Bending History: My Favorite Alt-History Books
Hey there, Dear Reader. It’s Monday, January 4, 2021, and it is almost noon here in New Hometown, Florida. A cold front must have passed through the area last night; the current temperature is 57˚F (15˚C) under sunny skies. With the wind blowing from the north-northeast at 5 MPH (9 KM/H) and humidity at 55%, the feels-like factor is 57˚F (15˚C). Today we can expect a high temperature of 68˚F (20˚C) and sunny condition. At night, the skies should be clear, and the low will be 43˚F (6˚C).
Do you like “alternative history” fiction, Dear Reader? I do, although – speaking as a history buff and long-time reader – I think creating a story based on “counterfactual” twists and successfully getting a reader to suspend disbelief is incredibly difficult. In all my years as a reader – since the mid-1960s, if family lore about my aptitude for reading is to be believed – I’ve come across quite a few “alt-history” books that take a famous event in history – a battle in a major war or other pivotal event, like JFK’s assassination, usually – and tweak it so that the outcome is different than in reality.
If memory serves, the first book I read in the genre was Alfred Coppel’s 1983 novel The Burning Mountain: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan. In The Burning Mountain, Coppel – a World War II veteran who wrote political thrillers along the lines of Thirty-Four East (1974) as well as many science fiction novels and short stories.
As I wrote in my Amazon review of The Burning Mountain back in 2004:
July 1945: As the scientists and military men who have built the atomic bomb prepare to test the ultimate weapon, an unexpected thunderstorm arrives at the Trinity test site near Los Alamos, N.M. Lightning strikes the tower where the first bomb — code named “Fat Man” — is tethered, and in a literal flash, history is changed. There are still two nuclear weapons left, but until the more complex plutonium bomb can be tested, their use is postponed until 1946. In the meantime, the conventional operation of the Japanese home islands, code named DOWNFALL, is launched as scheduled on Nov. 1, 1945.
With this almost Shakespearean touch, novelist and World War II veteran Alfred Coppel (Thirty Four East, The Dragon) begins his “what-if” account of the invasion of Japan in 1945 and 1946.
Instead of covering the entire two-part campaign (OLYMPIC, the landing on Kyushu, and CORONET, the final landing on Honshu) in the main body of The Burning Mountain, Coppel starts his tale by dispensing with the aftermath of the failed TRINITY test with an “excerpt” from a history of the 1941-46 Pacific War, covering the strategy and tactics used by both sides up to and during the OLYMPIC campaign.
The bulk of The Burning Mountain centers on the March 1946 landings as seen through the eyes of various Japanese and Allied participants, including a Marine sergeant who is unsure that his platoon commander will perform well in combat, a B-17 crewman who finds himself in dire straits when his bomber is shot down, an American Ranger officer whose connections with a Japanese family begin to affect his perception of the war the closer he gets to places he knew as a child, and the Japanese soldiers and civilians who desperately fight to defend their homeland from the invading “gaijin.”
For years, The Burning Mountain was my favorite alternative history novel. Then, in 1992, I came across a review in the Miami Herald of Robert Harris’ Fatherland, a detective novel set in a 1964 in which Nazi Germany won the Second World War and is both entangled in a Vietnam-like guerrilla war in the Eastern front and in a Cold War with the United States. Now, the two nuclear-armed powers are tentatively moving toward détente as President Joseph P. Kennedy announces that he is going to Berlin for a face-to-face summit with a 75-year-old Adolf Hitler.
This is the backdrop for Fatherland’s main plot, in which Berlin Kriminalpolizei detective Xavier March investigates the murder of an elderly man who turns out to be a high ranking Nazi official. Like many American film noir detectives, March is a dogged investigator with a cynical view of the world that is shaped by his wartime experiences as a U-boat commander in the Battle of the Atlantic. His refusal to join the Nazi Party and his lack of enthusiasm for Hitler have resulted in a divorce from his more politicized ex-wife and a strained relationship with his son Pili. And when March’s investigation uncovers a conspiracy that threatens to unravel Hitler’s regime before the summit, the stubborn detective and his unlikely ally, American reporter Charlotte Maguire, find themselves targeted by the Nazis’ murderous security forces.
I also read Peter G. Tsouras’ 1994 “faux history” book Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, a more action-packed story in which – as the title clearly states – the German defenders at Normandy prevail and the Allies’ Operation Overlord fails.
Again, I refer you to a short review that I wrote for Amazon back in 2003:
On the sixth day of the sixth month of 1944, elements of six Allied infantry divisions and three airborne divisions began the assault on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. Within 24 hours, despite horrible losses at some points, the first wave of invaders breached the German line and a huge Allied host began pouring ashore.
Peter G. Tsouras, tweaking history’s reality by presenting a plausible chain of alternate events, paints a chilling picture of a German victory over the invading Allies. In Tsouras’ fictional history, German armored units destroy the Omaha Beach landings, Hitler and his generals react much faster than they actually did, and nothing the Allies attempt to do in order to save Operation Overlord works.
Unlike Fatherland and The Burning Mountain, Tsouras does not tell a conventional fictitious story set in the historical backdrop of the Normandy campaign with a huge cast of fictional characters mixed with historical figures. In fact, Disaster at D-Day reads like a conventional military history book – complete with photo inserts, maps, and footnotes, many of which are attributed to real quotes from books such as Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, as well as to many fictitious books written in an alternate reality in which the participants have different outcomes than they did in real life.
Currently, I’m reading two novels in the alt-history genre, both of which are products of Harry Turtledove’s imagination. The Two Georges: A Novel of Alternate America, 1996 is a collaborative effort between Turtledove and Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss. In that novel, we are transported to a world in which the 13 American colonies and Great Britain averted the Revolutionary War, and the course of history took a vastly different turn.
The other, Ruled Britannia, is by Turtledove alone and is set in Britain a decade after a successful invasion by the Spanish Armada. In Ruled Britannia, we meet a cast of characters that includes many of Europe’s great playwrights of the Elizabethan era, including Christopher Marlowe, Lope de Vega, and William Shakespeare in a plot full of literary allusions, high-stakes political maneuvering, espionage, and a people’s struggle for freedom under foreign occupation.
They both are well-written and interesting, although I inexplicably set aside Ruled Britannia so I could read and review other books I purchased over the past year and a half.
If you read alt-history novels by Turtledove or other authors, let me know in the Comments section if you like the genre (or not) and if you have a favorite novel (or a least favorite one) in which history takes a different turn.