This month a new novel has once again given hope that alternate history will surge forward into the public eye. It is The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter. SF nerds love the emancipator and so does everyone else, which makes an alternate history about one of America's favorite presidents being impeached very compelling to the public.
Reviews of Impeachment have generally been positive. Kirkus Reviews said "[f]ans of secret codes will enjoy watching the mind of Abigail’s legal-eagle sidekick at work, and Abigail herself makes for a grandly entertaining sleuth." Ron Charles at The Washington Post said "Carter’s delight in all this material is infectious" and "anyone should enjoy this rich political thriller that dares to imagine how events might have ricocheted in a different direction after the Civil War." Jonathan Shapiro at the Chicago Tribune did give a poor review of the novel saying "[Carter] takes a great story and makes it boring." Meanwhile, Carter has been busy promoting the novel, going on Morning Joe and speaking at the Central Library.
It was the review by Ron Hogan at Tor.com, however, that inspired to write this post. Though he calls Impeachment "a straightforward legal thriller", he spends most of the time discussing whether alternate history will eventually replace the current zombie and vampire trends that dominate our media. Even though he leaves a cautionary warning at the end by saying "mainstream alternate history is still in its beginning stages", he seems confident that alternate history is poised to move into the spotlight.
I think it is highly unlikely.
Now don't get me wrong. I am not some alternate history hipster (I like Turtledove's earlier works), I would love for my favorite genre to have a large, popular following. It would be nice to share my hobby with as many people as possible. Despite my sincere wishes, however, the scenario is still implausible. Why? @earthtopus on Twitter said it best when tweeting that alternate history is "not very popular because it rewards knowledge of history."
History is one of the least popular subjects in school, probably only slightly more tolerable than Math. How many of us have been taught history by someone who was unqualified to teach the subject, like the football coach? Popular culture recognizes that phenomenon. In the February 7, 2012 episode of Glee, "The Spanish Teacher", we learn that the sponsor of the glee club is unqualified to teach Spanish. So that he can remain the sponsor of the glee club, which is obviously more important to him than his primary job, he luckily finds another subject to teach...history. Some are trying, however, to reform the system. In 2010, famous counterfactual history Niall Ferguson started a campaign to improve how British schools teach history.
Considering what it has to go up against, producers of alternate history content feel it necessary dumb down their product, which gives us Spike TV's failed pilot Alternate History. Another solution to this problem is to play down the alternate history setting so much that it has little bearing on the plot, thus no one is confused by the changes in history. The films Watchmen and Inglorious Basterds come to mind.
While I would love to agree with Hogan that alternate history is on the cusp of leaving its tiny corner of SF geekdom, with the History Channel preferring Ancient Aliens over counterfactual history, the long, rocky road to the top might just be insurmountable.
[Editor's Note: Sorry for anyone who saw this post before it was ready. Need more coffee.]
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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update, a volunteer editor for Alt Hist and a contributor to Just Below the Law. His fiction can be found at Echelon Press, Jake's Monthly and his own writing blog. When not writing he works as an attorney and enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana.