March is International Steel Pen Appreciation Month, in honor of which Dr. Boli has hurriedly scribbled today’s essay with an Esterbrook 048 Falcon.

Alternate History 01

Alternate History 02

Alternate History 03

The text is printed below.

The genre of alternate history is very popular in fiction at the moment. The popularity may be traced to the relative ease of producing interesting results from a simple contrary-to-history premise: What if Horatio Seymour had been elected president instead of Ulysses S. Grant? Simply listing all the things President Grant was responsible for, or might be considered responsible for, gives us a large number of points of difference for our fictional world, which can then be used to inform the actions of the characters. Usually, for the sake of simplicity, the writer takes only one point of departure, and does not pile on multiple contrary-to-history assumptions—as, for example, that Horatio Seymour was elected, and Maryland had joined the Confederacy and been reconstructed after the Civil War, and Artemus Ward recovered from his consumption and eclipsed Mark Twain as America’s most renowned humorist.

So here is a subject for readers to discuss: If, hypothetically, you were to write an alternate-history novel, what would be your one point of departure? What one event where history hung in the balance fascinates you enough to wander down the road not taken?

Dr. Boli will start the discussion by offering his own suggestion: he would take the marriage of Charlemagne with the Byzantine Empress Irene, which very nearly happened, but not quite. What would the world have been like if the revived Roman Empire in the West had been united in that way to the ancient Roman Empire in the East? It is easy to imagine a world in which the Renaissance came half a millennium early and everyone got flying cars by 1700. It seems quite likely that some other novelist has taken this as a point of departure: if it fascinates Dr. Boli, it must have the power to fascinate someone else as well. But it is a big enough break with actual history that there is room for us all to speculate and come up with wildly different results.

Now it is your turn. Imagine you are writing an alternate-history novel. What is your point of departure, and what do you think might have been the interesting results if history had gone the other way? (Dr. Boli is aware that some of his readers are accomplished novelists, so he will also be very happy with a response that says “I have written an alternate-history novel, and this is what happened in it.”)


  1. Sean says:

    I was just thinking that same thing the other day while reading Lars Brownworth’s enjoyable, if somewhat superficial history of the Byzantine Empire: “Lost to the West”.

    The most extensive take on a Roman Empire that never faded from a big-name alternate history author is Robert Silverberg’s “Roma Eterna”, in which the Israelite never escaped from Egypt.

    The most extensive alternate history series set in the Byzantine Empire is David Drake’s “Belisarius” series.

    In which, the eponymous General must battle the forces of the Malwa Empire which are guided by a sentient computer from the far future, which is bent on spreading Indian caste society around the world and using it as a basis for a more rational future.

    Some great scenes and good characters, but it suffers terribly from one of the Seven Cardinal Sins of Alternate History.

    That is: “Ideological differences which are not important to a 20th/21st century westerner would be quickly cast aside by inhabitants of another time when things got really rough and a few rational people were put in positions of power.”

    The Byzantine Empire was practically a forum for debating the finer points of Christian dogma which happened to grow a state, culture, and military so that it could defend itself against those with even larger ideological differences.

  2. RepubAnon says:

    Dr. Boli’s concept is similar to L. Sprague deCamp’s novel “Lest Darkness Fall

    From Wikipedia:

    Lest Darkness Fall is similar to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938. A thunderstorm arrives, lightning cracks, and he finds himself transported to 6th century Rome (535).

    When Padway arrives, Italy is ruled by the Ostrogoths, a tribe which had recently overthrown the Western Roman Empire, but which (in de Camp’s opinion, anyway) rules with benevolence, allowing freedom of religion and maintaining the urban Roman society they had conquered….
    Padway eventually develops a printing press, issues newspapers, and builds a crude semaphore telegraph system. However, his attempts to reproduce mechanical clocks, gunpowder, and cannons are failures. He becomes increasingly involved in the politics of the state as Italy is invaded by the Imperials and also threatened from the south and east.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      The title alone shows that Mr. de Camp (whose book Dr. Boli has not read) is of the same opinion as Dr. Boli: that the Ostrogoths preserved classical civilization in Italy, and the Eastern Romans were responsible for the Dark Ages.

      • Mohammed and Charlemagne, by Henri Pirenne, goes into that in some detail – a worthwhile read.

