Archive for the ‘Alternative History’ Category

What could be more enjoyable for a teenager studying the French Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars than a science fiction story about those same wars — but in a world where they never happened?

As a 16-year old, I loved H. Beam Piper’s short story ‘He walked around the horses’. Based on a true incident, it plays with history, suggesting other ways that events could have unfolded. As the reader progresses, s/he realises (or at least I did) that although the Revolutionary Wars were unspeakably appalling and destructive, the Europe that came out of them was more free and more recognisably modern. The story ends on a most satisfactory note: one great character of nineteenth-century history would never have achieved greatness had it not been … of course, to get the joke you need to know the history on which the story is based.

I enjoy ‘alternative history’ stories as an intellectual challenge: they focus on the causes and results of events. If this hadn’t happened, would that have come about? It’s interesting to consider what would have had to change for that not to have happened, and very often the answer is that so much would have had to be different that ‘that‘ would have happened sooner or later. Perhaps Beam Piper was wrong, and if the French Revolution had not taken place when it did something similar would have happened elsewhere in Europe shortly afterwards. Studying the French Revolution as a teenager, I considered that matters became so appalling because reform had not come earlier, and had it been delayed longer the bloodbath would have been even worse.

I don’t think many 16-year-olds in Britain study the French Revolution these days. A pity. Perhaps they still study it in North America?

Anyway, I see that the story is due to become a TV movie next year, and it’s available on Project Gutenberg — so I can go back for a re-read.


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