I am reading Adam Roberts’s essay in the new critical collection Sideways in Time, which is giving me pause for an awful lot of thought. I don’t always agree with him: I tend to view Nova Solyma by Samuel Gott as the first book-length fiction specifically set in the future rather than a form of alternate history. But mostly I do agree. Two things that particularly caught my eye were his central thesis – that science fiction tends, perhaps unthinkingly, to go with the great-man theory of history rather than what he terms the Tolstoyan approach which views history more democratically as a mass of things happening independently that together shape the world – and a casual aside, that the vast majority of alternate histories concern either the American Civil War or Hitler winning the Second World War. Now I knew this, of course, but seeing it in the context of the great man theory made me consider it in a slightly different light.
Now I know quite a lot about Civil War alternate histories; I’ve even written about it, for instance in my essay “The North-South Continuum” in What it is we do when we read Science Fiction. Most of these fictions are written by what we would now call history geeks. The civil war really was a period of happenstance, and the more you read about it the more chance events you come across where things really could have gone either way. The union really did stop a British ship in international waters in order to seize two Confederate agents, prompting Britain to send troops to Canada and almost turning it into an international war. Some union soldiers really did find three cigars wrapped in the Confederate battle plan on the eve of Antietam. On the second day at Gettysburg, Longstreet’s troops really did take an unusually circuitous route as they marched to flank the union line; and the 20th Maine really did get into position on Little Round Top only minutes before Longstreet’s troops began their delayed attack. There are probably incidents like this in any war, but they seem particularly prevalent in the Civil War. Given the moral weight of that war, the issues of slavery, freedom, the soul of America, it is tempting for anyone reading the history of the war to wonder what if they hadn’t found the cigars or Longstreet had taken a more direct route. Which is why most civil war alternate histories tend to focus on the hinge point. The moral consequences are huge and obvious, so it is less a question of what would result than of how it got there.
In Roberts’s terms, I tend to see these as more Tolstoyan, in that one small ordinary thing that is rarely the responsibility of any individual has a knock on effect on all the other things going on around it, until the tumbling dominoes result in some great moral change. Or maybe we should consider that the sergeant who found the cigars was a Great Man without him realising it, and what this theory is really saying is that one small incident is enough to transform history. Thus the Tolstoyan view would suggest that there can be no one identifiable hinge point, that one incident cannot effect that big a change. We can have this argument precisely because the focus of so much civil war alternate history is on the hinge point.
But Hitler Wins alternate histories seem to me, on reflection, to be a very different thing.
Okay, there are instances where we know the turning point. In “Weinachtsabend” by Keith Roberts and Farthing by Jo Walton, Hitler didn’t win but rather the appeasement party in Britain retained power. In one of my favourite novels in this genre, Resistance by Owen Sheers, Operation Sealion was successful. But these are exceptions. In The Sound of his Horn by Sarban and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick or “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” by Hilary Bailey or SS-GB by Len Deighton, or any of a host of others, we don’t really know, or care, how Hitler won. In these stories, what matters is consequence not cause.
These consequences are, of course, as huge and moral as in the civil war stories, but there is a difference between white men considering the survival of black slavery which they can decry from a distance, and white men considering the moral corruption of Nazism and considering how they might be complicit or in peril. Among the best of the civil war alternate histories, for example, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is more about the economic decline of the North than the fate of the blacks; while Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South suggests that when it comes to it slaveholding southerners are morally superior the white South Africans. How we got to that point is therefore more important than what it is like to be at that point. On the other hand, Hitler wins stories, such as “Weinachtsabend” and SS-GB are concerned with how easily the protagonist could become like their Nazi masters. Here the consequence is far more important than how we got to that point. So the hinge point in Hitler wins stories is largely irrelevant.
And it is precisely because the hinge point doesn’t matter that these are undeniably Great Man stories. By this I don’t mean that an individual is responsible for changing history, or that one single event changes history; we just don’t know. But rather, that the whole focus of the history is upon one man, or more precisely upon one institution, the Nazi state. Hitler is not the great man of these stories, it is the state for whose moral failings Hitler stands as exemplar that is the great man, the single figure that shapes and turns history.