June 14th, 2015
The science fiction community doesn't have a monopoly on alternate history. Robert Cowley, the editor of Military History Quarterly, published several counterfactual articles –as they are known to general readers. These "What If?" essays attracted a lot of attention. Cowley went on to assemble twenty essays and assorted comments on the subject in What If?, with the subtitle The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. It was published by Putnam in 1999.
A second collection, What If2 followed shortly thereafter, and, in 2003, he delivered a third volume: What Ifs of American History. The books make compelling reading, and they take an intriguing approach to the topic. The essays are written by eminent historians who not only lay out a rationale revealing how easily major world events might have happened differently, or not at all. But they also take a look at the potential other courses history might have taken. (That's not easy to do in a work of fiction.)
I was especially struck by an argument presented by Caleb Carr in the American History volume. Carr describes how the American Revolution would probably not have happened had the influential William Pitt the Elder, a British statesman who wanted to see the American colonies treated reasonably and who seemed to foresee quite clearly the consequences of imposing unfair taxes and denying the colonials a voice in governance. Unfortunately Pitt became ill at a critical time, and George III, along with some short-sighted advisors, proceeded with asinine policies, ignoring the long term consequences of their actions on people who'd already shown both an inclination to oppose them, and the means to do so.
So the Revolution happened, on schedule, and the United States was born. Somehow, it seemed inevitable. And it was good news, right?
Professor Carr proceeds to deliver a shock: He describes how and why the world might have been a safer place, had things gone in another direction. Had Pitt succeeded in holding the UK hawks at bay, he says, the thirteen colonies would have remained within the British Empire, which was the closest approach to a working democratic system on the planet. The western world would have avoided the destabilization that came with the weakening of the Empire. He presents a compelling argument that French would have become less of a threat, that the Napoleonic Wars would likely not have happened, nor would the two global conflicts of the twentieth century. As an add-on, we probably could have gotten rid of slavery early in the 19th century, and without the bloodbath of a civil war. If he's right, the world paid a heavy price for the short term perspective of King George and his advisors, who showed no interest in the long-term impact of going after the colonials.
I can't help thinking that some of this material should be required reading for any of the people with ambitions to hang out in the White House.
On the subject of counterfactual history, TV's The Murdoch Mysteries, which are set in Canada in the first decade of the twentieth century, frequently bring in historical characters. In one episode, a young Winston Churchill is falsely accused of murder. Arthur Conan Doyle, Bat Masterson, Thomas Edison, and other major figures are periodically on stage. As well as a few lesser known figures. Agnes MacPhail showed up in last night's episode as a fifteen-year-old girl, inspired by the efforts of Toronto's women to acquire voting privileges. Agnes, of course, was the first woman to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons. She was a progressive political force all through her life.
The viewer gets to watch Murdoch pursue intriguing mysteries while living through the changes that were occurring in those times: the arrival of the automobile, the discovery that science could be useful as a tool of law enforcement, the application of electricity, and a host of others.
Maureen and I spent a glorious weekend in Chicago at the Nebulas. Steven Silver and his staff put together a solid show. And it's always a pleasure to spend time with old friends.