by Steve Tally
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The popularity of alternate history may be easily seen by the fact that two very similar books were published in late 2000. Roger Bruns’s Almost History uses actual documents which were prepared as contingencies as its starting point while Steve Tally opts to focus on a variety of events and decisions to examine what might have been in Almost America.
In his introduction, Tally comments that he trusts the reader to be able to distinguish between actual history and his counterfactual musings. The text, however, is designed to ensure that Tally needn’t rely on the reader’s discernment, and this is one of the book’s strengths. Each of Tally’s essays is divided into three parts. The first portion presents the historical basis for Tally’s speculations. This is followed by a section which looks at the alternative historical ramifications of Tally’s chances. Each essay ends with a segment explaining Tally’s assessment of the actual aftermath of the historical situation.
Although the majority of Tally’s points of departure are political or military in nature, he also includes business decisions, such as Andrew Carnegie’s decision to sell his steelworks to J.P. Morgan, and technological changes, notably Samuel Morse’s decision to focus his attention on the invention of the telegraph rather than painting.
If Tally’s entertaining conjectures have a weakness, it is his perception that we are living in some sort of Candide-like best of all possible worlds. Almost without exception, the events Tally postulates lead to a world which is more bleak than ours. Tally’s alternatives plunge our nation in nuclear war, overturn advances in Civil Rights, promote unfair business practices, and in general reverse the advance of American culture.
Not all of Tally’s speculations seem as supported as others. While he provides some evidence for his alternate future following a ban on football or a break between IBM and Microsoft, some of the results are far-fetched or rely a little too much on coincidences. At times, Tally's interpretation of events seems to lean a little to the left, but not so far as to make the book feel particularly partisan in nature.
Tally has an engaging writing style which brings his history, both actual and counterfactual, to life, just as he did in his previous historical work, Bland Ambition. His short essays provide the principals with personality, rather than present them as simply two-dimensional names who are involved with the fate of the world.
Alternate Americas is an excellent book which can serve to teach about history, both as events which occurred and as the subject of historiography to demonstrate how historians think about historical issues. This is certainly a book which can be enjoyed by anyone who has an interest in American history or the alternate history genre.
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