Alternate histories and the "Mournful Dowry"
October 20, 2017 10:03 AM   Subscribe

The Guns of the South and C.S.A. strike radically different tones, but both begin with the same ambitious objective: to venture an answer to the question of whether, given a change in historical course, America’s original sin might be redeemable. The black filmmaker answers a resounding “no,” while the white science-fiction writer a hopeful “maybe,” but they both exemplify the genre of alternate history at its best and most compelling: savvy, thoughtful, entertaining, and provocative. They do more than speculate about history as it might have been: they challenge their audience to think about history as it is, and history as it is told.
Renee de Groot examines some of the more than 150 American Civil War alternate histories which have been written since 1900.
posted by Rumple (53 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I saw C.S.A. in the theater when it was released. It was mind-blowingly, deliciously vicious. The "twist" at the end when they reveal that some of the "fake ads" they sprinkled throughout were not quite so fake as you thought raised an audible gasp from some of the people around me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:11 AM on October 20 [5 favorites]


Somewhat tangential, I never pass up the opportunity to mention The Mirage as a really great alt-history novel.
posted by GuyZero at 10:11 AM on October 20 [3 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos, I came in here to say the same exact thing. Mind-blowing Indeed.
posted by ejs at 10:16 AM on October 20


I always enjoyed Guns of the South, but I read it at a very young age and I don't think I fully grasped a lot of the racial nuance that was presented to my young developing mind. I understood, baddies want to help South win, but there's more to it than just that. I may need to do a re-read alongside this essay. Good share.
posted by Fizz at 10:22 AM on October 20 [5 favorites]


I'm a bit surprised they didn't contrast Guns of the South with Turtledove's other "the CSA wins" alt-history, How Few Remain and its sequels, where the Confederacy becomes Nazi Germany after fighting on the losing side of WW1 (which in this timeline is the British/French side) and applies its Final Solution to the African-American population. I'm not sure whether to credit that to a deliberate authorial position that the CSA can only be redeemed in science fiction rather than anything that actually reflects the history of the era, or if it's just doing something different for the sake of it, or what.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:41 AM on October 20 [7 favorites]


One of the things I've seen with the attempt to write "what if the Confederates won" alternate histories is that you run into a major problem right at the get-go: namely, how do they win? If you're being honest with history, you're going to run right into the reality that the South, to put it bluntly, was fucked. Despite the hagiography of the Lost Causian Dunning School, the reality was that Southern generals really weren't any better than their Northern counterparts (a look at Gettysburg should make that abundantly obvious), the North had the stronger economy, slavery was a drain on the South in many ways (it forced the Confederacy to retain military strength at home in order to maintain control, as well as putting off key allies.) And if you look at these alt-histories, you either wind up with a deus ex machina (Guns of the South), an attempt to play "for want of a nail" on an event in history (Timeline 141 series), or just going "a wizard did it" and glossing over the details.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:06 AM on October 20 [26 favorites]


if the central tenet to Confederate isn't that reparations are valid then the show is racist. any show, really, about American history that touches on race that doesn't center reparations is complicit in white supremacy - that would cover much of the gap between a black filmmaker's cynicism of modern America in comparison to a white writer's philosophical, pseudo-humanist optimism for racial, colorblind unity

that's white supremacy in a nutshell. white people assume the worst of racism is dead. black folks know that affirmative action and the VRA was supposed to be a half-measure to atone for an unforgivable, foundational, still highly pervasive, murderous sin. we live, right now, in a white supremacist dystopia - I am honestly not confident that Confederate will be anything but gentle nods to a really complicated and insipid system of institutionalized racism
posted by runt at 11:09 AM on October 20 [14 favorites]


how do they win?

I think C.S.A. has a plausible scenario - the UK and France come in and support the CSA. I think the CSA tried this and didn't succeed in real life.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:23 AM on October 20 [7 favorites]


Timeline 141 makes that argument as well, but it doesn't really hold up under analysis. The argument is that the UK and France want access to Southern cotton, but the reality is that in our world, the UK had success in transplanting cotton to their holdings in Egypt and India, which lessened their reliance on the South for the crop. And again, slavery - especially the brutal chattel slavery practiced in the South - was distasteful in Europe, so the governments supporting the South would have not been publicly popular.

