Harry Turtledove is a master of alternate-history fiction.
I recently completed Harry Turtledove’s novel How Few Remain. This is the kickoff novel of Turtledove’s lauded “Timeline 191” series, and tells the story of the second war between the American states.
The novel starts off right at the start of General Lee’s assault into Pennsylvania (which includes the famous battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg), but in this history rather than being repelled back to Virginia, Lee’s forces are victorious in surrounding Washington D.C. This prompts France and the British Empire to intervene on behalf of the Confederate States to end the war, and under that combined pressure Lincoln is forced to yield.
This seems like a simple enough premise for an alternate history story, but the incredibly well thought-out implications of this change that Turtledove expands in throughout the rest of How Few Remain are breathtaking. SPOILERS AHEAD – A few of the most interesting (in my opinion) are:
- Lincoln is ousted from office and the Republican Party is all but viewed as a joke for the next several decades.
- The CSA and USA share a contentious and often-militarized border straight through the middle of North America.
- The British and USA build massive Great Lakes fleets to try and dominate those waters.
- Lincoln becomes a socialist agitator in the American west.
Now, of course all of this is just alternate history that never happened. But I think that this story (and stories like it) can present a fascinating and very useful way to look at history, by thinking about what didn’t happen as opposed to what did.
Just like in many pieces of art how negative space is just as important as positive space, so too should the implications of the tapestry of history be viewed by the “negative space” of historical events. Only looking at what happened gives one an incomplete breadth of understanding and stifles the historical and prophetic imagination.
And besides, as Turtledove makes clear, thinking about what if? can be a hell of an enjoyable experience as well.