Alternative Histories

Alternate history or alternative history is a subgenre of speculative fiction (or some would say of science fiction) that is set in a world in which history has diverged from history as it is generally known; more simply put, alternate history asks the question, "What if history had developed differently?" Most works in this genre are set in real historical contexts, yet feature social, geopolitical or industrial circumstances that developed differently or at a different pace from our own. While to some extent all fiction can be described as alternate history, the subgenre proper comprises fiction in which a change or point of divergence happens that causes history to diverge from our own.

Since the 1950s science fiction was the conduit for parallel histories: (a) cross-time, or paratime, travel between alternate histories/universes (or some kind of psychic awareness of the existence of "our" universe by the people in the other, as in Nabokov and Dick; see below); or (b) ordinary voyaging uptime or downtime that results in a world splitting into two or more new timelines. So close have the cross-time, time-splitting and alternate history themes been interwoven that it is impossible to discuss them fully apart from one another. Thus, cross-time and time-splitting stories will be an important part of this article insofar as they portray one or more alternate histories that diverged from a common past.

The French call alternate history novels uchronie. That's a neologism based on the word utopia (a place that doesn't exist) and the Greek for time, chronos. An uchronie, then, is defined as a time that doesn't exist.

History of alternate history fiction

Antiquity

The earliest example of alternate history appears to be Book IX, sections 17-19, of Livy's History of Rome from Its Foundation. He contemplates the possibility of Alexander the Great expanding his father's empire westward instead of eastward and attacking Rome in the 4th century BC.

19th century

The earliest alternate history published as a complete work, rather than an aside or digression in a longer work, is believed to be Louis Geoffroy's French nationalist tale, Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1812-1832) (1836) – in English Napoleon and the Conquest of the World. In this book, Geoffroy postulates that Napoleon turns away from Moscow before his disastrous defeat of 1812. Without the severe losses he suffered historically, Napoleon is able to conquer the world. Geoffroy's book must have been popular in France, for the subsequent years saw many similar novels published.

In the English language, the first known complete alternate history is Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "P.'s Correspondence", published in 1846 and which recounts the tale of an apparent madman and his purported encounters with various literary and political figures of the 1840s. At novel length, the first alternate history in English would seem to be Castello Holford's Aristopia (1895). While not as nationalistic as Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1823, Aristopia is another attempt to portray a utopian society which never existed. In Aristopia, the earliest settlers in Virginia discover a reef made of solid gold and are able to build a Utopian society in North America.

Early 20th century and the era of the pulps

Although a number of alternate history stories and novels appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the next major work is perhaps the strongest anthology of alternate history ever assembled. In 1932, British historian Sir John Squire collected a series of essays, many of which could be considered stories, in If It Had Happened Otherwise from some of the leading historians of the period. In this work, scholars from major universities as well as important non-university-based authors turned their attention to such questions as "If the Moors in Spain Had Won" and "If Louis XVI Had Had an Atom of Firmness." The essays range from serious scholarly efforts through Henrik Van Loon's fanciful and satiric portrayal of an independent 20th century Dutch city state on the island of Manhattan.

Four of the fourteen pieces examined the two most popular themes in alternate history prior to the Second World War: Napoleon's victory and the American Civil War. One of the entries in Squire's volume was Winston Churchill's "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg", written from the viewpoint of a historian in a world where the Confederacy had won the American Civil War, considering what would have happened if the North had been victorious. (This kind of speculative work which posts from the point of view of an alternate history is variously known as a "recursive alternate history", a "double-blind what-if" or an "alternate-alternate history".) Other authors appearing in Squire's book included Hilaire Belloc and André Maurois.

Another example of alternate history from this period (and arguably the first to explicitly posit cross-time travel from one universe to another as anything more than a visionary experience) was H.G. Wells' Men Like Gods (1923) in which several British politicians are transferred via an accidental encounter with a cross-time machine into an alternate universe in which Britain had changed course in earlier centuries and developed into a seemingly pacifistic and utopian society. When the politicians from our world try to seize power, the utopians simply point a ray gun at them and send them on to someone else's universe. Wells works out the entire multiverse-pancake framing complete with paratime travel machines that would become popular with U.S. pulp writers (see below), but since his hero experiences only a single alternate world this story is not very different from conventional alternate history (the intruders from our world cause no significant change in the world they enter and are really just a device for examining the results of a past divergence between Wells' utopia and our own world).