That said, it's the most "realistic" of the scenarios, but it's still pretty unrealistic.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:31 AM on October 20 [5 favorites]


Of course, the most common Civil War alternate history scenario is not "What if the South had won?" but "What if the South had been fighting for a noble cause?"
posted by ckape at 11:36 AM on October 20 [18 favorites]


Had that succeeded, the south would have ended up a part of the empire. Britain was supporting them because divide and conquer.

It's pretty implausible either way; though their navy was very powerful, Britain's land forces couldn't have defeated either of the American sides.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 11:38 AM on October 20 [1 favorite]


I found the essay to be quite frustrating. It does keep going back to this point:
its authors have been mostly white men from the North and Midwest. This is perhaps the most important paradox of Civil War alternate history. The entire genre is evidence that the war still rankles in American historical consciousness, even as it is most often the imaginative domain of those least affected by their own “what-ifs?”
but I feel as if it doesn't ever really engage with it; I think it's telling that it admits this:
given a change in historical course, America’s original sin might be redeemable. The black filmmaker answers a resounding “no,” while the white science-fiction writer a hopeful “maybe,”
It's almost as if the essay is close to becoming aware of it--and the genre's--blind spot, but never quite gets there? Particularly since it argues that the genre engages the reality of modern systemic racism, which I am completely unconvinced by, again, largely because
these alternative histories are overwhelmingly written by white Northerners and Midwesterners comfortable in the certainty that history ultimately went their way.
I mean, yes, in most of these CWAH, the Confederacy does lose in a some form or another, but again, as they're generally written by white people, "they often end up trivializing slavery." Like... Guns of the South, where somehow every Confederate gets redeemed? Where the slaves themselves aren't really ever brought into focus?

And then the section about Hallie Marshall, which never actually engages with the recurring problem of how Black suffering is stripped of its horrors to be repurposed and recontextualized for White people (see: The Handmaid's Tale, for one...)
posted by anem0ne at 11:38 AM on October 20 [6 favorites]


The Confederate States did win before they even lifted the first saber! Let's "Ask Cokie".
INSKEEP: You think the Electoral College should stay? It's OK?
ROBERTS: I think that it has a very important role in terms of protecting minorities. The founders thought about small states. Keep in mind, they were always against the tyranny of the majority.
INSKEEP: We're not talking about racial minorities here. We're talking about...
ROBERTS: Yes, I'm talking about racial minorities here.
posted by marycatherine at 11:44 AM on October 20 [2 favorites]


I watched and enjoyed CSA. I haven't read Turtledove beyond "The Road Less Traveled" and honestly don't want to read any of his alternative history (I can do without the lionization of any of the Confederate generals).

I have read one alternative history in which the US was founded and yet the Civil War did not happen. It was Fire on the Mountain by Bisson. In it, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry succeeds and the revolution of the slaves leads to an independent, communist society. It's a bit didactic, but still pretty good.

I have never read any work of fiction in which the US Civil war was prevented completely. No one has attempted to figure out the forces necessary for the US to stay united through the end of slavery without a war. I don't know if this speaks to the lack of imagination on the part of Alt History writers or my lack of knowledge of Alt History, but I always figured that nobody who writes alternate history finds the idea of a peaceful reconciliation and emancipation interesting enough to pursue. (For a while, I spent some time trying to construct a timeline that would work- it involved several of the Fire Eaters dying in accidents in the 1840s.)
posted by Hactar at 11:49 AM on October 20 [6 favorites]


I think that the Cokie Roberts quote is telling. There is plenty of revisionist, fictional history of the Civil War all around us. I learned a lot of it in grade school. States rights, noble generals. All of it bunk, but widely believed.

Anyhoo, my more literate racists friends were ALL ABOUT "Guns of the South" when it came out. I never read it or any of Turtledove's work on principle alone.

