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Lee Defeats Grant
IN THE WORLD OF ALTERNATE HISTORY, IT ALL CAME OUT DIFFERENTLY—AND IN AN ERA WHEN REAL HISTORY IS TAKING SOME VERY STRANGE TURNS, THE GENRE IS FLOURISHING AS NEVER BEFORE
September 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 5
Like The Guns of the South, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubileeis a time-machine novel and meditation on the historical power of individuals versus impersonal forces. It takes place in 1952, when a system of indentured servitude, the industrial equivalent of sharecropping, has replaced slavery. The economies of both North and South are hobbled; social tension is extreme. The story culminates in actual time travel with the opportunity to reverse the course of events; it adds up to a graphic depiction of Lincoln’s warning that a failure to end slavery would undermine not only the South but the freedom of the workingman in the North as well.
Military history and technology dominate: Everything changes when the South gets repeating rifles or Hitler the bomb.
The Civil War and World War II are the dominant situations for alternate history, but there are many quirky premises, as I learned when I spent some time with the Uchronia Web page, which under the heading “Divergence” offers a chronological index of tales by their historical year of departure from reality. Uchronia provides a reminder that the stock-in-trade of alternate history is not the story but the premise: the what-if. Only the really big changes are intriguing enough. Who can stay awake at night wondering what would have happened if Hugh Gaitskell had lived to be elected prime minister of Great Britain in the 1960s? (There are of course such moments that do matter, such as the assassination attempt on FDR shortly before his first inauguration, in which Chicago’s mayor Anton Czermak was killed.) Uchronia seems to have been assembled by kids you knew in junior high school—those kids on the audio-visual committee who always knew how to set up the film projectors and who exchanged expertise about Sgt. Rock comics and the uniforms of the Afrika Korps.
The most impassioned devotees tend to be the sorts of people who revel in extremely detailed military games, with each artillery battery and quartermaster unit minutely replicated and maneuvered. The gamesmanship of premise building suggests the fanaticism of rotisserie-league baseball players, who make up their own imaginary rosters of real, statistically accurate players and face them off on the basis of those statistics, say, the 1927 Yankees against the 1961 Yankees. They also pit the Yanks against the Rebs with every unit and its complement of weapons added up. Since the pieces are familiar, the detail can often deliver. (American Heritage, it must be noted, lent its name and support to a 1995 CD-ROM simulation, The Civil War, in which the war can be refought with varying outcomes. This author remembers a 1960s board game that did much the same thing; it was called 1862 and took the premise that in that year anything was still possible.)
If alternate history often resembles a game, its roots lie in science fiction. It is almost always a kind of time-machine tale, whether a character or the author himself goes back and changes things. The difference from regular science fiction is that in this version the essential machinery is shuttled offstage, having already done the work in creating the premise. Military history dominates, with a strong bias in favor of technological determinism: Everything changes when the South gets repeating rifles or Hitler the bomb. But that makes history a mere matter of military procurement, with the change of weapons usually extreme. In the film The Final Countdown, the contemporary aircraft carrier USS Nimitz finds itself in the Pacific on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Some of the tales turn on more eloquent technological conceits. In the 1991 novel The Difference Engine, by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, who were among the first writers tagged with the label cyberpunk , the jokes are as much literary and historical as technological. In an England where the information age arrives a century early, via a steam-powered computer, John Keats is not a poet but a showman who creates protocinema using complex mechanical screens controlled by punch cards, a sort of pre-liquid-crystal display.
Harry Turtledove’s annoyingly named Worldwar series has a race of vicious lizards attack Earth from space during World War II, forcing the Allied and Axis powers to work out an alliance to fight the invaders. This premise recalls Ronald Reagan’s remark to Mikhail Gorbachev that we all would get along fine if a threat from another planet materialized. (Flying saucer fans latched on to that remark as a sign that Reagan knew more than he was saying about Roswell.) Again the execution is vital. Turtledove’s imagination is luckily far richer and deeper than his prose. As the nations unite to cooperate against the extraterrestrials, only the survivors of the Warsaw ghetto treat with the aliens; they have already seen that much inhumanity on Earth.