The 1930s would see alternate history move into a new arena. The December 1933 issue of Astounding published Nat Schachner's "Ancestral Voices". This was quickly followed by Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time". While earlier alternate histories examined reasonably straight-forward divergences, Leinster attempted something completely different. In his "world gone mad", pieces of Earth traded places with their analogs from different timelines. The story follows Robinson College Professor Minott as he wanders through these analogs, each of which features remnants of worlds which followed a different history.

Time travel as a means of creating historical divergences

This period also saw the publication of the time travel novel Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, which was similar to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court but sent an American academic to the Italy of the Ostrogoths at the time of the Byzantine invasion led by Belisarius. De Camp's work is concerned with the historical changes wrought by his time traveler, Martin Padway, thereby making the work an alternate history. Padway is depicted as making permanent changes and implicitly forming a new time branch (in contrast to Twain's hero, who ultimately fails, with the result that history reverts to its "normal" course).

Time travel as the cause of a point of divergence (creating two histories where before there was one, or simply replacing the future that existed before the time traveling event) has continued to be a popular theme over the decades. In Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, the hero, who lives in a backward world in which the South won the Civil War, travels through time and brings about an alternate history in which the North won at Gettysburg. Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder creates a scenario in which the time travelers inadvertently destroy all history as we know it.

When a story's assumptions about the nature of time necessitate, as in the Bradbury tale, a replacement of the visited historical time's future rather than just the creation of a new time line, the next step is obviously the founding of a time patrol (a device that is not to be confused with the paratime police, see below). Such an agency has the grim task of saving civilization every day, every hour, with patrol members--depicted most notably in Poul Anderson's Time Patrol--racing uptime and downtime to preserve the "correct" history.

This can lead to terrible moral dilemmas. In Delenda Est the interference of time-travelling outlaws, causes Carthage to win the Second Punic War and destroy Rome. As a result, there is a completely different Twentieth Century - "not better or worse, just completely different". The hero, Patrol Agent Manse Everard, must return to that period, fight the outlaws and change history back, restoring his (and our) familiar history - but only at the price of totally destroying the world which has taken its place, and which is equally deserving of existence. The stakes are the highest imaginable: billions of lives balanced against other billions of lives, for one man to decide. "Risking your neck in order to negate a world full of people like yourself" is how the hero describes what he eventually undertakes.

Of course not all time travel stories involve alternate histories. The writer may ignore the possibility of change, or have the cause-and-effect work out so that the time traveler's actions cause the future he remembers, as in Harry Harrison's Technicolor Time Machine.

The Connecticut Yankee wins at last!

A recent time travelling splitter variant involves entire communities (and not just individuals like Twain's Connecticut Yankee) being shifted uptime to be the founding fathers of new time branches. These communities are transported either from the present or the near-future to the past via a natural disaster, the action of technologically advanced aliens, or a human experiment gone wrong.

S.M. Stirling has written the Island in the Sea of Time trilogy, in which Nantucket Island and all its modern inhabitants are transported to Bronze Age times to become the world's first superpower. In Eric Flint's 1632 series, a small town in West Virginia is transported to 17th century Europe and leads a revolution against the Hapsburgs. John Birmingham's Axis of Time trilogy, deals with the culture shock when a United Nations naval task force from 2021 finds itself back in 1942 helping the Allies against the Japanese and the Germans (and doing almost as much harm as good in spite of its advanced weapons).

Cross-time stories

H.G. Wells' "cross-time"/"many universes" variant (see above) was fully developed by De Camp in his 1940 short story "The Wheels of If" (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, October 1940), in which the hero is repeatedly shifted from one alternate history to another, each more remote from our own than the last. This subgenre was used early on for purposes far removed from quasi-academic examination of alternative outcomes to historical events. Fredric Brown employed it to satirize the s-f pulps and their adolescent readers--and fears of foreign invasion--in the classic What Mad Universe (1949). In Clifford Simak's Ring Around the Sun (1953), the hero ends up in an alternate earth of thick forests in which humanity never developed (the ultimate divergence) but where a band of mutants is establishing a colony; the story line appears to frame the author's anxieties regarding McCarthyism and the Cold War.

Introducing the paratime patrol

Also in the late 1940s and the 1950s, however, writers such as H. Beam Piper, Sam Merwin, Jr. and Andre Norton wrote thrillers set in a multiverse in which all alternate histories are co-existent and travel between them occurs via a technology involving portals and/or paratime capsules. These authors established the convention of a secret paratime trading empire that exploits and/or protects worlds lacking the paratime technology via a network of James Bond style secret agents (Piper called them the "paratime police").