There is one wrinkle. I always thought that the Southern Elites won the Civil War. They have dominated USA politics for my entire life and have a lock on the Supreme Court, House, and Senate. However, this theory is roundly rejected by my peers.
posted by pdoege at 11:59 AM on October 20 [8 favorites]


The Civil War doesn't happen in Underground Airlines (which is one of the books discussed in the article). There, Lincoln is assassinated before the Southern states can declare independence, and that leads to a new round of negotiations between pro- and anti-slavery states, culminating in a (horrific) deal allowing slavery to continue, contained in the most die-hard states, as long as they (meaning their white populations, natch) want it.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:00 PM on October 20


rmd1023 sort of beat me to it, but the most plausible scenarios I've heard all hinge on also altering European history somewhat—you don't get to a victorious South without outside help.

E.g. if Napoleon III hadn't allied with Britain in the Crimean War, but instead had either allied with Russia in a sort of 19th century Franco-Russian Molotov–Ribbentrop-esque pact, or just stayed neutral, and Britain had lost some of its colonies, particularly Egypt, then they might have been hard enough pressed for cotton and other raw materials by ~1861 to consider more outright support for the CSA than they in reality were. It's a pretty torturous path, but I'm not sure it's actually any more implausible than some causal chains in actual history, so it's hard to say that it's impossible.

I don't really get how you'd get to a victorious south actually conquering the north, which is what you have in C.S.A. and some other novels. That's just... it doesn't make sense without a lot more work. You need aliens. Or time travel. Or something.

But if Britain had been willing to hold their noses on the slavery issue due to what they perceived to be more pressing geopolitical concerns, and threatened or implemented a naval blockade against the USA that would have cut off European trade, then perhaps the CSA could have gotten to some sort of armistice. Definitely not "victory", but the war was unpopular enough in some quarters in the north, that a cease-fire is not entirely unimaginable, particularly if someone like Stephen Douglas had won the presidency in 1861 instead of Lincoln, which is sort of plausible if Lincoln had ended up with typhoid instead of Douglas, or if Douglas had just run a more strategic campaign concentrated on Electoral College seats. Or, if you imagine Lincoln dying when Douglas did, and Hannibal Hamlin succeeding Lincoln as president and mismanaging the Trent Affair, you could get to a US-UK "second front" pretty easily.

Personally, I find the "Douglas beats Lincoln" scenario more interesting to play out, than the "CSA wins the war" scenario. Because if Douglas had won the presidency instead of Lincoln, the southern states probably wouldn't have seceded when they did, and the war would probably have been delayed. I tend to think that war was inevitable at some point, but every year it moves back results in it being a more technologically sophisticated war, and with a greater advantage to the north due to the industrial base being there. It might have ended up being more decisive and one-sided than it was; or perhaps some of the southern generals might not have been willing to take the chance (even for their Sacred Honor™) and it would have been a guerrilla vs. counterinsurgency war rather than a series of decisive battles between near-peer armies.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:13 PM on October 20 [6 favorites]


I always figured that nobody who writes alternate history finds the idea of a peaceful reconciliation and emancipation interesting enough to pursue

I don't think the issue is whether it's interesting enough, rather that some kind of civil war was likely inevitable. The issue of slavery created deep rifts in the nation from even before it was a nation. It was a dominating problem when drafting the Constitution. I really don't see any plausible scenario where the issue is settled peacefully, except something like what Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish describes where slavery is allowed to exist in a contained area and the anti-slavery states are content with that.

For many reasons the slave states were never going to give up their slaves without a fight.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:40 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


well, my idea of an alternate history deals with the reluctance of much of northern society to actually fight a civil war - what would have happened if the confederates hadn't attacked ft sumter? what if lincoln could not get his own people to fight? - it was a rather close thing and even if separation had been inevitable i'm not sure a civil war was

also, with one exception in the article, the assumption always seems to be that a victorious confederacy would have been a stable one - there's many reasons to doubt that, not the least of which would be the plain wrongness of such a confederacy

what if in 25-50 years the slaves had revolted with assistance from northern abolitionists? i think the demographics were against the slaveholders - especially if they had unwisely annexed parts of mexico as part of their national fantasy

would a north that had allowed the southern states to go be bothered with the results of a slave rebellion? would it be something along the lines of south africa, where the presence of a white minority has been tolerated, or something more like haiti, with awful massacres and a major refugee problem? could it - and this is where someone could really get some people going - result in a state where blacks enslaved whites in revenge?

