Past Tense


There are, of course, exceptions to this rough rule. In their recent The Two Georges, the actor Richard Dreyfuss and his collaborator, the very successful alternate-history writer Harry Turtledove, construct a “better” past in which the American Revolution never happened. In this improved America, slavery has been peacefully abolished by benevolent liberal British elites, popular racism is much muted (black Americans are a law-abiding, culturally conservative middle class), Richard Nixon is a much-detested used-car salesman, and only the bad guys—part of a terrorist, white-racist conspiracy—want an independent United States. While in real American history the paradoxes of the first and second Reconstructions have been intricate and sometimes harsh, the altered history of The Two Georges is one in which the American Dilemma is less painful: Slavery and its successor regimes have been effortlessly transcended, albeit at the price of democratic nationhood.

It is possible that for the authors our real history is too dispiriting; perhaps a past that must be revised is one that cannot be transcended. However, alternate histories are not necessarily inspired by dismay, as a look at some of the best of them shows, and while celebrity authorship has its charms, neither Newt Gingrich’s 1945 nor The Two Georges is among those best. What books are?

The more striking alternate histories are true novels, not prose descriptions of war games, and they rarely anatomize the point of divergence from our history. Some of the most interesting are meditations on the contingency of the history that produced our present. Over the last decade several have implicitly argued that the triumph of postwar American liberalism was by no means inevitable; they have done this simply by envisioning various very plausible pasts and the resulting presents. The best of these is the Anglo-Israeli novelist Simon Louvish’s The Resurrections, but at least as haunting is a trilogy by S. M. Stirling.

In The Resurrections Louvish imagines a history branching from ours when Hitler’s failed beerhall Putsch is followed by a successful Communist revolution in Germany and subsequently by Leon Trotsky’s victory over Stalin. Hitler and Goebbels flee to America, where the former becomes a nasty but essentially harmless isolationist senator from Illinois. In this universe World War II and its attendant catastrophes never happen, but with a meticulous logic Louvish produces a history very much uglier than ours. Mussolini’s is the most prominent fascist European regime; others prevail in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Spain, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria, pretty much where such regimes flourished in our history, but without a world war to sweep them away. Unweakened by a Second World War, the British Empire survives with a conscript army policing a score of brushfire insurgencies and joylessly keeping a precarious peace in its mandate in Palestine. But it is Louvish’s America, the scarred victor in a nuclear war with Japan, that most disturbs the reader. The uglier strains of 1920s and 1930s U.S. politics have produced a plausible political coalition of an isolationist Midwest and an anti-Semitic South. The most toxic American racial and ethnic politics flourish, nothing having been discredited by an Auschwitz that never was. Louvish reminds us that postwar liberalism was to a degree Hitler’s creation, and without its midwife might never have been born.

Few things date faster than visions of futurity, but we can learn a lot about the past by investigating its imagined futures.

S. M. Stirling’s Draka trilogy— Marching Through Georgia, Under the Yoke, and The Stone Dogs —is the most absorbing and disturbing alternate history I have read. Stirling’s branching point is an American Revolution protracted by Britain’s having adopted Ferguson’s breech-loading rifles and culminating with the fall of Canada to the revolutionaries, with British Loyalists relocating in the South African colony recently seized from the Dutch and renamed Drakia (after Francis Drake). Stirling’s “Drakians,” later the Draka, are demographically reinforced by two great refugee waves, first French royalist émigrés and then defeated American Confederates, and are intellectually reinforced by a string of illiberal nineteenth-century refugees—Carlyle, Nietszche, and so forth. Conquering Africa over the course of the nineteenth century and then, in World War I, the Middle East, they are an aggressive, populist-racist slaveholding culture. Marching Through Georgia begins with their opportunistic intervention in World War II; Under the Yoke is set in Draka-occupied Western Europe during the early days of the Draka’s cold war with the United States; and The Stone Dogs follows that cold war to an eventual hot war and a shocking Draka victory.