It feels like a bit of a sleeper genre, but I could also just be out of the loop. I remember that when I was growing up, it felt like there was quite a bit of it (most of it written by Harry Turtledove). But I feel as though I haven’t heard any buzz about an alternate history novel in a long time. Maybe the last one that I recall hearing about was Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. I’m not saying that it’s disappeared, just that it’s gotten less culturally relevant. I’m probably just out of the loop, though.
There was always something astonishingly daring about alternate history: the idea that you could change one thing and then everything else would be different. I’m honestly not sure that I buy it. My feeling is that the course of history is driven by impersonal economic forces. For instance, in the U.S. we had a war to abolish slavery. Most of the rest of the world did not have this war, and yet, by 1880 slavery had been abolished throughout the world.
Similarly, the US had a war of independence. New Zealand, Canada, and Australia did not have a war of independence, and yet today they are, functionally, free and self-governing.
And yet you have all kinds of counterfactual stories that claim that if there hadn’t been a Civil War, then slavery would still exist and that if there hadn’t been a Revolutionary War then America would be a British possession. To which I say, hmmm.
I have a good counterfactual, though. What if the Vikings had brought smallpox to the New World in 1,000 AD?
Probably 80% of the population of the New World would’ve died, just as in the 16th century. And the New World would’ve succumbed to political chaos and the resultant madness.
But the population probably would’ve recovered by the time Columbus landed, and then the conquistadors and later British and French invaders would not have faced a depopulated continent. There would’ve literally been two or three times as many people on this continent. In the face of that sort of resistance, it seems more likely that the Americas would’ve ended up more like Africa or India: a white minority ruling a separate and uneasily subjugated people.
For example, look at the Philippines. It was colonized by Spain at roughly the same time as Spain colonized the Americas. But the people of the Philippines aren’t nearly as white as the people of the Americas, and they don’t speak Spanish.
But, on the other hand, what’s the practical difference? Would life on earth look different if the Americas were more like the Philippines? Probably not. The ethnicities would be different. The GDP values would be different. But would life on Earth differ in kind? Would we be organized differently? Would we think differently? Would we have different values?
I don’t know. I’m not sure. I think that things would be different, but maybe not as different as we think they would be.
The writer of counterfactuals would probably say “yes,” though. And that’s why they do what they do.