by Roger Bruns
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
When choosing to write an alternate history, the first thing an authors needs to decide is when and how history will change. In most cases, this is a matter of pure speculation. Real life generally doesn't provide a clear indication of a branch point in history. Occasionally, an historical event will cry out for examination, for instance, the strange chance of the discover of Lee's Special Orders 191 which lead Harry Turtledove to write How Few Remain. Roger Bruns has taken several dozen documents which were written and never used, or had a specific impact on history in an unintended way. He provides the background leading up to the documents' writing and then presents the document.
Many of the scenarios are interesting. The shortest document, and one of the most timely, is John Reid's 1876 telegram to Republican leaders on November 7, during the presidential election which simply stated "If you can hold your state, Hayes will win. Can you do it?" Once the background and document is presented, Bruns moves on to the next document, leaving speculation for the reader or other authors.
The documents included range from a 1774 letter in which George Washington denies that the colonies wished independence from England to a 1994 document which warned the UN of an impending genocide in Rwanda, which the UN responded to by indicating its disagreement with Roméo Dallaire's conclusions. In between are letters written by military men, politicians and explorers. Each gives a brief glimpse into a world which might have been.
Bruns does a fantastic job of laying the groundwork behind each memorandum. He concisely explains the situations which led up to the letters' draftings and the significance of the documents. In many cases, he provides a brief, although idle, speculation about what might have happened if the document had been delivered, or required. In general, he permits the reader to draw his own conclusions.
What Bruns's book mostly does is to remind us that much of the modern world is the result of happy accidents which couldn't have been planned, but could be foreseen. When these documents were written, the authors had no hindsight or distance from the events and had to plan for a variety of contingencies which are now taken for granted.
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