Jul 17 2012 12:00pm

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln and the Future of Alternate History in the Mainstream

Crazy question: What’s going to happen when the mainstream fiction crowd gets bored with the end of the world? When they’ve had enough of post-apocalyptic wastelands and hardened survivors fighting off zombies and super-vampires? Here’s my theory: Instead of indulging themselves in worst-case scenarios for the future, they’ll see what sort of damage they can do to the past.

Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is an obvious early frontrunner in the mainstreaming of alternate history, with its exploration of how putting Charles Lindbergh on the Republican ticket in the 1940 presidential election could have led to the ascendancy of a fascist, anti-Semitic strain in American politics, with dire consequences for Europe as Lindbergh (widely considered to have been a Nazi sympathizer in real life) cuts a deal with Hitler. Now Stephen L. Carter turns up with The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, which does an even better job than Roth’s novel of doing exactly what it says on the tin. But, like Roth, Carter also tries very hard to put all the historical toys back exactly where he found them.

Carter begins with John Wilkes Booth and Ford’s Theatre—in this timeline, however, doctors are able to save Lincoln’s life. It’s the other assassination attempt that was supposed to take place that night, against Andrew Johnson, that succeeds, leaving the nation without a vice president. (There was also an attack on Secretary of State William Seward that night; Carter makes Seward’s injuries much graver and keeps him convalescing in his home for far longer than he did in real life.)

The real story begins two years later, as the Radical Republicans in Congress become fed up with Lincoln’s moderate Reconstruction policies, and the long-simmering resentments over wartime policies like the suspension of habeas corpus come out into the open. In his author’s note, Carter explicitly states that he doesn’t believe Lincoln should have been impeached had he survived, and he’s not 100 percent certain Congress would even have dared to confront the chief executive, “but it is the ’what-ifs’ that make fiction such fun.”

Carter uses plenty of historical figures in telling the tale, including frequent visits to the Oval Office where Lincoln can spiel his humorous anecdotes. The impeachment trial, however, is a backdrop for the story of the fictional Abigail Canner, a black woman who’s been hired as a clerk at the Washington law firm Lincoln’s retained to defend him in front of Congress. The elites of (white) Washington society are fascinated with Abigail and her connection to the case; at the same time, her employers are unwilling to give her any actual responsibilities. It’s up to another of the law clerks, Jonathan Hilliman, to befriend her and form a tentative alliance—especially after one of the firm’s partners is found murdered in the streets of Washington’s red-light district.

The drama, then, is two-fold. Will Abigail be able to solve the murder, despite explicit orders from the firm’s surviving partner to leave it alone, and connect it to an alleged conspiracy against Lincoln? And while she’s poking around in that mystery, will Lincoln’s defenders be able to successfully fight the charges of tyranny being brought against him?

Well, it’s set in 1867, and a different 1867 at that, but The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is still a straightforward legal thriller, so you can be pretty sure of the answer to the first question. And though I’m not going to tell you what the answer to the second question is, I’ll say this much: As I suggested earlier, Stephen Carter’s take on alternate history is in some crucial respects similar to Philip Roth’s.

If it’s not too nerdy, maybe I can use Conway’s Game of Life as a metaphor, particularly the ways in which its cellular patterns evolve over multiple turns and the interactions between “live” and “dead” cells. If you were to change even just one cell in an initial setup, you might find a radically different pattern forming over time. The way that science fiction writers tend to approach alternate history, from Keith Roberts’ Pavane up to Harry Turtledove’s various series, is to jump into an altered set-up after several turns have already taken place, so even if we recognize some of the players, the playing field around them has been radically altered.

Novels like The Plot Against America and The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, stay much closer to the moment of historical divergence, so the field still looks an awful lot like the world to which we’re accustomed. Even more significantly, they appear to deliberately choose “moves” that mitigate, or even negate, as many of those divergences as possible. I don’t know why that should be the case; I could probably spin some theories about valuing character development over world building, but that’d just be speculation on my part.

Of course, when I say “novels like The Plot Against America and The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” that raises the question: Are there other novels out there like them? Who else among the non-SF crowd has been tampering with history? We’ll probably come up with some titles in the comments below, but my own hunch is that, as a literary trend, the mainstream alternate history is still in its beginning stages.

Ron Hogan is the founding curator of Beatrice.com, one of the first websites to focus on books and authors. Lately, he’s been reviewing science fiction and fantasy for Shelf Awareness.

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
Mainstream fiction has certainly flirted with alternate history before, indeed even before it became such a staple of SF. Right off the top of my head, there's SSGB by Len Deighton, with a fascist takeover of Great Britain, and Robert Harris's Fatherland, which came out in 1992 and made lots of people go "Wow, what a novel concept!" while SF readers went, "Meh, nothing new here."

