “Wheels of If” (1940) L. Sprague De Camp sets his turning point as the Norse colonisation of America; Keith Roberts presented a world in which the Spanish Armada had been successful in Pavane (1968) and Kingsley Amis uses the similar scenario of the Catholic Church triumphant in The Alteration (1976); Harry Harrison considers a world in which America did not break away from the British Empire in A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! (1972), a situation to which Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove have returned in The Two Georges; and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling suggest a technological rather than a political or military turning point when they place the successful invention of computing a century earlier than it actually happened in The Difference Engine (1990). Alternate history has given writers the whole of history to play in, but it is still the more recent changes offered by the Civil War and the Second World War that consistently hold the greatest fascination. (Curiously, the First World War, a more brutal and in many ways more traumatic conflict, has rarely served as a counter-historical hinge.)

Alternate history is the branch of science fiction that gives the writer’s imagination fullest rein while requiring no pretence of scientific knowledge: both Pavane and The Two Georges, for example, hold nothing more technologically advanced than a steam engine. It is a form of science that leans on the liberal arts (history, philosophy) rather than the hard sciences; which may explain why it is the form that has proved most attractive to non-sf writers (Kantor, Shirer, Amis, as well as Vladimir Nabokov with Ada (1969) and Martin Cruz Smith with The Indians Won (1970)). Though this may also be because of the opportunities it offers for satire: since satire deliberately takes a skewed perspective on our world, and alternate history presents such a perspective as an integral part of its structure. Thus, ever since Churchill cast a sideways glance at a twentieth century “so rich in assurance and prosperity, so calm and buoyant”, writers of alternate history have traditionally looked outside the world of their creation to make us feel uneasy about the shape of our own. This often takes the form of an alternate history novel within the alternate history novel. The prime example of this is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel constructed using the I Ching in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. There are other examples, in Fire on the Mountain (1988) by Terry Bisson in which John Brown’s Raid was successful in creating a Black republic in what, in our history, would have been the Confederacy, novels present Abraham Lincoln as a hero rather than the villain he was known to be. And this technique is also seen in The Two Georges, in the “scientific romance” that the detective heroes come across in their investigations into the subversive Sons of Liberty who want to make America free from British rule.

More than 60 years separates these two extracts. In any other branch of science fiction that would be a tremendous gap, widened by changes in knowledge and theory. But, though the many worlds theory derived from quantum mechanics has started to shift the edges of alternate history into alternate worlds, as in Lisa Tuttle’s Lost Futures (1992) or the ending of Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships (1995), alternate history itself has changed little. So long as history seems fragile and malleable, so long as its turning points are so clear, alternate history will continue to excite the thought experiments that are the very stuff of science fiction.