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  • What Almost Was:The Politics of the Contemporary Alternate History Novel
  • Matthew Schneider-Mayerson (bio)

Between August of 1995 and July of 1996, Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich published two books. One, To Renew America, a folksy Republican polemic cobbled together from Gingrich's speeches, served as a sequel to Contract with America, the blueprint of the conservative movement that assumed control of Congress in 1995.1 The other was 1945, coauthored with William R. Forstchen, a novel set in an alternate universe.2 In 1945's divergent timeline, Germany does not declare war on the United States, the Soviet Union is split into fragments, and the United States and Germany have settled into a cold war. Nazi soldiers parachute into the United States to a capture a nuclear facility in Tennessee, but posses of arms-bearing American veterans successfully defend their country. 1945 was representative of the flourishing genre of alternate history novels in all but two ways: an author's celebrity and its media exposure. Due to Gingrich's status as the public leader of the conservative renaissance of the mid-1990s, 1945 was widely reviewed in mainstream publications. Treated as a curiosity and ridiculed for its poor literary quality, very few reviewers noted the libertarian themes in 1945, and even fewer placed it in the context of an inchoate literary genre.3

1995 can be considered the birth year of the alternate history novel as a genre. As a conceptual category, the counterfactual, as historians term their what-if narratives, has been pursued in print since classical Greece, if not earlier. (In a broad sense, anyone who has wondered "what if?" could be said to be an alternate [End Page 63] historian.) In the twentieth century, alternate histories and counterfactuals, also known as "allohistories," have been published by fiction writers and maverick historians around the world. As Gavriel Rosenfeld discusses in his encyclopedic chronicle of Nazi-related alternate history culture, the production of allohistorical cartoons, films, and stories increased sharply in the wake of the Holocaust, which continues to provide subject matter for alternate historians.4 While hundreds of texts can be retroactively added to the list of alternate histories, the version of the literary counterfactual that rose to prominence in the early 1990s was not fully recognized as a genre until science-fiction reviewers Steven H. Silver and Evelyn Leeper and NASA scientist Robert B. Schmunk established the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History in 1995.5 The Sidewise Award defined the alternate history as a literary category and became a mechanism to draw and police the borders of the genre. Each year a panel of judges, ranging from three to eight in number, awards a Sidewise to one novel and one short story and lists the runners up.6 The authority and aesthetic judgments of the Sidewise Award panel seem to be unchallenged among publishers (on book jackets), authors, and fans around the Internet.7 Unlike awards for mainstream literary genres, such as the Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, the Sidewise Awards seems to recognize both a combination of literary excellence and popularity, as demonstrated by the proportional representation of popular and prolific alternate history writers such as Harry Turtledove in the winner's circle.

In this paper, I consider the contemporary alternate history genre in three parts. First, I account for the birth of the genre, which I connect to developments in book publishing and the end of the Cold War. Second, I identify common generic formal and structural aspects and analyze the content of a number of representative alternate history novels, which feature a libertarian combination of antistatism and militarism. Finally, I situate these increasingly popular books in their historical and political context and argue that they can be viewed not only as a marginal genre of popular fiction but also as a bellwether of mainstream American politics.

In many ways, this is exploration of uncharted territory. Both alternate historians and the few academics who have studied the phenomenon have attempted to ground the nascent genre by searching their libraries for similar texts, thereby creating a retroactive catalog of alternate history novels.8 While Livius' Ab urbe condita and Benjamin...