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.