Can history make a mistake? Can it veer off track from what was meant to be? That is what it felt like late on the night of November 8th 2016. The inevitable future foretold by prognosticators of every persuasion, the inexorable progress towards a society of more fairness and inclusion, the final shattering of that glass ceiling empowering women everywhere. But it was not the crack of broken glass we heard. It was the sound of history cracking apart, suddenly lurching off those gleaming rails and plunging into an unknown darkness.
We’ve been here before, living out an alternate history, but only in imagination between the pages of a book. Alternate History is a popular fiction genre found somewhere on the borders of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Alternate histories are almost always dystopian, perhaps because it’s a lot more fun to write about dystopias rather than utopias. Where’s the conflict and possibilities for plot if everyone is happy, holding hands, and singing kumbaya? So when authors look to history for inspiration they look for pivotal moments when everything could have all gone wrong.
No wonder then that Hitler winning World War II is frequently the starting point for novels of alternate history. Classics of this subgenre include Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (recently made into a TV series) and Fatherland by Robert Harris. Another key moment I’m particularly partial to is the Spanish Armada in 1588. Harry Turtledove, indefatigable author of dozens of alternate history books with themes as diverse as the South wins the Civil War and the Soviet Union wins the Cold War, goes Elizabethan in Rule Britannia. The Spanish Armada is victorious and the English resistance movement tasks William Shakespeare with writing a play to foment rebellion. Keith Roberts gives this theme a more literary treatment in Pavane, named for the stately dance that was popular at the Elizabethan court. The setting is an alternate twentieth century following the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I, the victory of the Spanish Armada, and centuries of tyrannical rule by the Inquisition. In similar vein Kingsley Amis’s The Alteration imagines that the Reformation never took place. Luther eventually reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church and now in the twentieth century only a remnant of Protestantism remains, in the heretical state of New England. Interestingly, though written in 1976, this alternate history involves a Cold War between Christians and Muslims as the main geopolitical challenge of the times.
The most persuasive alternate history novels rest on some kernel of fact, making them more plausible, and more terrifying. This could so easily have happened, we think. The actual historical existence of a group of aristocratic British fascists makes Jo Walton’s brilliant Small Change trilogy all the more powerful. Farthing starts out as seemingly a traditional English country house murder mystery, but with one chilling difference. A Star of David is pinned to the victim’s body. In this alternate 1940’s England a group of fascist sympathizers known as the Farthing set gain control of the government and make peace with Hitler. England becomes a fascist country of identity cards, expulsion of foreigners, and persecution of Jews and gays. The two other novels in the series, Ha’Penny and Half a Crown, follow the rise of an underground resistance movement.
Of most relevance to our current American moment is Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which rests on the historical fact of Charles Lindbergh’s fascist sympathies and involvement with the America First movement. In Roth’s alternate America Lindbergh runs against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. His star status as an aviation hero and sympathy over the kidnapping and murder of his son make him a compelling candidate. He successfully whips up isolationist fears and wins. Roth uses the actual text of Lindbergh’s speech in which he accused the British and the Jews of conspiring to force America into war. The Lindbergh administration makes peace with Hitler and enacts laws limiting freedom of religion, which eventually lead to pogroms. Told from the perspective of an ordinary Jewish family living in New Jersey the novel is a chilling and all too plausible portrait of an America that might have been.
Now imagine that in the far future, in an America that should have been, when President Hillary Clinton is in the history books as the first woman President, an aspiring writer comes up with an idea for an alternate history novel, a dystopian one of course. What if back in the early 21st century that ridiculous candidate Donald Trump had actually won? What dark turn might American history have taken then? Poring over the history books on the 2016 presidential campaign in search of a plausible pivot point to change the outcome in her novel, our aspiring writer comes upon a contemporary account of the so-called email scandal. In the judgment of historians, of course, that scandal is merely a footnote, considered a bogus construct of the opposing party in their unsuccessful attempt to destroy Clinton’s character. But at the time it was taken quite seriously. What if, the writer thinks, I have the Director of the FBI hint that he is reopening the investigation just before the election? I’ll have to flesh out his motivation to make it seem plausible, but it might work as a plot device to convince readers this really could have happened. And then my possibilities for dark, dystopian narrative are endless. I may have a best seller on my hands!
We’re all living in that alternate history now. If only it were imaginary.