A review in the March 2 New York Times Book Review of Owen Sheers’s novel Resistance, set in 1944 and 1945 after German troops have occupied southern Britain, suggests that alternate history is rare in fiction. The reviewer quoted Philip Roth as saying that when it came time to write The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004), in which the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, he had “no literary models for reimagining the historical past.”

As the author of a novel of alternate history myself, I had to smile. The truth is, fiction that plays with what might have been has been around a long time.

To be fair to Mr. Roth, “literary” examples are perhaps few. One weighty predecessor is Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (McGraw-Hill, 1969), set on an alternative Earth called anti-Terra where czarist Russians inhabit North America and are dimly aware of another Earth, Terra, which more closely resembles our own. Ada, however, is notoriously impenetrable, and I confess I gave up after 20 or so pages.

On the other hand, I breezed through Kingsley Amis’s little gem The Alteration (Viking, 1977), set in a contemporary Britain where no Reformation has taken place and the Catholic Church wields considerable power. Much of the novel’s tension rides on whether a pubescent boy will be castrated to preserve his gorgeous singing voice. I hope soon to read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (Harper, 2007), considered by many the best work of alternate history in recent years. Framed as a detective story, Chabon’s novel supposes Jews established a temporary state in Alaska after World War II. Like Amis, Chabon deserves credit as a distinguished mainstream author who doesn’t disdain genre fiction.

Genre fiction, indeed, boasts many fine examples of the form. Take mysteries and thrillers. One classic is Len Deighton’s SS-GB (Knopf, 1979), a murder mystery set in Nazi-occupied Britain in which the victors have shot Winston Churchill. Robert Harris put an original spin on the German-victory theme in Fatherland (Random, 1992), set in a post—World War II world in which Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. occupies the White House. Jo Walton’s Farthing (Tor, 2006), the first in a series, focuses on a murder among the English appeasers eight years after they made peace with Germany in 1941. (As a letter in the March 23 Book Review points out, fiction about England overrun by usually German invaders belongs to a tradition that goes back to George Tomkyns Chesney’s 1871 short story, “The Battle of Dorking.” In P.G. Wodehouse’s 1909 spoof, The Swoop!, nine foreign armies invade Britain.)

Fantasy offers its share of notable alternate histories. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (Bloomsbury USA, 2004) features dueling magicians in an alternate England during the age of Napoleon. Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon (Del Rey, 2006), the first in her popular Temeraire series, refights the Napoleonic wars with dragons.

Science fiction is the genre mostly closely associated with alternate history. L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (Holt, 1941) sends a contemporary American back to the late Roman empire, à la Twain’s Connecticut Yankee. (A Connecticut Yankee in King’s Arthur Court, it should be said, amounts to a “hidden history,” since the hero fails to accomplish anything that will change the future we know.) By book’s end, de Camp’s American faces an uphill battle to prevent Western civilization from slipping into the dark ages. Jack Higgins’s bestseller The Eagle Has Landed (Holt Rinehart, 1975), about a failed Nazi effort to kill Churchill, is another such hidden history. Eric Flint’s 1632 (Baen, 2000) explores how ordinary 20th-century Americans transported back to Germany at the time of the Thirty Years War could improve the lot of the common folk of 17th-century Europe.

Of course, the first important novel to link SF with alternate history is Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece The Man in the High Castle (Putnam, 1962), set in an America divided between Japan and Germany after losing World War II. Recently collected with three other Dick novels in a Library of America volume, it won Dick science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Award in 1963.

Since 1995, alternate history has had its own prize, the Sidewise Award. When my novel, The Lovecraft Chronicles (Mythos, 2004), which contrives a longer and happier life for horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, was submitted for consideration to the judges, I knew my chances were all but nil. Like every other contender from a genre press or imprint that year, my book lost out to, no surprise, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

Author Information
Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles was reissued earlier this year by Subterranean Press.