There are few moments in history where you can pinpoint a single decision that brought about momentous changes as a direct result. Even when they are pinpointed, more often than not you find it is not so simple to change it. If a war or an election had gone the other way, it may seem like a single change, but it is so broad as to essential warrant hundreds if not thousands of little changes to actually happen.
Stanislav Petrov deciding not to report a nuclear alarm to his superiors that turned out to be a false alarm is one of these pinpoint moments. A few thousand voters in some marginal constituencies changing their mind thus altering the results of an election is less of a pinpoint and more of a pincushion.
Sometimes, though, an election result can depend on the decision of one person. In 1979, a motion of no-confidence in the Labour Party government led by James Callaghan was passed by a single vote, the resulting general election would be won by the opposition Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. She would lead the United Kingdom as prime minister for eleven years and her party form the government for seven further years.
A single changed vote and the government would have survived the no-confidence vote… but would it have made a difference in the long term? There are numerous possibilities for the vote to be tied. What changes would they have wrought to the history of the United Kingdom if any of them had voted differently on the evening of March 28, 1979?
In a lot of examinations of alternate history, there is a temptation to try and just avoid the event altogether, but in the instance of a no-confidence vote in the Callaghan government it was perhaps inevitable without enough changes in the events of 1978-79 to stop the opposition from calling it.
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Within published alternate-history fiction of decades gone by, there seemed to be only a few genres that would make use of an alternate-history setting. The most common being the thrillers like SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) and Fatherland (Robert Harris, 1992) as well as epic like the multi-volume Worldwar and Southern Victory series by Harry Turtledove. These were pretty well-defined by the 1990s, but before this there was a lot more experimentation with the format like we see again today.
One such experimentation was Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail (1973), which presented itself as a history textbook from another world and is a format that we are all the more familiar with nowadays than readers were when it was first released.
Another such fictional document narrative is The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad — but here the document is not a history textbook, but rather a science-fantasy novel and an accompanying scholarly analysis. The metafictional science fantasy adventure within The Iron Dream is Lords of the Swatstika, by Adolf Hitler.
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What are the best works of alternate history? Are they the ones with the richest, most detailed and most plausible histories described? Or are they the most engaging stories that happen to take place in a timeline different from our own?
Fatherland, by Robert Harris, by the latter definition, might just be one title that can be counted among the greatest works of alternate history. Through its description of an Axis victory timeline that has since become cliché, its engaging plot and rounded characters, and its presentation of one of the most frightening dystopias since Orwell’s Airstrip One, it has rightly earned its place as a seminal work of alternate-history fiction.
A bestseller in the UK upon its 1992 release, does Fatherland still hold up as one of the greats of published alternate history?
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In some respects, alternate history is an examination of irony. There are many examples of serious alternate history. There are moments when characters reflect on how our own history is implausible or unthinkable. For something more tongue-in-cheek, Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman took the United States, capitalist and democratic and emerging victorious from the Cold War, and pasted the twentieth-century history of Russia, revolution and tyranny and eventual collapse, onto it in their 1997 collection Back in the USSA.
The history presented in the collection closely parallels our own only with the United Socialist States of America in the place of the historic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with the United Kingdom and a reformed Russian Empire splitting duties as the United States equivalent. This parodic take on twentieth-century history is peppered with existing objects from popular culture portrayed as real figures, rubbing shoulders with our own historical figures in new situations.
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The two most common alternate-history settings are ones based on World War II and the American Civil War. Bringing up a distant third are those based upon the American War of Independence, one of which is The Two Georges by author Harry Turtledove and Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.
The history presented within the novel is kept deliberately vague in favor of a globetrotting adventure mystery across this alternate North America, unraveling a vast international conspiracy against the British Empire and indulging in all of America’s favorite stereotypes of Britain and the British.
This last aspect of the novel mars a riveting plot that makes up for a lot of holes in the history presented, but the novel is unashamedly pop alternate history with recognizable twentieth-century figures of the United States shown broadly similar to their historical personalities within the timeline. In going for this feel, the history presented in the novel comes in brief facts and flashes throughout that has to be pieced together, but enough for the reader to get an overall feel for the different direction history has taken.
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