Yesterday in SF class we tackled two stories of alternate history: Robert Silverberg's "Tales from the Venia Woods" and William Sanders's "The Undiscovered." Both stories were successes with the students, although I did have the feeling that not as many as usual had done all the reading, undoubtedly because they also had to hand in their first papers that day (a phenomenon I remember clearly from my own student days).
With the Silverberg, we looked at the story's two views of empire as embodied in the Pax Romana: as an oppressive totalitarian state or as the best alternative to a war of all-against-all. I put on the board Ben Franklin's aphorism that "History is written by the winners as an excuse to hang the losers." Nobody was exactly sure who Ben Franklin was, although they did have him located in the American war for independence from England. This discussion, of the viability of a world government (or what passed for "the world" in Roman times) is, in part, preparation for reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars, the next thing on the syllabus.
We then turned to "The Undiscovered," Sanders's wonderful cross-cultural story about William Shakespeare ending up in America in the late 1590's, being captured by Indians, and attempting to stage Hamlet among the Cherokees. The Indians find the play hilarious. I find the story hilarious, and so was startled when two of my students disagreed: "It's tragic. It just crushes Shakespeare that no one understood his play." Which is, of course, true in the context of the SF story. An interesting response from thoughtful readers.
Addendum added a day later: I emailed Will Sanders. He said he intended it as a sad story. Score one for the students!