Friday, June 17, 2011

Counterfactual and Alternative Histories

During my hiatus from this blog I had a chance to catch up on some reading.

I read a lot of fiction, but I’d never read Harry Turtledove’s counterfactual Civil War series. I started with The Guns of the South, the first book in the series. I lasted 25 pages before I put the book down for good.

A friend said the Gingrich/Forstchen trilogy was better. Maybe it was. I got through 40 pages of Gettysburg before giving up.

The problem is not with the books; bazillions of people have enjoyed them. The problem is my inability to stay “in the moment” when the story begins to diverge from history as I know it. I can immerse myself in the most outrageous thriller fiction---Jack Reacher, anyone?---and swim the channel without a second thought. But put an AK-47 on a Civil War battlefield and I sink like a rock.

Why can’t I get into these? I’ve enjoyed counterfactual or alternate history in the past. (How the South Won the Civil War thrilled me as a kid, and I’ve read and reread most of the What If? essays collected by Robert Cowley.) Have I learned too much about the Civil War to be able to accept these counter-historical tales? Am I subconsciously resisting messing up my head with facts that aren’t facts?

What’s been your experience with counterfactual and alternative histories?

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