I’ve been trying to figure out the appeal of alternate history as a literary genre. What spurred that? My wife got me a set of six books for Christmas — the TRIO written by R.A. Montgomery around 1990-1991. It imagines a world of 2015 in which the USA has collapsed and two smaller confederations of former states battle for supremacy (Jericho, eat your heart out.) There’s lots of intrigue, and of course, the protagonists are teens, which appeals to any eighth-grade boy in his right mind.
It’s actually an early example of the teen dystopian fiction craze we’re in right now, but I digress. Anyway, reading those books — added to the fact that I’m working on my own alternate history story — made me wonder about these kinds of novels.
One of the first alternate history books was a section of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, written around 27 BC. He wonders to his audience what would have happened to Rome if Alexander had taken his conquest west instead of east around the 300s BC. Could Rome have confronted Alexander’s empire and survived?
Over the next 2,000 years, literature is filled with scattered examples of writers who have asked that question: What if? From a reimagining of a Christendom that defeated the Ottoman empire in the 1400s, to a visualization of the Western world united under Napoleon’s rule. A popular theme that author Harry Turtledove has explored is What if the South Won the Civil War?, which others have explored but none so well as he, I contend.
I suspect the reason we like these stories so much is they embrace the heart of that essential question all writers tackle: What if?
That, and I suspect we all harbor a secret desire to reshape history the way we think it should have been.