it certainly is interesting how certain things are generally assumed to happen in these contrafactual fictions so that they don't make us too uncomfortable

another question i have is how would have a divided america reacted to ww1? without american involvement, you would not get the kind of german defeat that resulted in hitler and ww2 years later
posted by pyramid termite at 12:49 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


The only way for the CSA to win without external involvement would be to conscript slaves with the promise of freedom. After winning the war, the CSA whites would have put them back in chains, killing millions of black Americans to cow the rest into returning to slavery. They would have then gone back to importing slaves to flesh out their work force.
posted by Groundhog Week at 12:54 PM on October 20


There also needs to be a different term than "alternative history" to distinguish "Guns of the South" type stories from CSA type stories. To me "alternate history" is about looking at the consequences of something in the past happening differently, not like time travelers or wizards appearing and changing things. "What if Julius Caesar had survived the assassination attempt" is pretty different than "What if someone had sent Julius Caesar nuclear weapons from the future".
posted by Sangermaine at 12:55 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


Hactar, thanks for the Fire on the Mountain recommendation. I will check it out. Are there any alternate histories based upon Reconstruction not being cut off prematurely? Or if there was no amnesty and Lee, et al. were executed? So many alternate histories head down the dystopia route.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:57 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


Well you could write a Temeraire-type novel and they could win because they had more dragons.

slavery is allowed to exist in a contained area and the anti-slavery states are content with that.

Much of the problem wasn't with non-slave states being content, but with slave states wanting to expand. A victorious Confederacy wouldn't have stayed peaceful; it would be making continual sorties in the name of recapturing escaped slaves or otherwise striking out at the enemy.
posted by emjaybee at 1:07 PM on October 20 [4 favorites]


I always loved Saturday Night Live's take on alternate history:
“What if Napoleon Bonaparte had a B-52 bomber during the Battle of Waterloo?”
"What if Superman (Uberman) was born in Germany (and was a Nazi)?"
"What if Spartacus Had a Piper Cub?"

I wish they had done a "What if Robert E Lee had a Piper Cub?" episode to properly skewer all this wishful thinking alternative history nonsense.
posted by eye of newt at 1:12 PM on October 20


Yes, a post-war CSA would not have been stable. One of the reasons that the South kept forcing laws like the Fugitive Slave Act on the North was that having freedom right across a border meant a lot of escape attempts, especially as networks developed. Which meant slavery was less viable in border states, which meant slaves would tend to be concentrated into the central southern states… which would mean that the interests of the the border states and the deep south would tend to diverge, with some border states quite possibly choosing to go their own way in turn. Especially since the South was already a police state and would only have to become more harshly so if they wanted to have any chance of keeping control.

The South was also less equipped to successfully expand; the North already had control of the rest of the US territory and even admitted a new state during the war along with organizing new territories. Most of their expansion dreams centered on turning Caribbean territories into new satrapies, which would involve pissing off existing colonial powers, without the industrial and military power of the Northern states to enforce their claims.
posted by tavella at 1:14 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


"What if Superman (Uberman) was born in Germany (and was a Nazi)?"

::cough::
posted by Sangermaine at 1:19 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


They would have then gone back to importing slaves to flesh out their work force.

The problem with this is that the British Navy began (after 1808 when Britain abolished its own slave trade) enforcing a blockade and seizure of slave ships leaving Africa. By the time of the Civil War, the international slave trade was essentially over. So any victorious CSA would have to both A) restart an almost defunct trading system, and B) contend with the power of what was then the most powerful navy on the planet. Seeing as how some of the suggestions here involved British aid enabling the CSA to win, restarting the trade would put it in conflict with a much more powerful nation whose trade and support the CSA would be reliant upon.

