Every four years, American voters get the chance to elect a new president. The choices voters, and sometimes the House of Representatives, made on those occasions have been a rich vein from which alternate-history writers have drawn to tell stories. The late but prolific writer and editor Mike Resnick certainly thought so, commissioning a volume with more than two dozen such tales. Published as the 1992 presidential race was getting firmly underway, Alternate Presidents remain an intriguing collection to this day.
Across 28 stories, Resnick assembled writers and their tales of different commanders-in-chief. There as wide-ranging as Benjamin Franklin as the first president instead of George Washington to Victoria Woodhull becoming America’s first female president in 1872, to two very different presidencies for Thomas Dewey and Michael Dukakis’s first day in office taking him to Dulce Base in New Mexico. As that description might attest, the anthology runs a wide gamut between plausible alternatives and downright ludicrous.
On the more plausible end of the spectrum, Jody Lynn Nye’s “The Father of His Country” wonderfully captures the tone of John and Abigail Adams’s letters back and forth, albeit set against the backdrop of a Franklin Presidency. Resnick’s own “The Bull Moose at Bay” uses a party to explore what effect Teddy Roosevelt’s winning in 1912 might have had upon history and the man himself. Barbara Delaplace’s imaging of a President Dewey facing the question of using the atomic bomb on Japan and how a proposal never enacted upon might have played out is convincingly played out in “No Other Choice.” Speaking of Dewey, Glen E. Cox gives the anthology its cover artwork with his perhaps too brief tale “The More Things Change…”
Others depict not the leaders themselves, but their effect upon people, such as Susan Shwartz’s tale of George McGovern’s 1972 victory leading to an even more tragic exit from Vietnam in “Suppose They Gave a Peace…” late in the volume.
On the fun, if the slightly implausible, side of things, there are some additional highlights. Jayge Carr’s “The War of ’07” tells the story of Aaron Burr managing to turn the election of 1800 to his favor, with a little help from Alexander Hamilton, and establishing a political dynasty in the process. Laura Resnick’s “We Are Not Amused” features Victoria Woodhull’s presidency told in an epistolary form via letters from Queen Victoria. Pat Cadigan employs a similar epistolary style for “Dispatches From the Revolution,” where the riots around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago lead to a revolution that doesn’t end well, as does Brian M. Thomsen with his Watergate-centric piece “Paper Trail.” While the plausibility of any of them might be questionable, they’re intriguing reads all the same.
It’s interesting to note the recurring themes in the different stories. Four of the tales, including “Lincoln’s Charge,” depict alternative versions of the Civil War, for example. Each of the four stories told with varying degrees of plausibility and two of them with overlap involving John Brown and the creation of a confederacy in the North rather than South. More than half of the stories, both in terms of the number of tales and in page count, take place around twentieth-century alternative presidents, as opposed to earlier elections. Was that down to them being seemingly more momentous events to turn stories around or because they were more recent and in the memory of author and reader alike, one wonders?
Of course, there’s a share of misfires as well. “Truth, Justice and the American Way,” from Lawrence Watt-Evans, never quite gels with perhaps too many points of departure up in the air for its own good. Barry N. Malzberg’s “Kingfish” squanders an intriguing premise involving Huey Long and the road to the Second World War with an implausible and rushed ending. Perhaps no story squanders its premise more than the concluding entry, “Dukakis and the Aliens” by Robert Sheckley, which taps into the then-burgeoning mythology of UFO conspiracy lore and an alternative outcome for the 1988 election. It’s an intriguing idea, especially with the final twist, but Sheckley manages to produce an underwhelming runaround that tries to do far too much in too few pages.
Anthologies, though, are hit-and-miss by their very nature, and the misses here don’t overwhelm the rest of the stories, though they take it down a peg or two.
Alternate Presidents remains, though now out of print, a most fun and readable volume. Though running a wide gamut, with all sorts of plausible and implausible scenarios and different formats, the 28 stories featured within are more often than not engaging pieces of alternate history.
It was also the start of a run of Resnick edited Alternate… anthologies that ran throughout the mid-1990s, setting a standard for them in the years to come.
This story was originally published by Sea Lion Press, the world’s first publishing house dedicated to alternate history.