Which is not to say this time won't be when the mainstream embraces the concept more thoroughly. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union got a little bit of notice a few years ago. But it's probably going to take a highly respected mainstream author who uses SF tropes without acknowledging them, say Margaret Atwood for instance, to really put the idea out there.
2. DaveMB
Alternate history by "mainstream" authors isn't new. Perhaps the most detailed alternate history ever written was For Want of a Nail...
by business historian Robert Sobel, which takes as its point of divergence a British victory at Saratoga and the failure of the North American Rebellion. Its "present" of 1971 involves a cold war between the Confederation of North America and the United States of Mexico. You can read all about the world Sobel created, including fanfiction written in it by alternate history fans, at http://fwoan.wikia.com/wiki/Sobel_Wiki.
Ron Hogan
3. RonHogan
Ooh, I don't know the Deighton. And thanks for jogging my memory about Harris and Chabon -- what's especially interesting there is that they actually do play out plenty of alternate history moves before they get into their story.

Oddly enough, I think I read a SYNOPSIS of the Sobel in one of the People's Almanacs when I was a kid. But here's an interesting philosophical question: Since it's the only fiction he published, if it's science fiction, is he a science fiction writer?
Andrew Mason
4. AnotherAndrew
Kingsley Amis, The Alteration (1976) is set in the present, but is about a world that diverged at the English Reformation. (It would annoy AH purists, as people from the real world turn up in it.)

Before that there was Nabokov's Ada (about a world in which Russia colonised much of North America), but perhaps that's too fantastic to count as straighforward AH.
David Levinson
5. DemetriosX
There was a popular book in the 50s (?) with a bunch of historical "what if" scenarios which included a piece by Winston Churchill on if Lee had won at Gettysburg. No idea what the title was, though I think "What If" may have featured. And while not quite alternate history, Alan Drury sort of played with the idea back in the late 60s/early 70s. He had a series of political novels (not thrillers, just politics) that started with Advise and Consent. The fourth book ended with an assassin firing on the first and second couples and we are told that one man and the other man's wife were killed. He then wrote two sequels in one of which it was the President and the VP's wife killed and in the other it was the VP and the First Lady who were killed. You can't quite call it alternate history, since the whole situation and backstory are fictional, but the principle is essentially the same.

Anyway, I'm sure there are plenty of mainstream examples, but it has never quite gone fully mainstream. But up until 20 years ago or so, you could have said the same thing for SF. There were examples going all the way back to the 30s, but it wasn't really huge until Harry Turtledove started doing a lot of it. The right set of circumstances could trigger a wave in mainstream lit, but like I said before, it's going to take a really big name like Atwood coming out with something that happens to catch the general consciousness at just the right time.

ETA: And I found that book with Churchill a lot more easily than I thought I would. It was If It Had Happened Otherwise edited by John Collings Squire. Apparently first published in 1931, which means it predates Leiber or Piper or just about any influential SF writer. Other contributors include GK Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, and AJP Taylor.
Mike McCaffrey
6. earlgrey
Kantor's If the South had Won the Civil War 1960.
Mike Conley
8. NomadUK
P D James, best known for her detective novels involving Adam Dalgliesh, wrote Children of Men, which was actually quite better as a novel than a film, I thought (though I really liked Michael Caine).
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
7. tnh
Like fantasy itself, alternate history has no starting date. For example, in Joanot Martorell's late-medieval Catalan epic Tirant lo Blanch (a.k.a. Tirant lo Blanc), which was published in 1490, there's a substantial section about Tirant defeating the Turks and raising the siege of Constantinople. Given that the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and everyone in Europe knew it, that surely has to qualify.

When you're dealing with premodern literature, you have to distinguish alternate history from forgeries and errors. Alternate history is fiction which intentionally departs from the known historical record, and is presented as such. Stuff like the Donation of Constantine and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae don't count.
Mike Conley
9. NomadUK
DemetriosX@1: Yes, SSGB is great. Fatherland is quite good, too; I was listening to a dramatisation of it on BBC Radio 3 awhile back, and it was really quite well done.
10. Chrysostom
Stephen Fry, Making History.
Ron Hogan
11. RonHogan
I'd count the Fry as a time travel farce, really.
12. kb_run
The problems I have with the novel are these: he has a black female character as a law school graduate from Oberlin College, when in fact the first African American female law school graduate was from Howard University, in 1872, five years after the novel is set. Also, it would have been hard for an african american MALE to be taken seriously as a law clerk, let alone an african american FEMALE.
When I was shown the notice for the book by a (white) colleague I said, "Eh, he probably has her in there so the guys can have sex with someone." How right I was.
Yes, I know it's alternate history, but as a science fiction fan, I expect an author to have a damned good reason for explaining why something occurred earlier than it did in real life. You can't just handwave historical fact.

And Children of Men isn't an alternate history novel; it's a dystopian novel.
Ron Hogan
13. RonHogan
Actually, she's only a college graduate. It's part of the reason the firm makes such a big deal of treating her as a clerk, rather than a law clerk -- the other being that she applies for the job hoping to study the law while she's clerking at the firm. Hence, the sneering comment from her boss: "You want to read law?... You can start with Blackstone."