This concept provided a convenient framing for packing a smorgasbord of historical alternatives (and even of timeline "branches") into a single novel, either via the hero chasing or being chased by the villain(s) through multiple worlds or (less artfully) via discussions between the paratime cops and their superiors (or between paratime agents and new recruits) regarding the histories of such worlds.

Paratime thrillers published in recent decades often cite the Many-worlds interpretation of Quantum mechanics (first formulated by Hugh Everett III in 1957) to account for the differing worlds. As interpretated by science fiction writers, the splitting of worlds involves human decision making; thus the Point of Departure is a historical (and psychological) event, not just a reductionistic manifestation of the laws of atomic or subatomic physics. Prior to Everett, science-fiction writers drew on higher dimensional and Ouspenskian speculations to explain their characters' cross-time jauntings.

Some fictional paratime stories depict conceivable worlds that may not be possible worlds because the people at the POD would never have made the decision necessary to create the world in question. For instance, it is conceivable but not possible that the Pilgrims, upon landing at Plymouth Rock in a universe identical to ours up until that point, would have voted on the spot to convert to Catholicism or Islam. An example in print is Laura Resnick's "We Are Not Amused" (from Alternate Presidents (Michael Resnick, editor, 1992)) in which free-love feminist Victoria Woodhull is elected President in 1872. This example is not as clear as the Plymouth one, since Resnick never reveals whether or not Woodhull's election was the outcome of a POD (or perhaps a "butterfly effect") that changed history years before the election. However, it is difficult to imagine a plausible series of events that would lead to a Woodhull presidency. We must conclude that Resnick, like Fredric Brown and Henrik van Loon before her, is using alternate history as a vehicle for satire rather than for exploring "realistic" possibilities.

While many justifications for alternate histories involve a multiverse, the "many world" theory would naturally involve -- many worlds, in fact a continually exploding array of universes. In quantum theory, new worlds would proliferate with every quantum event, and even if the writer uses human decisions, every decision that could be made differently would result in a different timeline. A writer's fictional multiverse may, in fact, preclude some decisions as humanly impossible, as when, in Night Watch, Terry Pratchett depicts a character informing Vimes that while anything that can happen, has happened, nevertheless there is no history whatsoever in which Vimes has ever murdered his wife. When the writer explicitly maintains that all possible decisions are made in all possible ways, the story seldom dwells on the unpleasant consequence of the characters being neither brave, nor clever, nor skilled; they were lucky enough to happen on the universe in which they did not choose the cowardly route, take the stupid action, fumble the crucial activity, or have the bad luck. In H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen, one country is saved because a Pennsylvanian cop is dropped into it, with the trade secret of how to make gunpowder, before it is overrun; the paratime patrol members are warned against going into the timelines immediately surrounding it, where the country will be overrun, but the book never depicts the slaughter of the innocent thus entailed, remaining solely in the timeline where the country is saved.

The cross-time theme was further developed in the 1960s by Keith Laumer in the first two volumes of his Imperium trilogy, which would be completed in Zone Yellow (1990). Piper's politically more sophisticated variant was adopted and adapted by Michael Kurland and Jack Chalker in the 1980s; Chalker's God, Inc. trilogy (1987-89), featuring paratime detectives Sam and Brandy Horowitz, marks the first attempt at merging the paratime thriller with the police procedural. Kurland's Perchance (1988), the first volume of the never completed "Chronicles of Elsewhen", presents a multiverse of secretive cross-time societies that utilize a variety of means for cross-time travel, ranging from high-tech capsules to mutant powers.

The concept of a cross-time version of a world war, involving rival paratime empires, was developed in Fritz Leiber's Change War series, starting with the Hugo-award-winning The Big Time (1958); followed by Richard C. Meredith's Timeliner trilogy in the 1970s, Michael McCollum's A Greater Infinity (1982) and John Barnes' Timeline Wars trilogy in the 1990s.

Given the limitless fictional possibilities of paratime travel themes, and the fact that both string theory and the many-worlds theory of quantum physics provide a highly plausible hard-science-fiction foundation for such stories, it is probable that this variant will continue to flourish in tandem with the more "conventional" alternate history stories described below.

Such "paratime" stories may include speculation that the laws of nature can vary from one universe to the next, providing a science fictional explanation -- or veneer -- for what is normally fantasy. Aaron Allston's Doc Sidhe and Sidhe Devil take place between our world, the "grim world" and an alternate "fair world" where the Sidhe retreated to. Although technology is clearly present in both worlds, and the "fair world" parallels our history, about fifty years out of step, there is functional magic in the fair world. Even with such explanation, the more explicitly the alternate world resembles a normal fantasy world, the more likely the story is to be labeled fantasy, as in Poul Anderson's "House Rule" and "Loser's Night."

