Alternate history is an interesting subgenre of fiction. Is it truly science fiction or is it something else within the garbage can term of “speculative fiction?” “What if?” essays go back more than a century such as “If Napoleon had Won the Battle of Waterloo” by G. M. Trevelyan. Within the science fiction field, Murray Leinster’s “Sideways in Time” (1934) is often viewed as a starting point though that story has more time displacement than actual alternate history. L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall” and “The Wheels of If” are probably the first real alternate history science fiction stories.
Harry Turtledove picked up de Camp’s mantle and for a time ruled the subgenre. The stories that made up Agent of Byzantium were generally good to great. The concept of Mohammed converting to Christianity as a young man which in turn allowed the Byzantine Empire to be resurgent is one of the greatest alternate history ideas ever done. He lost the leader position within alternate history with too many series that went on and on. His books have a habit of ending almost in mid-sentence to be picked up with the next book a year later. Plus, Turtledove should be a permanent target of ridicule for writing Conan of Venarium.
The possible leader in alternate history fiction today might be Robert Conroy. I have been reading him for 11 years now. The first book I read by Conroy was 1901. He had Kaiser Wilhelm attack the United States invading Connecticut in 1901. The reason? Wilhelm was furious over the United States victory over Spain and the acquisition of a colonial empire. He wanted those territories for his own.
In the past year or so, I have read Red Inferno: 1945 and Rising Sun. Both are WWII counter factuals. Conroy has a formula of a sneak attack on the United States, various story lines of characters including a romance or two that develops. A desperate battle to gain time, and last minute arrival of reinforcements and new weapons, and ultimate victory. The books are feel good reads.
1920: America’s Great War (Baen Books, 2013) is one of his more recent novels. The divergence from our time line is the victory of Germany in 1914 at the First Battle of the Marne. The British Expeditionary Force is captured and France surrenders. Germany can then deal with Russia, dictates peace to Britain and France.
Fast forward to 1920, Germany has turned Mexico into a satellite. It has taken Indochina for its own with a Pacific fleet based at Camh Ran Bay. The decision is made that California’s oil should belong to Germany. Whetting Germany’s appetite is a pacifist Woodrow Wilson running for a third presidential term. The U.S. Army is only 50,000 strong and poorly deficient in machine guns, artillery, and trucks.
A German force attacks California while the Mexicans attack Texas. The novel switches between several characters including a President Lansing. Conroy has Woodrow Wilson dying soon after the 1920 presidential election.
Historical figures are in this novel including George Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall, Gen. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Gen. Lejeune, Winston Churchill, and Billy Mitchell among others.
Conroy researched his background fairly well. I would quibble on some things. The Germans are wearing the steel helmet (stahlhelm) instead of the picklehaube. Storm Troopers are using the MP-18 submachinegun. The Americans have Thompson submachineguns and Browning Automatic Rifles. Those weapons were all a result of the near stalemate of years of trench warfare in our timeline. Warfare generally drives innovation. If WWI had been over in early to mid-1915, the need for those weapons would not have been present. Airplane development also would have lagged. This is where alternate history can get sticky.
There is a climactic battle with the German siege of San Francisco.
One delightful aspect of the novel was the portrayal of the Germans. They are real Huns with them shooting 10 people for every German soldier killed in controlled areas, summary execution of captured Americans with weapons not in uniform, and shelling of hospitals. There is punitive rape, terror bombing of civilians, all real Rape of Belgium stuff incorporated into the novel. The only thing missing was spitting of babies on bayonets. The Germans were willing to break Western Civilization not once but twice in their bid for continental hegemony. Conroy portrays them in an appropriate light.
Overall, I would give 1901: America’s Great War a 3 ½ harmonic chromosome out of 5 rating.