Originally published in Helix SF #2
If I've gotten one thing out of reading alternate history for the Sidewise Awards for the past eleven years, it is the strong desire not to have to read any more stories which deal with the American Civil War or World War II. Unfortunately, that wish is not to be granted, for authors continue to find these two points of departure of interest to both themselves and their readers in general.
There is a good reason for the popularity of these branch points. Both were major events in history whose general outlines will be known by the largest percentage of readers.
World War II is by far the most popular branch point throughout the world. The sheer scope of the conflict, raging on practically every continent, means that almost anyone, anywhere, can see how their lives might have been affected had things turned out differently, whether that involved a German victory in Europe, a Japanese victory in Oceania, or a world in which Britain made peace with Germany.
Of similar interest in the United States is the idea that the American Civil War might have ended differently. If you live in the United States, it is easy to understand how differently the nation's history might have gone if the Confederacy had successfully seceded from the Federal government, or what might have happened if the North had pursued a more vengeful policy than the Reconstruction it did follow.
The fact that these two historical events are so well known and readers can relate to them mean that authors have a strong tendency to gravitate towards them. Occasionally authors may be indulging in wish-fulfillment fantasies, but this isn't usually the case. Just as it is easier for readers to link into stories which come from these two points of divergence, it may appear to authors that basing a story on these periods is also easier than other, more obscure periods.
This isn't the case because of the awareness factor. Readers are aware of the Civil War and World War II and have their own preconceptions of the characters and events. Any author writing in those settings must overcome the readers' prejudices in order to depict the author's own version of Robert E. Lee or Heinrich Himmler rather than the notion the reader has of them.
At the same time, the general awareness of the point of divergence in the popular mind may well be the most important aspect of alternate history. Despite the fact that the story is about a world and history very different from our own, it starts with a point of familiarity.
It is much easier for the reader to get involved with a story if there is something familiar to latch on to. Furthermore, readers have knowledge of the period if it has a high awareness factor. This means that they can more easily see differences (or perceived differences) between what they know happened and what the author is writing. Just about anyone reading Brad Linaweaver's Moon of Ice (1988) will know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not impeached and Germany did not acquire nuclear weapons to win the war.
On the other hand, the different details of L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Heloise Letters," (2004) may bypass many of the story's readers, who will be aware that some things are different, but may not be able to put a finger on what, exactly has changed. The story of Abelard and Heloise, while reasonably well known, does not have the same awareness factor in the early twenty-first century as World War II or the Civil War.
There is also the question of how important the event is. Both the Civil War and World War II are very important to the way our present came to be. In his series beginning with How Few Remain (1998), Harry Turtledove explores in exquisite detail how the world changes based on a single point of divergence. The Civil War was important and the later books in Turtledove's series demonstrate how different the world would have been, even if history followed the same general history.
While it is certainly possible to write an alternate history around an historically unimportant event or individual, most fulfilling alternate histories do have earth-shaking events, creating a world reminiscent of our own, but different.
The use of an important person or turning point not only plays into the sense of awareness discussed above, but also gives the alternate history a sense of gravitas. Basing an alternate history on something important, or at least perceived as important, acts like the magical law of contagion and makes the events described by the author important as well.
Fortunately, good authors are always managing a fresh take on even the most clichéd idea. Just this year, Jo Walton published the alternate World War II novel Farthing (Tor, 2006). This is only the latest of some quality British alternate World War II novels that look at a more totalitarian Britain, including Murray Davies's Collaborator (MacMillan, 2003) and Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles (Aio, 2005).
Looking at the American Civil War, Gardner Dozois has offered the short story "Counterfactual" (F&SF, 6/06). A decade ago, Harry Turtledove took a similar look at the Civil War from a distance in "Must and Shall" (Asimov's, 11/95). At much longer length is a trilogy of books beginning with Gettysburg (2003), by Newt Gingrich and William Forstchen. Unlike Dozois or Turtledove, Gingrich and Forstchen focus on the war itself.
That isn't to say that authors can't, or haven't, taken minor events and made them into great alternate histories. In fact, some of my favorite alternate histories tend to play with more obscure points of divergence. This obscurity provides stories about King Alfred the Great ("A Letter from the Pope," by Harry Harrison & Tom Shippey, 1990), President Joseph McCarthy ("Five Guys Named Moe" by Sean Klein, 2004), or a Medieval Carthage (Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle, 2000).
Of course, one of the problems with exploring other areas (and avoiding eternal Roman empires and similar clichés) is that the author must spend time educating the reader not only in why the selected branch point is important, but also what happened originally. This can (and often does) lead to exposition of the "As you know Bob" variety which, even worse, would never actually be uttered by a person living in the world.
"As you know, Robertus, had that soldier who tried to kill Emperor Julian in Maranga in 363 succeeded, we would all be worshiping Jesus instead of Jupiter."
In this example, the reader at least has some idea about the background, even if they don't know the specifics of Julian's attempts to raise the old gods back to the pre-Christian prominence. If the author chooses to move away from Western tradition, the result might be a look at a world in which a rainstorm allowed the forces of Lebna Dengel to defeat Ahmad ibn Ibrihim al-Ghazi at Shimbra Kure.
A good story could be written from either of these points of divergence, but each would require the author to spend time, perhaps considerable time, giving the reader the necessary background to fully appreciate the story. Unfortunately, in most cases, the author has a limited amount of time to provide that background. If it isn't done early enough in the story, a reader might be completely lost in the strange world being presented. Provided too early and it will read like a textbook instead of fiction.
©2006, 2008 Argentus, Inc.