In both science fiction and fantasy, whether a given parallel universe is an alternate history may not be clear. The writer might allude to a POD only to explain the existence and make no use of the concept, or may present the universe without explanation to its existence.

Development of more sophisticated framings

Most of the early cross-time thrillers depicted the multiverse in Euclidean terms (pancake universes stretching to left and right of any given zero universe with the divergence point being earlier and earlier, and the differences greater and greater, the farther one moved in either direction from the zero point). McCollum and some later writers, however, have posited a pseudo-Einsteinian paratime in which universes are constantly shifting around, moving closer or farther from each other, with time dilating or contracting from one universe to another in unpredicable ways. This framing device expands the potential for using cross-time fiction to compare different outcomes uptime, downtime and crosstime all at once.

Major U.S. writers explore alternate histories

In 1962, Philip K. Dick published The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history in which Nazi Germany and imperial Japan won World War II. This book, widely regarded as Dick's masterpiece, has enhanced the prestige of alternate history in mainstream literary circles, although Dick was not yet recognized beyond s-f circles when it was first published. Dick's book also contained an example of "alternate-alternate" history, in that one of its characters is the author of a book in which the Allies won the war.

It was followed by Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), a story of incest that takes place within an alternate North America settled in part by Czarist Russia, and that borrows from Dick's idea of "alternate-alternate" history (the world of Nabokov's hero is wracked by rumors of a "counter-earth" that apparently is ours). Some critics believe that the references to a counter-earth suggest that the world portrayed in "Ada" is a delusion in the mind of the hero (another favorite theme of Dick's novels). But even if the Ada-world is regarded as a delusion, it is still alternate history, since Nabokov describes it in detail and makes it come alive artistically. (Since all AH works are imaginative fiction, it really matters little if the AH is presented as the author's fiction alone or as the author's fiction mediated through a delusional character.)

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth looks at an America where Franklin Delano Roosevelt is defeated in 1940 in his bid for a third term as President of the United States, and Charles Lindbergh is elected, leading to increasing fascism in the U.S.

Contemporary alternate history in popular literature, including the s-f genre

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw a boom in popular-fiction versions of alternate history, fueled by the emergence of Harry Turtledove, the steampunk genre and two series of anthologies— the "What Might Have Been" series edited by Gregory Benford and the "Alternate ..." series edited by Mike Resnick. This period also saw alternate history works by S.M. Stirling, Kim Stanley Robinson, Harry Harrison and others.

Since the late 1990s, Harry Turtledove has been the most prolific practitioner of alternate history. His books include a series in which the South won the American Civil War and another in which aliens invade Earth during the Second World War. Other stories by this author include one with the premise that America had not been colonized from Asia during the last ice age; as a result, the continent still has living mammoths and a hominid species other than homo sapiens. Most recently (2005) he has begun a series in which the Japanese not only bomb Pearl Harbor but also invade and occupy the Hawaiian Islands. He has also launched an alternate history series for teenagers that utilizes a version of H. Beam Piper's paratime-trading-empire framing.

Perhaps the most incessantly explored theme in popular alternate history focusses on worlds in which the Nazis won World War Two. In some versions, the Nazis conquer the entire world; in others, they conquer most of the world but a "Fortress America" exists under siege. Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris, set in Europe following the Nazi victory, has been widely praised for portraying a more believable society and series of events than most other novels set in a Nazified world or Nazified Eurasia. Several writers have posited points of departure for such a world but then have injected time splitters from the future or paratime travel (for instance, James P. Hogan's The Proteus Operation (1986) and Michael P. Kube-McDowell's Alternities (1988)).

Beginning with The Probability Broach in 1981, L. Neil Smith wrote several novels which postulated the disintegration of the US Federal Government during the Whiskey Rebellion and the creation of a Libertarian utopia.

Alternate history in the contemporary fantasy genre

Many fantasies and science fantasies are set in a world that has a history somewhat similar to our own world, but with magic added. Since the existence of magic implies different laws of nature it is difficult to imagine a credible point of divergence: The effects of divergence would have existed throughout human history and indeed throughout all evolution of life (unless one posits sudden changes in the laws of nature in medieval or modern times brought about by aliens, a time-space warp, etc.). One example of a universe that is in part historically recognizable but also obeys different physical laws is Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions in which the Matter of France is history, and the fairy folk are real and powerful. A partly familiar European history for which the author attempts to provide a logic-defying point of divergence is Randall Garrett's "Lord Darcy" series: a monk systemizing magic rather than science, so the use of foxglove to treat heart disease is called superstition. Whether a POD is hypothesized or not, it is probably best to regard such stories as depicting a kind of pseudo-alternity.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in an alternate version of England where a separate Kingdom ruled by the Raven King and founded on magic existed for in Northumbria for over 300 years. In Patricia Wrede's Regency fantasies, Great Britain has a Royal Society of Wizards, and in Poul Anderson's A Midsummer's Tempest William Shakespeare is remembered as the Great Historian, with the novel itself taking place in the era of Cromwell and Charles I--and a premature Industrial Revolution.

