Past Tense

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The victory is shocking in part because the wicked rarely prevail in popular fiction but also because Stirling’s Americans are a rather more attractive lot than the Americans of our history: Facing unabashed ideological racists, they are fervently antiracist; facing libertines and hedonists, they are sober, decent, and disciplined. Yet they are finally crushed and enslaved. Stirling’s Draka, drawn more from Tory Tidewater and harsh Piedmont than from Puritan and Whiggish New England or the Free-Soil Midwest, are a dark twin of our history’s Americans. They are in fact an Anti-America, a settler democracy and frontier society possessed of some of America’s historical virtues and many of its evils. Their social order, antithetical to all the political logic of modernity, must enslave all or be utterly destroyed. The trilogy is superb, an improbably fascinating achievement of what is dismissively called genre fiction. Its literary quality may be mixed, but at its heart is something very interesting indeed.

Very good alternate history can also be written as a sort of extended subversive joke. Kim Newman and Eugene Byrne’s Back in the U.S.S.A. imagines a Communist revolution in 1917 America while czarist Russia simultaneously achieves stabilizing constitutional reform. Back in the U.S.S.A. is hardly credible on the order of Stirling or Louvish, but it is often ingenious, sometimes very witty, and always diverting.

Few things date faster than visions of futurity, with the possible exception of “advanced” ideas; both betray their period origins as surely as does faked art. Confident eras tend to project a future that seems a logical extrapolation of their comfortable present: The Superman comics of the 1950s featured “aircars” that looked exactly like rocket-propelled Cadillacs, Victorian futures were steam-driven, 1950s American ones were happily nuclear-powered, and the bleakness of contemporary cyberpunk fiction is inscribed on silicon. We can learn a lot about the past—and the present—by investigating its imagined futures.

Some alternate histories will be flights from a future that looks grimly overdetermined, but others will flow from a broadening realization that the seductive logic of historical determinism was only a secularized version of the Enlightenment’s Providence. And some of the tales we find most enthralling will appear dull or grossly improbable to posterity. Stirling and Louvish are the best alternate history written for us because the history they imagine is eerily linked to the one we have suffered. It will not always be so, but no matter: Read them now.