Whilst I was enjoying a lazy weekend not so long ago, I was indulging in one of my guilty pleasures: the sheer joy that is Red Dawn.  Yes, I have to admit that this humble little film about plucky all-American high school kids standing up to the onslaught of a full-on Soviet invasion force is one of my all time favourite conservative paranoia films.  Given that the Cold War was in full swing, and a full-scale military attack by Warsaw Pact forces was a very real threat for the West at the time, this movie got me thinking “ what would I have done if Britain had faced invasion, had I been somewhat older than 3 or 4 at the time?"  Well, if I followed the Red Dawn advice, my reaction would have consisted of stealing a load of weaponry, some canned food and sports goods, and heading to the hills where I name the gang after the local sporting mascot and spend the duration of the occupation by hunting game and ambushing the enemy forces.  However, given that I'm Derby born and bred, that would have worked out to an arsenal of slingshots and the occasional farmer's shotgun, a rugby ball for entertainment and my unit of fearsome Rams trying to go head to head with penal battalions (let's face it, Bonnie Prince Charlie invaded England, reached Derby and decided to turn around and head home as it's hardly prime real estate, not quite the mighty Wolveriiiiiiines of helicopter-felling legend!

Joking aside, one of the best parts of reading history, especially military history, is the 'what if?' factor or, to give it its proper term: counterfactualism.  This alternative history enables people to consider how things might have been changed if, for example, Napoleon won at Waterloo, or if Caesar kicked some arse and survived the Ides of March.  This treatment of the past is nothing particularly new  historians and authors have been doing it for years, studying history, putting right what once went wrong and hoping each time that the next leap would be their leap home. Sorry, just came over all Sam Beckett for a moment there!

Still, this tendency is not solely the preserve of the academic or scholar.  Wargamers have been doing this formally ever since HG Wells released Little Wars and informally since it became fashionable to play with toy soldiers way back when.  Likewise, it is a theme that enjoys reasonable popularity in Hollywood.  For example, White Man's Burden, one of John Travoltas more forgettable screen outings, depicts an America where African-Americans are the social elite and Caucasians inhabit inner-city ghettoes.

Another classic, albeit based on a book of the same name by Robert Harris, is Fatherland, which sets the scene of a Germany which never lost the war, and which has become the dominant power in the world.  Interestingly, this novel (and the film) plays down the alternate history in favour of using it as a backdrop against which a surprisingly simple yet fiendishly complex plot unfolds. 

The grandmaster of the alternative history genre, however, has to be Harry Turtledove, many of whose works deal with how the world might have turned out differently, given slight changes in the past. Sometimes these are based on a simple alternate outcome of a given event, other more obviously science fiction (the prime example being Guns of the South, wherein 21st century white supremacist South African time travelers supply the Confederate Army with AK-47 assault rifles).  Of these, the Southern Victory, or Timeline-191 series is the undisputed champion, spanning 11 books and covering the alternative history following the Souths victory in the American Civil War, working right the way through the WWI and WWII analogues.  It's an epic, interesting and (occasionally) believable saga.

So what alternate histories particularly entertain you?  Perhaps you're a gamer for whom the Reconquista never succeeded, a historian who has studied the possible outcomes of the Norman invasion had Harold not had to march his men from Stamford Bridge and straight into another battle, or an author whose debut novel is a rip-roaring rollercoaster considering how different the present might have been had you not drunk too much at the last office party and thrown a sausage roll at the boss, even if he clearly did deserve it!