        I’ve often thought that it would be interesting to see an alternate history where the German Emperor Frederick I did not die in the river Saleph in Cilicia. His death led to the immediate collapse of the German and Hungarian portion of the Third Crusade, and condemned the remainder of the crusade to divided leadership under the rivals Philip of France and Richard of England.

        Richard the Lionheart put up a good fight, but was ultimately unable to force Saladin from the Holy City of Jerusalem.

        Barabarossa defeated the Turks in two battles before his death – his arrival in the Holy Land, combined with the French and English forces, would likely have resulted in the capture of Jerusalem, and possibly much else.

  3. Murray Antoinette says:

    This genre is overpopulated with entries that wonder, “What if the South had won the Civil War?” I’d like to see one that asks, “What if Lincoln had served his full second term?”
    Lincoln was not only quite opposite Andrew Johnson in his attitude toward African Americans, he was a much more astute politician and not shy to use the military to intervene in domestic affairs. Might a Republican Reconstruction that began in 1865 rather than 1867 and was fully supported by the executive, along with a vigorously administered Freedman’s Bureau, have done more to entrench civil rights and suffrage, so that the “redeemers” of the 1870s would have faced a much more difficult prospect of disfranchising their fellow-citizens of color?

  4. The O Floinn says:

    In Harry Turtledove’s Agent of Byzantium collected series of short stories, the East never fell because Mohammed on one of his merchant travels converted to Christianity and became a monk, eventually a saint famous for his hymns. Harry holds a Ph.D. in Byzantine history.

  5. There’s lots of choices.

    Suppose South Carolina had decided not to shoot at Fort Sumter, but let it be resupplied peacefully. (Peaceful separation, followed by further secessions, followed by quarrels and wars and European involvement–think Maximilian)

    Suppose Bahira had converted Muhammad to Christianity before the latter started to have dreams. (The farther back you go the more room to maneuver you have.)

    There are some alternative explanations of history

  6. Joseph Moore says:

    What if there had been a Charles Martel of the Slavs, someone astute enough in military tactics and strong willed enough to put together an army to turn back the Mongols? Maybe even, flush with success, push back into Mongolia and into China? A grand Slavic rather than Mongol empire?

    From there, the obvious next question: what, then, if the now combined Slavic/Mongol/Chinese army had conquered but not destroyed Baghdad?

  7. RepubAnon says:

    Another interesting idea: what if the Chinese Ming dynasty had continued sending out the Treasure Fleets rather than stopping them? ( What if China had started colonizing the Pacific Island chains, made it to the American West coast, and ended up meeting the Incas and the Aztecs before the Spanish arrived?

  8. An old favorite thought experiment my father and I liked to hash out was, “What if the Americas were flipped west-for-east so that Columbus and company found, instead of the hospitable islands of the Caribbean and the broad coastal plains of the nearby mainland coasts, they found no major offshore islands and only a narrow coastal strip before the imposing wall of the Andes, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevadas?” Especially if, meanwhile, Cheng He and company were sailing from China to find the inviting Caribbean and Atlantic coastline of our world facing onto their Pacific Ocean.

    World War Two is a favorite playground for Alternate History authors, but getting a realistically different outcome is difficult: once the resources of the United States and Soviet Union were on the Allied side, the Axis could win an awful lot of tactical victories, but the Allies could afford to replace their losses so much better, that the long-term balance of forces still favored an Allied victory. One of my favorite short stories involves Adolf Galland convincing Hitler to allow mass-production of the Me-262 jet fighter in quantity and in secret, unleashing them in the hundreds on tactical fighter-bomber sweeps across Southern England in the spring of 1944, discovering and obliterating the forces assembling for the D-Day invasion just before it was to begin, and catching most of the 8th Air Force bombers on the ground. With pressure off in the West, the Russian offensive in the east was at least temporarily blunted, but in the end all this tactical and strategic brilliance really managed to do was ensure that it was Berlin and not Hiroshima that was on the receiving end of the first atomic bomb in August of 1945. With Hitler and his inner circle dead, the war was over soon afterwards.

