We all like to play what-if games every now and then. What if I hadn’t taken that French 101 class in college? Answer: I wouldn’t have met my future wife. What if she hadn’t said “Yes” when I asked her out? What if I had accepted that job in France instead of working in New Jersey? You get my drift — sometimes, the outcome of single events can change the course of lives. What makes these what-if questions even more interesting, though, is when the answers could potentially change the entire course of history. What if Germany had won WWII? Answer: we could be living under Nazi rule in America, as the TV show The Man in the High Castle so chillingly imagines. What if the right-wing nuts and religious fundamentalists take over the US of A and turn it into the Republic of Gilead? Answer: you would get Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian vision of the future in which America becomes a totalitarian theocracy.
So, when I read an item in the news about some recent research into the Viking exploration of North America, I couldn’t help but wonder: what if those fearsome Norsemen had gotten a foothold here, from sea to shining sea? Would I be writing this in some suitably Nordic language? Or would this continent be a collection of native American and Viking nation-states? Could 12.5 million Africans have been saved from enslavement and shipment to the Americas? What would have happened to the proud (and rapacious) dynasties of England, Spain and Portugal? Or would the Viking occupation of North America have been a 300-year flash in the pan as it was in Great Britain?
Somewhere in those what-if questions are a set of historical fantasies that are ripe for the taking. Imagine Viking longboats making their way up and down the Mississippi. Imagine them encountering the Sioux, the Illini, the Choctaw, and the Osage along its shores. Imagine John Cabot and his English cohorts arriving in Bristol and getting their backsides kicked (or worse) by Leif Eriksson’s descendants. Imagine Columbus, Pizarro and Cortez as mere footnotes in history, if at all.
Perhaps Bernard Cornwell will take up this challenge (his series of historical novels about the Viking occupation of England are an excellent read). Or perhaps, you, our readers, might find this intriguing enough to examine. Which in turn illustrates the point that “going boldly where no one has gone before” applies just as much to the realm of imagination as it does to the exploration of Earth and space.
Let us know what you think.