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Refreshingly academic alternate history
on April 22, 2001
This book is in a slightly different class than most recent alternate history (or "counterfactual history," as the author calls it). The book is an anthology, but all the stories were written by the same author, Steve Tally. From his writing, I would have guessed that Mr. Tally is a history professor, and a pretty lively one, but he is in fact a professional writer whose credits include as much hard science as history. Nevertheless, his grasp of American history is impressive, and enhances his book's quality.
The book takes twenty-eight "what if" scenarios and plays them out: What if the early United States had kept the Articles of Confederation? What if President T. Roosevelt had carried out his threat of outlawing the fledgling sport of American football? What if Nixon had fought his impeachment until the bitter end? What if IBM had written its early personal-computer code in-house instead of hiring Microsoft? The answers are fascinating, but plausible. As the author's introductory note explains, "I tried to make the counterfactual scenarios plausible. Adolf Hitler doesn't step into a time machine to join Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg . . . . [T]he counterfactuals are based on the decisions of human beings, not on acts of God. . . . Focusing on decisions allows us to second-guess those decisions, and second-guessing is always good sport." Looking past the implicit dig at "The Guns of the South" by Harry Turtledove (a very good book, in my opinion), Mr. Tally lives up to his promise of plausibility: each chapter opens with an actual history lesson that sets the stage for the alternate-history story, then closes with a discussion of the sources and historical analogies that were used in constructing the story. For example, the chapter about the early United States keeping the Articles of Confederation, "America Scraps Its Constitution," plays out an interesting storyline whose facts are partly drawn (as the chapter later explains) from the Confederate States' experiment with a decentralized national government in the 1860s.
It may be a drawback for some readers that the stories tend to be a little dry and academic, as if the book was a real history textbook rather than a novel. For me, however, the academic tone gives the book a certain charm that only enhances its interest. The stories actually engaged me as I tried drawing on my own knowledge of history to figure out where they were heading. For those readers who are seriously interested in second-guessing Mr. Tally's second guesses, he recently (Feb. 2001) set up a website for such a discussion, which he mentions in his introductory note.
This book got me thinking, it educated me, and it was fun.