Then, of course, there's the fact that even Southern planters decried the cruelty of the Slave Trade, even as they talked up the humane and civilizing nature of their own barbarities. Well before the Civil War, the general consensus among both North and South was that the Slave Trade should be abolished in preference to "natural increase." The CSA ambassadors to other nations were, in fact, given explicit instructions to signal that they had no intentions of restarting the Slave Trade.

This is the problem with writing alternative history. It's not enough to simply know the facts as they happened, you have to actually have an in-depth knowledge of the nooks and crannies, to know why something happened or didn't happen.
posted by Panjandrum at 1:24 PM on October 20 [10 favorites]


Well you could write a Temeraire-type novel and they could win because they had more dragons.

Nah, the Temeraire books are pretty consistent about societies that treat dragons as full citizens having an advantage over societies that don't.
posted by nonasuch at 1:32 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


It appears the full text of the academic article this piece was based on is available online as open access.
posted by Rumple at 1:37 PM on October 20 [2 favorites]


If you're being honest with history, you're going to run right into the reality that the South, to put it bluntly, was fucked.

The opinion of the professor for my (concise, single-semester) college "History of the Civil War" class, who specialized in the study of the war, was that all the Confederacy would have needed to do was obtain a "temporary ceasefire", which would not have actually been temporary, to achieve its goal of successfully seceding.

He said that although Lincoln openly admitted to not having much of a grasp of the military aspects of the war, he knew that political inertia would make it impossible to re-start once suspended, and that the Union absolutely had to avoid that.
posted by XMLicious at 1:38 PM on October 20 [2 favorites]


The idea of the South conquering the North is absurd. But there are a number of plausible scenarios under which the South "wins" by successfully getting the Union to sue for peace and thereby maintaining the institution of slavery.

The Confederacy not making the moronic decision to fire the first shot of the war (which would weaken public support for it among the Northern population), Confederate forces capturing DC early in the war, Lincoln being assassinated and succeeded by Hamlin (as mentioned above), Sherman and Grant having a string of major failures instead of victories in the lead up to the 1864 election causing the Peace Democrats to win, British/French intervention on the side of the Confederacy keeping their ports open and shoring up their military, etc. were all variables that could have led to a Southern victory.

For that matter, there are a number of scenarios in which the war ends with a Union victory but slavery remains intact (albeit contained within the south): let's the assume McClellan is out of the picture and the Union crushes the Confederates in Virginia and easily takes Richmond. It's unlikely the ensuing peace would have abolished slavery: anti-slavery sentiments only escalated as the war dragged on, and even the Emancipation Proclamation could only be justified at the time as a war necessity.
posted by Ndwright at 2:05 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


Somewhat tangential, I never pass up the opportunity to mention The Mirage as a really great alt-history novel.


It had some truly brilliant bits, but it was also lacking a lot of sensible worldbuilding and I felt it sort of fell apart on some Islamophobia.
posted by jeather at 4:12 PM on October 20


It had some truly brilliant bits, but it was also lacking a lot of sensible worldbuilding and I felt it sort of fell apart on some Islamophobia.

But the portrayal of the US was so, so accurate.
posted by GuyZero at 4:23 PM on October 20


I've always liked the alternate history of Fort Sumter having never been fired upon. If it hadn't been attacked, then Lincoln wouldn't have put out his call for volunteers. Without the war fever of the attack and the call for volunteers, Virginia might not have seceded. Without Virginia, the CSA would have been in an even more hopeless condition in terms of industry and self-sufficiency. And without Virginia, other states which were waffling (Tennessee, Arkansas) might not have seceded, or in the cases of Maryland and Missouri, might not have fallen into chaos over the possibility of secession.

But I'd be a terrible alt-history writer because I can't quite imagine where things would go from there. I think the smaller CSA would collapse on its own. Or maybe it would have avoided war and somehow survived. I'm not sure what Lincoln could have done in the absence of the South firing first. Maybe a new status quo would be established, a new dirt poor country is created, and 2017 has President Rump complaining about "illegals" and refugees sneaking into Tennessee from Alabama.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 4:37 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


Imagine an alt-history where the Union had better Generals at the start, and crushed the South in a year.
posted by ovvl at 8:49 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


There also needs to be a different term than "alternative history" to distinguish "Guns of the South" type stories from CSA type stories.