    My favorite WW2 what-if is the aborted British invasion of Norway in 1940. Recall that the Soviets, under the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, had participated in the Nazi invasion and partition of Poland in September 1939 which had started the war in the first place. Why the Brits and French didn’t declare war on Stalin when his forces invaded Poland always puzzled me, but in hindsight it seems to have been a brilliant choice, leaving the door open for the alliance with Stalin that would ultimately spell Hitler’s doom. But when Stalin moved to invade Finland and got a bloody nose for his trouble thanks to President Mannerheim and Simo Hayha, the Brits seriously planned to intervene. But with the Germans sitting at the bottom end of the Baltic, getting troops and equipment to Finland to aid the beleagured Finns was impossible by ship. So the Brits planned to land troops in Norway, march them across Nazi-Friendly Sweden (conquering them both in passing if need be), and then cross the Baltic from Stockholm to Helsinki to link up with the Finns at last. It was a crazy plan, but troops were literally being loaded onto ships for this operation when the Germans launched a surprise invasion of Denmark and Norway themselves ONE DAY BEFORE the British invasion of Norway was scheduled to begin. The Brits nearly managed to use this headstart to thwart the Germans in Norway, but while they did manage to cripple the Nazi surface fleet in the process, a series of Allied blunders and Axis tactical brilliance managed to pull it off anyways.

    But I’ve always wondered what would have happened if either the Brits and French HAD declared war on Stalin when he marched into Poland as Hitler’s de facto ally, forcing the two dictators into an alliance against the West in 1939, or if Churchill’s invasion of Norway and Sweden to open a path to support the Finns had been launched, also pushing Stalin into Hitler’s camp as an open ally, and making it politically impossible for Hitler to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. With the resources of the USSR behind them, the Axis might have had a much better chance of winning the war, and WW2 might have been even bloodier even without the massive slaughterfest that was the Eastern Front.

    Of course, Japan might have been able to force the West into giving them a free hand in China in exchange for a Japanese attack into Siberia, bringing Japan into the war on the Allied side, but even that might not have been enough. An alliance between a Hitler-dominated Europe, a Stalin-dominated Central Asia, and either Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist China or a Soviet-dominated Maoist China would have been a geopolitical nightmare that would be hard to defeat, even by an Anglo-American-Japanese alliance.

  9. Lars Walker says:

    There’s an old urban legend (based, I understand, on a joke somebody made in the Continental Congress) that America almost adopted German as its national language. It isn’t true, but what if it had been? What if anti-English sentiment had blossomed to the point where all the loyal Americans were learning German as a mark of patriotism? What if America had entered the cultural orbit of Germany rather than England?

    Might it be that America would have entered World War I on the German side? Might Germany have won, and avoided the social disasters that followed defeat? Might National Socialism have arisen in England instead? What if the Holocaust had happened in England, and America and Germany had joined to destroy imperialist British Fascism?

    I write novels, but although this idea has teased me for some time, it’s not really in my line.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      For quite some time it was necessary for much of the commonwealth bureaucracy in Pennsylvania to work in German as well as in English—both because of the Pennsylvania Dutch and because of the huge numbers of later German immigrants. (There is a persistent rumor that Pennsylvania was officially bilingual, but it was really only bilingual de facto, having no official language at all.) In Pittsburgh of 1900 there were three German daily newspapers: the Volksblatt and the Freheits Freund (Protestant) and the Beobachter (Catholic), whose Sunday edition was the Katholisches Familienblatt. The combined Volksblatt und Freiheits Freund lasted until the beginning of 1942, when, for obvious historical reasons, it vanished.

      The persistent bitterness against the Hessians, all of whom were played by Yosemite Sam, makes it implausible that American patriots would even consider German as the national language. The intellectual proclivities of some of the men who made up the Continental Congress would make the Latin of Cicero a more likely choice.

  10. Dr. Boli says:

    Some of Dr. Boli’s other favorite what-ifs involve the French and Indian War, which will be the subject of the next chapter in his History of the World. Specifically: What if the French had decided to hold on to Fort Duquesne with every ounce of military power in their possession, rather than shrug and wander off into the woods when a superior force came over the mountains? What if the possession of the Forks of the Ohio had made New France secure from British conquest, and the French and Indian War had ended with a peace that left France in possession of the interior of North America, confining the British colonies to a strip along the east coast? What if the confederation, with no large western territories to administer independently of the several states, had dissolved from sheer irrelevance shortly after the Revolution, leaving a patchwork of small countries along the East Coast and a gigantic French empire on the rest of the continent? As usual, everything depends on Pittsburgh.

    Or, alternatively, what if, when the American revolutionaries came northward to liberate Quebec, the Québécois had said “Magnifique!” instead of “Quoi?” Would it be the recalcitrant French rather than the intransigent Southerners who posed the greatest threat to the Union?

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