As you might guess, being taken seriously is, in fact, a huge hurdle for Abigail over the course of the novel, not something Carter handwaves away.

In additional aspects of "how right you were," well, not much at all. Not AT all, come to think of it.
14. wingracer
Just wanted to point out a few Lindbergh facts.

It is true that pre-Pearle Harbor, Lindbergh was very vocal about staying out of the war. He also had aquaintances in Germany including most of their top aircraft engineers. Not surprising considering his occupation. It is also true that he was a beliver in eugenics and though perhaps not a full-on anti-semite, he certainly wasn't a supporter of them either. That is unfortunate but certainly not an unusual view for Americans at that time. Nazi sympathizer? Maybe but I find that a reach.

Post Pearle Harbor Lindbergh made tremendous contributions to the war in the Pacific through his work as a civillian cunsultant with Corsair and P-38 squadrons. Despite being a civillian forbidden by the President to fly in combat, he flew around 50 combat missions and shot down a Japanese observation plane. He wrote in his autobiography that he was disgusted and angered by the Nazi concentration camps.

Also remember that this is a Medal of Honor winner we are talking about.
Ron Hogan
15. RonHogan
You do realize Lindbergh was awarded the Medal of Honor not for wartime valor, but for flying a plane across the Atlantic, right? And that it's not as if the Medal of Honor should be considered a moral "get out of jail free" card even for combat recipients?

That said, it's precisely because of the ambiguities you point out surrounding Lindbergh's politics in the years leading up to America's involvement in the war that I said "widely considered" rather than attempting to pin the label on him directly. On the one hand, it was absolutely possible to be an anti-semitic anti-interventionist even as late as early 1941 without being a Nazi. On the other hand, there are moments where it seems like Lindbergh didn't have a problem with the Nazi government per se, only with SOME of the things they did.
16. S.M. Stirling
To be fair to Lindbergh, it's much easier to be against a particular variety of totalitarianism in retrospect than when the menacing thing is still alive and kicking.

There's tremendous psychological resistance to admitting how bad Regime X is while it's still around, and a tendency to attack those who -do- point out how bad it is.
17. S.M. Stirling
What I'd expect from mainstream use of alternate history is the usual story -- people reinventing the wheel and doing stuff the genre did 30 years ago, and then standing back and being awestruck with their own originality.

(cough HANDMAID'S TALE cough).
David Levinson
18. DemetriosX
That's exactly how I felt about Fatherland. We were supposed to be so dazzled by the setting that the rather mundane mystery plot becomes difficult. There was a lot of "look how original and clever I am being" in there.

Another mainstream AH novel has ocurred to me: Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. Maybe they're going to have to get away from Nazis win WWII before the concept really breaks out. I don't think any contemporary mainstream author has yet discovered the South wins the Civil War.
Mike Conley
19. NomadUK
kb_run@12: You're right, of course, about Children of Men; I was bleeding out into the SF genre as a whole. My mistake.

SM Sterling@16: There's tremendous psychological resistance to admitting how bad Regime X is while it's still around

I think that's only true of those who find something to admire in Regime X in the first place. There were an awful lot of people who weren't impressed by the Nazis. And a lot of those who were managed to change their tune fairly quickly when it became politically expedient to do so.

DemetriosX@18: I suppose it's all dependent upon how many of these things one has read. I thought Fatherland was pretty good (not as good as SSGB, but a good read), but I'll admit I haven't gone through a lot of alternate WWII history, genre or not.
20. IamJoseph
The best alternate history story I ever read was The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, most famous for his Mars Trilogy. It takes the 14th century black plague spreading around Europe and changes it so instead of killing a third of the population, it wipes out nearly every European inhabitant.

From then on, it follows a group of linked souls as they reincarnate through the ages, with such neat things as Japan discovering America, India inventing democracy, and eventually a massive world war between the Muslims and the Chinese. Anyone fascinated with Eastern culture will be enthralled.
David Levinson
21. DemetriosX
NomadUK @19: Maybe it was the enthusiasm with which Fatherland was given to me, like it was the greatest thing ever, so unique! Then when I encountered a bog-standard Nazis win AH, it couldn't help but fail the bar that had been set. As SM Stirling said above, anytime mainstream literature (or even the mystery genre) stumbles onto some SFF trope, they wind up reinventing the wheel and expect to be praised for their cleverness, while we genre readers keep looking for the "something new" we've been promised and not finding it. Sure, there are exceptions, but they're invariably authors who already have a connection with our genre and have either crossed over or are simply being marketed as mainstream for one reason or another. Chabon's probably a good example of that.
22. Baramos
The biggest "alternate history" sci-fi author I can think of is Harry Turtledove. He's done tons of stuff with that concept, mostly with alternate American histories or parallel universes where small or large changes happened (I think he had an entire long series regarding what would happen if the Confederate states succeeded in holding off the Union and the two countries had to coincide with one another for the next 50 years).

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