The idea of writing a story about the Germans winning World War II actually dates back to before the
war. In 1937, Murray Constantine—a pseudonym for Katharine Burdekin—published
Swastika Night,
envisioning Britain under the future dominance of Nazi overlords after Hitler’s victory in a Twenty Years
War. The defeat of Germany in the actual war did little to dampen interest in such stories, and if anything
the popularity of this storyline has increased with the passing years.

This premise has inspired novels, short stories, TV shows, movies,
comic books, websites and satirical articles.  True, other periods
and events have also been dealt with in alternative history books.
Kingsley Amis imagined in
The Alteration (1976) a world in which
the Protestant Reformation had never happened.  In
The Yiddish
Policemen’s Union (2007), Michael Chabon constructs an alternative
universe in which the Jewish homeland is Alaska instead of Israel. In
Stephen Baxter’s
Voyage (1996), John F. Kennedy survives an
assassination attempt, and sets in motion a project to send a spaceship
to Mars.  

But these are exceptions to the norm. The most popular alternate histories
typically involve Hitler and Nazis. “Within the general field of alternate history,
this counterfactual scenario has arguably been explore more frequently than
any other historical theme,” notes Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, who published a
book-length study of the sub-genre,
The World Hitler Never Made, in 2005.
Yet he notes that he has encountered “deep-seated resistance to alternate history as a genre worthy of
study.” When he spoke about it at conferences, “prominent scholars raised epistemological,
methodological, and even moral objections.” Some went so far as to dismiss these stories as the work of
a “lunatic fringe.”

Yet historians have indulged in precisely this kind of musing over alternative outcomes since the time of
Herodotus, who wondered what might have happened if the Persians had defeated the Greeks at the
Battle of Marathon. Perhaps this is the most vital function of historical research, that speculative
moment when we are forced to contemplate the different scenarios that might have happened in the
past—and, by implication, could still take place in the future. These works, even when partaking of the
phantasmagorical, are not pure fantasies, but spurs to sober reflection.

Such is certainly the case in Philip Roth’s
The Plot Against America (2004), a novel that describes an
alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, an ardent isolationist, defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the
1940 presidential election and steers the nation on a course that seems disturbingly aligned with Nazi
and fascist currents in Europe.  In an odd turnabout, Roth’s reimagining of 1940s America is now
viewed most often as an unsettling harbinger of the country’s future, rather than as fanciful speculation
on its past. Yet that’s precisely why these alternative histories deserve better treatment than they have
received at the hands of highbrows defending the literary gates against genre barbarians. They aren’t
really about the past, despite all indications to the contrary.

Roth’s story is told from the perspective of the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey. The characters are
drawn from the author’s own childhood, and include his parents Herman and Bess and his brother
Sandy, supplemented by a wide range of actual historical figures from the period. But other elements
are pure invention—for example, Philip’s cousin Alvin, who loses a leg while fighting with the Canadian
army against Nazis and returns to New Jersey a broken man. These individuals, both famous and
otherwise, grapple with the changed circumstances of America under Lindbergh, and the attendant rise
of hostility against those accused of trying to get the country involved in the war—the British, the
Roosevelt wing of the Democrats and, above all, American Jews.

Roth realizes that a story about Nazis taking over the United States could easily turn into something
cartoonish and outlandish—more suitable for a cheap action movie rather than serious literature from a
contender for the Nobel Prize. So he puts considerable effort into constructing a plausible chain of
events, a series of circumstances that might propel the nation of Washington and Lincoln into a more
authoritarian stance. Roth wisely understands that fear, rather than ambition, is the most powerful
instigator of such shifts. We may associate Nazis with a zeal for world conquest, but in most
democracies the greatest lure in convincing people to give up their freedoms and protected rights to an
iron-fisted regime isn’t imperialistic tendencies—at least not in the current day—but the fear of chaos
and disruption. Indeed, the more affluent and comfortable a society is, the more likely it is to embrace
extreme measures to maintain ‘safety’ (a word that deserves more deconstructing than it has received
to date).  

That’s the situation that propels Lindbergh to the White House in Roth’s novel. He raises alarm about
the cost of entering the war, and reminds the public about the casualties and expenses that resulted
from America’s participation in the First World War. From there, it’s only a small step to demonizing the
insidious forces that want to involve the United States in the new conflict. Only a few prominent
Americans—notably journalist Walter Winchell, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and former
President Franklin Roosevelt—are willing to speak out in protest.

The Roth family watches in alarm as events spiral out of control, and although they consider leaving the
country to resettle in Canada, they finally decide to stay and hope for the best. The government’s first
programs—aimed at integrating Jews more deeply into American life—seem innocuous, at least in
their initial stages, but gradually reveal a more ominous agenda. The program starts with breaking
down the group solidarity, family ties and political clout of this segment of the population, but eventually
evolves into race riots and gang violence.

Roth draws the reader in with the quasi-autobiographical tone of the opening chapters, and the
verisimilitude of this narrative adds to the tension of the subsequent calamities. For most of the duration
The Plot Against America, the step-by-step breakdown in civil liberties seems like something that
could plausibly happen in the United States. Roth hardly takes a misstep until the later stages of the
book, when he suddenly shifts into a rapid-fire third person account in the present tense—in the style of
a radio news broadcast or journalist’s dispatch—of the daily progress of events. It’s only at this juncture
that the novel begins to resemble a sci-fi alternative history book, built on concepts rather than plausible
narrative flow.

But Roth wants to convince us that this is more than an exercise in imaginative excess and even adds a
lengthy appendix to the novel filled with cited sources as well as facts, dates and figures. Sad to say,
this attempt to shore up the credibility of the novel perhaps does more to undermine it. This powerful
story can stand on its own, and is weighed down by the insertion of these scholarly addendums.

Despite these minor shortcomings,
The Plot Against America deserves inclusion on the short list of
classic alternative histories, warranting comparison with the definitive works in this subgenre by Philip
K. Dick, Michael Chabon and Kingsley Amis. And, as noted above, its lessons seem far more timely
than those broached in these other books. The very plausibility of Roth’s plot development and its
avoidance of exaggerated effects, at least for most of the book’s duration, may make it less suitable for
film and TV adaptation than, say,
The Man in the High Castle. But this same commitment to narrative
realism is likely to give this volume more staying power than other exercises in alternative history.

Frankly, I’d like to see a day when this book wasn’t quite so relevant. Alas, I fear that won’t be the case
any time soon.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is the author of ten books. His most recent
book is
How to Listen to Jazz (Basic Books).

Publication date: October 16, 2017
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Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Bacigalupi, Paolo
The Windup Girl

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Brooks, Max
World War Z

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Campbell, Ramsey
The Nameless

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Cline, Ernest
Ready Player One

Crichton, Michael
Jurassic Park

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Dickens, Charles
A Christmas Carol

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Egan, Jennifer
A Visit from the Goon Squad

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Hendrix, Grady

Herbert, Frank

Joe Hill
Heart-Shaped Box

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Koja, Kathe
The Cipher

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Lindqvist, John Ajvide
Let the Right One In

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Machen, Arthur
The Great God Pan

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Wizard of the Crow

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Roth, Philip
The Plot Against America

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Straub, Peter
Ghost Story

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Wong, David
John Dies at the End

Woolf, Virginia

Yamada, Taichi

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

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