Alternate History-Useful tool or waste of time?

Alternate history is a rapidly growing genre of science fiction that is finally beginning to gain some respect and commercial success.  But, it remains less than accepted by historians as anything but a fanciful flight of imagination, useless for anything but passing some time.

However, your Grouchy Historian thinks differently.  I believe that well written and thought out alternate history could be a very useful teaching tool.  Now, I'm not talking about dragons in the American Revolution or anything here.  Even I know ridiculous when I see it.  No, what I am talking about is serious historical thought on what could have happened if a single event, person, or action was changed--and how that change could have impacted downstream events.

What do I mean by this?  Well, as a part time tutor and full time curmudgeon, one of my major pet peeves when reading nincompoops talking about historical events is the ol' theory of inevitability--history had to happen as it did because of unstoppable forces, whether economics, social pressures, or bigger armies.

Indeed, military history is usually the worst offender of this type of analysis...of course the Confederacy had to lose, too many damnyankees to kill, or, of course the Allies won World War II, because we had more tanks, guns, soldiers, and ships than the Axis.  These sorts of assumptions really drive me up the wall.  There is nothing inevitable about history, and we should thank our lucky stars that so often history DID turn out the right way.  AHHH, you want's a little one that I will expand more later when I talk about my favorite really, books....and bacon...hmmm, eating bacon while reading books...hmmm.

OK, think about the Normandy invasion and the battle of Omaha Beach.  The German defenders, completely missed by Allied intelligence, nearly swept the US troops of the 1st and 29th Divisions back into the sea.  NOW, if there had been just 1 more German battalion in those fortifications...or even if the Germans had been able to muster a single Panzer regiment...thank how the Normandy invasion might have been different with two widely separated Allied beachheads.  Would the Allies still have prevailed?  Or would it have been another Anzio, where Allied troops were penned into a beachhead with nowhere to go?

I think alternate history is an outstanding teaching tool to force students to consider decisions NOT made, in addition to decisions made by people throughout history.  Again, military history is the prime example of this technique as our ol' friend Clausewitz points out--generals must often  make snap decisions in the heat of battle, with incomplete or outright erroneous information and it is often the smallest quirk of fate that leads to decisions made and actions taken.

Alternate history is also an excellent teaching tool to show the nail and horseshoe effect (i.e., for want of a nail, the horse was lost, etc)...and how PEOPLE really do make history.

AHHH, you want more the Battle of Midway, the American Navy had a completely uncoordinated air attack launched on June 4, 1942.  Torpedo planes, fighters, and dive bombers showed up in a haphazard pattern that allowed the Japanese fighters to face each wave in detail and pretty much annihilate the American torpedo bombers.  IN addition, one of the main group of American dive bombers was more or less lost in the middle of nowhere and almost ready to turn back when they spotted a lone Japanese destroyer on its way back to the carrier task force after chasing an American submarine.  The American commander took a huge risk in following the destroyer, but found the task force with full carrier decks of fueled and armed planes, no fighter cover and the rest, as they now say, is history.  BUT, logically, the right thing to do was turn back as his planes were very low on fuel and had no real clue where the Japanese were.  But because this American pilot took a chance, Midway is now one of the greatest victories in naval history.

So if you want some outstanding, well written, and very thoughtful alternate history, I have just the books and authors for you.

Peter Tsouras is military analyst, military historian and writer (or to be more precise sometimes editor) of some of the best speculative fiction books on military history today.  Disaster at D-Day describes in great detail the scenario I painted above where the Germans turn back the landing at Omaha Beach and are able to divide and conquer the separated Allied beachheads in Normandy.  One of the first alternate history books I read, it really got me hooked on this genre and started me thinking about alternate history as a teaching tool.

Dixie Victorious is the best speculative book (and to be fair the only one I've read) about the Civil War.  In this volume, Tsouras edits a collection of essays by Civil War historians where their imaginations get to run wild, but not too dragons in this book.  Just some interesting thoughts about how a tourniquet on the leg of Albert Sidney Johnston could have changed the Battle of Vicksburg, or the creation of a real Confederate Navy might have broken the Union blockade.  The fact that all of these essays were written by mainstream historians shows me that speculation is not just for science fiction writers.

Tsouras has many more volumes, some better than others, but all of them thought provoking.

BUT, if you really want to dive into alternate history, there is only one author to turn to--Harry Turtledove.  Mr. Turtledove is a virtual machine when it comes to alternate history timelines and stories, and although I have not read all of his works, I found his Great War trilogy of trilogies to be a fascinating look at how World War I and World War II might have been fought if the South had won the Civil War.

Using one small event--the finding of Lee's Lost Order before the Union private found it--changes history and allows the South to prevail in 1862.  Fast forward to 1914 and Turtledove creates an entire world where the South develops with the ending of slavery, but the creation of a permanent serf class of blacks that have a simmering resentment to their status in the Confederacy.  The power of Turtledove's story telling is weaving in real people, place and events--sometimes with a twist--to create an entirely plausible world where people interact with situations far different than they appear in our timeline.

SO, alternate history is here to stay and I for one think that it could be an excellent teaching tool.

Now, if I can just figure out a way to work it into my tutoring classes......


I read one where A. Lincoln was a vampire hunter. I forget the name of the book now but it was pretty fun.
Hairog said…
Please take a look at my

A few other writers and I have teamed up to create an alternate history universe where others can join in. It's filled with the secret weapons that the German's and US almost brought to fruition in 1946-47. All those weird jets, a SAM system, the incredible spy network that the soviets had in both the US and UK, communists everywhere, massive Soviet tanks, evil scientists and of course Stalin haunt our pages.

We are starting the Battle of Britain Two soon.

Did you know that both the US and UK had switched from a war economy to 90% consumer products by Jan. 1946? How about the fact that a Soviet spy had physical control of the world’s supply of Polonium? The British were totally flat broke? Almost the entire US work force was on strike at one point in 1945-46? That the US debt was 125% of GDP in 1946? That the Soviets had in their possession 3 perfectly good B29s to study and take apart since 1944? That the US troops in Western Europe in the spring of 1946 were untrained, ill equipped, ill lead, rookies and glorified policemen? All true in our life time. I’ve put all this together and much more to create a world where Stalin goes for the brass ring and invades Western Europe in May 1946.

I'm not a writer, as you will soon discover, but I think I've found some very interesting twists and turns that will make for a great story. I also believe I have setup a very plausible alternative history. We are looking for other contributors.