One of the more entertaining historical games we can play is what SF people call alternate reality, or history enthusiasts refer to as ‘What Ifs?’ I recently picked up a copy of What Ifs? Of American History, edited by Robert Cowley, who has done a series of excellent books on the topic. It packages ruminations by historians who look at events that might easily have gone in a different direction, and how results might have changed.
What would the world look like today, for example, had the British shown a little more empathy and sidestepped the American Revolution? It wouldn’t have been that difficult for them. And what if the Lincoln assassination had gone as planned and they’d taken out the vice as well? The level of chaos would probably have risen even higher.
Alternate history can make intriguing fiction. I’ve been toying for years with a storyline in which the Israelis send a time traveler back to stop Hitler. The time traveler can either simply shoot him early in his life, or he might take advantage of Hitler’s interest in art. The eventual dictator would apparently have been happy to pursue an alternate career as an artist. So we pass money to locals in Berlin in the 1920’s. Hitler was apparently reasonably skilled in his work. So they buy some of his art, say nice things to him, and he takes another track. The catch in either story is that it would also mean that Hitler wouldn’t be there to attack Stalin. His replacement would probably have been too smart to do that. Consequently, had the Nazis stayed with their deal with the Soviets, we might have stayed out of the war. Or we might even have gotten in and become part of the losing side. However that played out, when the time traveler returns to Israel in the 21st century, the Nazis are running the place.
The best alternate history movie I’ve seen is Time Quest, a 2002 production produced and directed by Robert Dyke. Remarkably, it’s an independent film, in which a time traveler goes back to 1963 and prevents the assassination of JFK. The film has some brilliant moments. The time traveler shows Kennedy newspapers from the future. So JFK understands what his survival means. In one scene he rides with Lyndon Johnson on Air Force One. Johnson is trying to persuade him to go into Vietnam. “If you don’t, Jack,” he warns, “the Republicans will beat us to death with it during the election.”
Kennedy refuses. “Lyndon,” he says, “I’ve seen 65,000 graves. We are not going to fill them.”
Other things change: Bill Clinton shows up as a TV entertainer. A Wolf Blitzer character, reports from Cape Cod during the early years of the 21st century that Kennedy has died peacefully in his sleep. And that he will be buried near Moonbase Kennedy.
The film captures, more than any other I’ve ever seen, a future that I wish we could have had.