Actually there is. Alternate history fiction readers have long used the term "Alien Space Bats" (ASBs) to identify alternate history stories with more sci-fi/magical/implausible elements.
posted by FJT at 9:30 PM on October 20 [6 favorites]


Are there any alternate histories based upon Reconstruction not being cut off prematurely? Or if there was no amnesty and Lee, et al. were executed?

You may be interested in volume 51 number 4 of Civil War History, devoted to "Reconstruction as It Should Have Been: An Exercise in Counterfactual History" [pdf].

The primary argument is that Reconstruction clearly didn't go far enough, so what might 'far enough' have looked like? For example, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and George Washington Julian,"called for territorialization of the old Confederate states (which was the elimination of Southern state sovereignty), restrictions on white voting, installation of congressionally appointed governors, and supervision of Southern activity for thirty years, all to be enforced by the U.S. Army."
posted by jedicus at 9:35 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


Counterfactual History

Which is also a useful search term if you want to get more academic takes on "what would happen if...".
posted by MikeKD at 11:53 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


"What if Superman (Uberman) was born in Germany (and was a Nazi)?"

::cough::


:::deeper cough:::
posted by Fizz at 7:02 AM on October 21 [2 favorites]


"What if Superman (Uberman) was born in Germany (and was a Nazi)?"

::cough::

:::deeper cough:::


Major coughing fit, hacking up blood.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:55 AM on October 21 [1 favorite]


Fizz: The premise of Red Son is that Superman was born in the Soviet Union as a communist, not in Germany as a Nazi. Maybe, especially given that the USSR is fundamentally the reason the Nazis actually got their asses kicked, we could not equate communists with Nazis?
posted by adrienneleigh at 2:51 PM on October 21 [1 favorite]


Oh I know. I was just pointing to it as an alternate what if for Superman. You're correct. Communism does not equal National Socialism.
posted by Fizz at 7:20 PM on October 21


I can't see any way the CSA could have survived, given that they were weaker than the north in every respect - materially, industrially, and diplomatically. I think we have to consider why this might be an interesting question at all, given the infinite range of possible counterfactuals. For instance, why isn't there a genre of stories in which France conquered America, or ones in which the Allies lost WW1?

I think the answer has to be that the civil war sits uneasily in the American historical narrative because the Sourh lost but was not beaten. The failure of Reconstruction let Southerners erect a sort of facade of victory, with buildings and monuments that might have honored heroes instead commemorating the villains of the CSA. Their presence makes it much easier to imagine a victorious South because we almost know what it would have looked like - just like today, but with more slavery.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:09 AM on October 22 [6 favorites]


For instance, why isn't there a genre of stories in which France conquered America, or ones in which the Allies lost WW1?

To be fair, this sort of thing has generated like several dozen books by Turtledove.
posted by GuyZero at 9:43 AM on October 22 [2 favorites]


I haven't read a lot of Civil War alternative histories, so maybe some of them properly address this, but the obvious problem with any sort of The-South-Wins-the-War setup is that winning the war would not address any of the things the South seceded over.

To be clear, I'm not talking about victory in the sense of conquering the North, which is ridiculous and inane without the assistance of time-traveling South Africans or similar, but victory in the sense of being allowed to leave the Union. That sort of victory is not so very unlikely when yo look at political will in the North with regards to the war; as others above have pointed out, with a few more victories and a few less provocations, they might have straight-up worn down the northern will to fight.

But the things that the South felt threatened by wouldn't be much helped by being a separate nation, and many of them would be made more prevalent. To be clear: there wasn't actally any real threat of abolition leading up to the war. The South still had a lot of political clout, and while abolitionism was a growing movement in the North, it didn't have majority support nor was likely to soon. No, the issue wasn't fear that the North wold outlaw slavery, but that the North would not be cooperative in keeping slavery functioning. Flashpoints in the lead-up to the Civil War were mostly about how much support non-slave states were obligated to give to slave owners in securing and recovering their "property": the Fugitive Slave Law, the Dred Scott decision, etc. These concerns are called out specifically in several of the Articles of Secession. As I've said before here the fight was indeed about "States' Rights" --- but not about the rights of southern states to their laws, so much as the rights of northern states to theirs.

