For anyone who enjoys reading history, the "what ifs" of history can be just as interesting as what actually happened. What would have happened if the other side had won the battle, or the other party had won the election, or this significant person had died at the wrong moment? Historians have contributed to these speculations, including several collections of essays in the What If? series edited by Robert Cowley. Among the scenarios explored here are what if American had lost the Revolution and what if JFK had lived?
But historians can’t really compete with the imaginations of fiction writers who have created the popular genre of alternate history, found somewhere on the borders of science fiction and fantasy. Alternate histories are almost always dystopian, perhaps because it’s a lot more fun to write about dystopias rather than utopias. Where’s the conflict and possibilities for plot if everyone is happy, holding hands, and singing kumbaya? So when authors look to history for inspiration, they look for pivotal moments when everything could have gone wrong.
No wonder then that Hitler winning World War II is frequently the starting point for novels of alternate history. Classics of this subgenre include Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (recently made into a TV series) and Fatherland by Robert Harris. Another key moment is the Spanish Armada in 1588. Harry Turtledove, indefatigable author of dozens of alternate history books with themes as diverse as the South winning the Civil War and the Soviet Union winning the Cold War, goes Elizabethan in Ruled Britannia. The Spanish Armada is victorious and the English resistance movement tasks William Shakespeare with writing a play to foment rebellion.
The most persuasive alternate history novels rest on some kernel of fact, making them more plausible, and more terrifying. This could so easily have happened, we think. The actual historical existence of a group of aristocratic British fascists makes Jo Walton’s brilliant Small Change trilogy all the more powerful. Farthing starts out as seemingly a traditional English country house murder mystery, but with one chilling difference. A Star of David is pinned to the victim’s body. In this alternate 1940’s England, a group of fascist sympathizers known as the Farthing Set gain control of the government and make peace with Hitler. England becomes a fascist state of identity cards, expulsion of foreigners, and persecution of Jews and gays. The two other novels in the series, Ha’Penny and Half a Crown, follow the rise of an underground resistance movement.
Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America rests on the historical fact of Charles Lindbergh’s fascist sympathies and involvement with the America First movement. In Roth’s alternate America Lindbergh runs against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. His star status as an aviation hero and sympathy over the kidnapping and murder of his son make him a compelling candidate. He successfully whips up isolationist fears and wins. Roth uses the actual text of Lindbergh’s speech in which he accused the British and the Jews of conspiring to force America into war. The Lindbergh administration makes peace with Hitler and enacts laws limiting freedom of religion, which eventually lead to pogroms. Told from the perspective of an ordinary Jewish family living in New Jersey, the novel is a chilling and all too plausible portrait of an America that might have been.
For more alternate history reading suggestions check out these lists:
A list of over 3,300 novels, stories, and essays