Facing Facts: American Identity is Based on Alternate History

I have never read, nor will I ever write, an alternate history as creative and thoroughly wrought as the one I read in high school. Alternate history requires the author to change a few fundamental facts about the history of the world we live in. These alterations usually take the form of “what if the Confederacy won?” or “what if the Nazis won?” or “what if the Industrial Revolution relied on steam?” But the alternate history book I read in high school had a premise deeper than these ones—something slightly less reductive, more far-reaching. Something that didn’t boil history down to a single pivotal event, but that instead boiled it down to a feeling, to an idea.

I studied this particular book for a full year—in a display of singular dedication to an idea, the teacher designed her entire district-approved curriculum around it. The premise of this particular alternate history was “what if everything was fine?”

This supposition was carried through the text with a level of meticulous finesse that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It permeated every facet of the built world on which the book was focused. What if, the book supposed, America had been entirely undiscovered prior to 1492? What if the Pilgrims had been a peaceful, God-loving people? What if they had worked together with the Native population, rather than slaughtering them and stealing their land? What if voyages of exploration were driven by a pure, heartfelt desire to expand the map of the world, and nobody had ever been interested in gold or drugs or slaves?

What if everything was fine?

What if the country wasn’t built on the backs of enslaved peoples? What if slavery was rare, and when it happened, the slaves were usually treated quite well? What if the founding fathers who did own slaves were good guys who should be admired and celebrated? What if sexual assault didn’t exist? What if the Trail of Tears was a mutual endeavor? What if the Civil War was driven more by dry economic and political factors than by a desire to perpetuate the subjugation of slaves? What if America never participated in eugenics? What if America was always staunchly anti-fascist and anti-Nazi?

What if everything was fine?

What if the biggest problems we had during the industrial revolution were monopolies that needed busting? What if child labor was a thing of the past? What if women and free people of color and people who weren’t heterosexual were nonexistent until sometime in the late 1800s, or the 1920s, or the 1960s, depending on who you ask? What if the battle for equal rights was won in the 1960s? What if racism stopped being a problem back then? What if heterosexual able-bodied white men were the only people who drove history forward? What if capitalism and empire were systems that helped make everyone’s lives better? What if everyone had equal opportunities to succeed in a fair society?

What if everything was fine?

This was the alternate history my teacher built her curriculum around, and it consumed our education. We would ask questions that ignored the thorough worldbuilding of the text, and the teacher would patiently steer us back to the Text, always the Text, sola scriptura, Amen. One of my classmates might ask, “what about…?” The teacher would remind the class that no, in the world built by this text, that never happened. Or it did happen, but not like that. Don’t write that answer down on the test, because you’ll fail. Even if it’s your history in question. Even if your family has told you their stories, and the stories don’t match what’s in the book. Don’t keep asking that question, because you’ll fail. Learn the story. Trust the story.

This book and the story contained within it is the poisoned well from which many Western alternate history writers drink before we attempt to breathe life into a new world. Too often, we return to that story and say “what should we change?” We do this in place of returning to that story and saying “what has been changed?” or “what should we believe?” As a result, many of us write stories which are achingly similar to the one we learned by rote, the one we were tested on in school. We regurgitate stories in which wealthy, landed white men drive history forward; stories in which slavery is a necessary evil; stories in which there are no Native people, no nonwhite people, no disabled people, no homosexual or bisexual or transgender people. But there’s steam and clockwork, or there are dinosaurs, or there are roughly-sketched pan-Asian influences where there would otherwise have been Greek and Roman flourishes. Many of us return to the alternate history we’ve read, the one in which everything was fine. We scribble in the margins and turn the scribbles into stories, and our stories carry with them the shortcomings of the original.

But what if our stories could be something better than marginalia? What if we built our alternate histories based on the world we actually live in—a world in which white people perpetually profit from the blood of people we’ve kidnapped and exploited? What would our stories look like if our alternate histories didn’t start with the premise that everyone is white and everyone is thin and everyone is heterosexual and everything is fine? The most exciting worldbuilding I see in the genre of alternate history are stories that truly are, in fact, alternate histories, rather than fanfiction written about a story we were told when we were children. They’re the stories that are hailed as endeavors of creative genius, because they do the work of pushing away the alternate history that has already been written. And it’s hard work to do, peeling the scales from our eyes to write stories that aren’t the one we already know. It’s hard not to hear that voice that reminds us: if you memorize the story incorrectly, you will fail.

Because we have all read and heard the story my high school teacher based her curriculum on. We all know the story by heart. It’s a story about the Western world, and civilization, and America’s history. It’s a story that has formed the foundation of America’s understanding of her own identity.

It’s the story told in my American History textbook, and it’s one of the most comprehensive works of fiction I’ve ever read.

Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award finalist Sarah Gailey is an internationally-published writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her work has recently appeared in Mashable, the Boston Globe, and Fireside Fiction. She is a regular contributor for Tor.com and Barnes & Noble. You can find links to her work here. She tweets @gaileyfrey. Her debut novella, River of Teeth, and its sequel Taste of Marrow, are available from Tor.com.


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