Thing is: as an independent nation, they'd be in an even worse position. Instead of a fugitive slave being property one could mobilize a half-hearted search for by standing on federal law, a fugitive slave would become a foreign asylum-seeker with the relevant rights. Instigators of rebellion and terror (e.g. John Brown) would have any sort of legal action against them muddled by the diplomatic intervention of their own government. Between the porous border, what would likely be a constant state of guerilla war, and a stagnant economy, I don't see how an independent Confederacy survives. A year after the peace, they'd be wondering why they wanted independence.
posted by jackbishop at 4:29 PM on October 22 [11 favorites]


To be fair, this sort of thing has generated like several dozen books by Turtledove.

I gave up on Turtledove after Guns of the South because he seemed to have too much love for the historical bad guys. Also, didn't he write that mawkish story about Jews surviving as cosplayers under a victorious Nazi regime? His counterfactual stories started to repulse me and I wasn't actually aware that he had branched out. That being said, although there are stories by different authors with lots of different counterfactual bases, the "triumphant CSA" and the "victorious Nazi regime" seem to be the only ones that have attracted enough authors to constitute genres of their own.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:28 PM on October 22 [3 favorites]


For instance, why isn't there a genre of stories in which France conquered America, or ones in which the Allies lost WW1?

I just unsuccessfully tried to find it - somewhere online there is a chart compiled by alternative history fans I saw once, which lists every alternative history book they were aware of in chronological order based on the "Point of divergence". There were books on that list that covered everything from "what if dinosaurs were the dominant species" all the way up to "what if Gore won in 2000". I'm sure "what if France conquered America" was on there.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:55 PM on October 22 [2 favorites]




INSKEEP: You think the Electoral College should stay? It's OK?
ROBERTS: I think that it has a very important role in terms of protecting minorities. The founders thought about small states. Keep in mind, they were always against the tyranny of the majority.


The real reason we have an Electoral College: to protect slave states. “In a direct election system, the South would have lost every time.”
posted by homunculus at 8:01 PM on October 22 [4 favorites]


That being said, although there are stories by different authors with lots of different counterfactual bases, the "triumphant CSA" and the "victorious Nazi regime" seem to be the only ones that have attracted enough authors to constitute genres of their own.

I think Joe in Australia's "lost but was not beaten" theory accounts for both of those, actually.
posted by tobascodagama at 7:51 AM on October 23


EmpressCallipygos: "I just unsuccessfully tried to find it - somewhere online there is a chart compiled by alternative history fans I saw once, which lists every alternative history book they were aware of in chronological order based on the "Point of divergence". "

Are you thinking of Uchronia.net?
posted by Chrysostom at 9:47 PM on October 30 [1 favorite]


It's hard to write alternate history about changes that are really big, or where the effect would have been huge. It's also difficult to write them if the audience doesn't understand the premise well.

The American Civil War works well, because you can (if you squint) sort of imagine a USA / CSA armistice without much else in the world really changing. You can hold the rest of the world constant, if you want, and just change things inside the borders of the US, and then try to play it out. And it helps significantly that most readers in the US at least understand what both sides in that war looked like and have some vague idea of what they wanted (or think they do).

Writing an alternate history about the Central Powers winning the Great War is probably much more challenging. Both because it would have upended the rest of the 20th century completely, or at least had the potential to do so, and because I suspect most Americans don't have a good mental model of what victory by the losing side would have looked like. (The Central Powers are largely reduced to Generic Bad Guys or a sort of junior varsity Nazis in the US highschool history canon, at least in my experience.)

Scott Westerfeld does make a pretty strong attempt in Leviathan, but also has giant living bioengineered blimps and stuff, too. Which is a good yardstick of just how weird things get when you change something that big—you might as well throw in flying whales, because things are already pretty far off the rails and the audience probably has no conception of what the world would look like given the premise you're working from.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:05 PM on November 3 [2 favorites]


Note - i was thinking of uchronia.net. link here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:50 AM on November 4


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