If What If: History That Never Happened

By Isaac H.

For some, history can be pretty boring. Long, drawn out stories about things that already happened can seem extremely uninteresting to some folks. I’m not one of them. I’ve always been a huge fan of history and all it’s sub-genres. World history, American history, regional history, paleontology, archeology, genealogy, it’s all captivating. In case you aren’t a big fan, don’t worry, I won’t bore you with recommendations of readings on events past (this time). This post isn’t about history. Or at least, actual history.

A little while back an acquaintance introduced me to the creepypasta style collaborative science fiction wiki SCP Foundation. Many of the stories on there deal with interesting things like time travel and alternate universes. While all (well, “most” anyway) of the contributions make for great reads, some of my favorites tend to revolve around alternative histories. Stories that, for the most part, share history with our world but at some point veer off to a different world. Usually due to a different decision made by someone, or some catastrophic event that never occurred in real life. Below are a few great stories that take place in alternative histories.

Bombs Away, by Harry Turtledove

In the early days of the cold war, the world was still on its toes wondering if a seemingly inevitable war between the United States and the U.S.S.R would break out at any moment. General Douglass MacArthur allegedly made strong recommendations to President Harry Truman that the US use atomic weapons in the Korean War. Truman wisely disregarded this, aware it could have resulted in a wide spanning conflagration. In our history, this would end in President Truman relieving MacArthur of duty, but what would have happened if the President took up MacArthur’s advice? Harry Turtledove’s “Hot War” series presents an answer to this question, where the use of weapons of mass destruction in Korea spirals out to World War III.

River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey

I’m just going to go on record and say deep water has always made me uncomfortable. I’m a passable swimmer and I’ve spent plenty of time boating or swimming with friends. Even still, I’ve never been able to shake that discomforting thought of “whats below me” whenever I’m in a body of water that I can’t see the bottom of. It’s a common enough condition to have a term for it: thalassophobia, the fear of deep water. So imagining a world where hippos, an animal that kills more people than sharks, lurk beneath the waters of the continent’s largest and longest river seems like the stuff of nightmares. Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth is a western adventure that takes place in an alternate 19th century America where hippos were introduced to North America as a potential food source. While not specifically a horror novel, anyone who shares my discomfort with the deep unknown will feel the underlying fear the travelers in this novel live with.

Empire of Lies, by Raymond Khoury

The Ottoman Empire, like most empires, remains something largely relegated to history books. The country hasn’t existed for almost a century now, and its heydays as a formidable world power were long before it even when it was dissolved. But what if someone could change that? On its surface, Raymond Khoury’s Empire of Lies takes place in an altered reality where the 17th century Ottoman push westward into Europe was successful. In this reality, the Ottomans were eventually able to conquer all of Europe. Beneath the the element of “what if” is a story that speaks to the commonalities that all global superpowers share. In this interesting tale of time travel and alternate realities, overextension, stagnation, corruption, civic unrest, political oppression and inequality are shown to be common elements of any large, powerful human society.

Are there any stories of alternate histories that pique your interest? Are there any changes to history that you think would make for a great story? Share them with us below. You may also enjoy this list of alternative history titles available in digital format online.

If What If: History that Never Happened

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6 responses to “If What If: History That Never Happened”

  1. Erin L. says:

    I’m reading “The Calculating Stars” by Mary Robinette Kowal. This is a “what if” set in the time of “Hidden Figures”. I won’t give away any details but there is a catastrophic event that changes the focus of the space program back in the 50’s. A clue is that the series this book starts all have the subtitle “A Lady Astronaut Novel”. I haven’t finished but I’m hooked so far.

  2. Sara M. DuBois says:

    I would also like to recommend a great book of history by a nearly local author, named Warren Read. The book is history and a memoir all at the same time. It is called “The Lyncher in Me” and can be found in the Sno-Isle Library System, I believe, or purchased on Amazon. Warren grew up in Everett, ad his mother grew up in Edmonds, as I did. It is about a Lynching of three African American men in around 1920, in Duluth, MN. And we learn more about Warren in this memoir. Thank you!
    Sara M. DuBois

    • Isaac H says:

      Thanks Sara. While we don’t currently have that item in our system, it sounds like a very poignant but insightful read. Oddly enough, I’ve actually been to the memorial dedicated to the victims in Duluth. While the library system isn’t currently allowing requests for new physical items while our buildings are closed, once we reopen that would certainly be a great item to add to the collection. It looks like the digital title is available for request through Overdrive. You can place a recommendation for it through the link using your Sno-Isle Library card number and PIN. I went ahead and placed a my recommendation for it as well. Thanks!

  3. Kathy Smargiassi says:

    I’m amazed you didn’t include Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”! I recently read it for my book club, and we all enjoyed it. I was especially tickled by the Ultra-orthodox Jewish version of the Mafia.

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