On the other hand, when the "Old Ones" still manifest themselves in England in Keith Roberts's Pavane, which takes place in a technologically backward world after a Spanish assassination of Elizabeth I allowed the Spanish Armada to conquer England, the possibility that the fairies were real but retreated from modern advances makes the POD possible: the fairies really were present all along, in a secret history. Again, in the English Rennaissance fantasy Armor of Light by Melissa Scott and Lisa A. Barnett, the magic used in the book, by Dr. John Dee and others, actually was practiced in the Rennaissance; positing a secret history of effective magic makes this an alternate history with a POD, Sir Philip Sidney's surviving the Battle of Zutphen, and shortly there after saving the life of Christopher Marlowe. Many works of fantasy posit a world in which known practitioners of magic were able to make it function, and where the consequences of such reality would not, in fact, disturb history to such an extent as to make it plainly alternate history. Most such ambiguous alternate/secret histories are set in Rennaissance or pre-Rennaissance times, and may explicitly include a "retreat" from the world, which would explain the current absence of such phenomena.

When the magical version of our world's history is set in contemporary times, the distinction becomes clear between alternate history on the one hand and contemporary fantasy, using in effect a form of secret history (as when Josepha Sherman's Son of Darkness has an elf living in New York City, in disguise) on the other. In works such as Robert A. Heinlein's "Magic, Incorporated" where a construction company can use magic to rig up stands at a sporting event and Poul Anderson's Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna, where djinns are serious weapons of war -- with atomic bombs -- the use of magic throughout the United States and other modern countries makes it clear that this is not secret history -- although references in Operation Chaos to de-Gaussifying the effects of cold iron make it possible that it is the result of a POD.

Indeed, whenever the effects of the fantasical elements are so powerful and pervasive that they cannot plausibly be explained via secret machinations or a point of departure caused by human decisions, then the history depicted should be regarded as a pseudo-alternity. (This should apply not just to fantasy alternities but to satiric ones in which highly improbable events occur, as in What Mad Universe.)

Even a pseudo-alternity shades off into a fantasy setting when the use of actual, though altered, history and geography decreases, although a culture may still be clearly the original source; Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds and its sequels take place in a fantasy world, albeit one clearly based on China, and with allusions to actual Chinese history, such as the Empress Wu.

Philip Pullman mined both pseudo-alternate history and cross-time themes in His Dark Materials (1996-2000), a science-fantasy trilogy for young adults. Most notable is his variant version of Elizabethan England in the first volume, although given the different (magical) laws of nature there could be no credible point of departure, nor does Pullman attempt to provide one.

A fantasy version of the paratime police was developed by children's writer Diana Wynne Jones in her Chrestomanci quartet (1977-1988), with wizards taking the place of high tech secret agents. Among the novels in this series, Witch Week stands out for its vivid depiction of a history alternate to that of Chrestomanci's own world rather than our own (and yet with a specific POD that turned it away from the "normal" history of most worlds visited by the wizard).

Other authors have used paratime concepts without the police; Poul Anderson uses the tavern the Old Phoenix as a nexus between alternate histories. A character from a modern American alternate history Operation Chaos can thus appear in the English Civil War setting of A Midsummer's Tempest. In this context, the distinction between an alternate history and a parallel universe with some points in common but no common history may not be feasible, as the writer may not provide enough information to distinguish.

Terry Pratchett's works includes several references to alternate histories of Discworld. Men At Arms observes that in millions of universes, Edward d'Eath became an obsessive recluse rather than the instigator of the plot that he is in the novel. In Jingo, Vimes accidentially picks up a pocket organizer that should have gone down another leg of the Trousers of Time, and so can hear the organizer reporting on the deaths that would have occurred had his decision gone otherwise. Indeed, Discworld contains an equivalent of the Time Patrol in its History Monks. Night Watch revolves around a repair of history after a time traveler's murder of an important figure in Vimes's past. Thief of Time presents them functioning as a fullscale Time Patrol, ensuring that history occurs at all.

Elements of Alternate History

There are certain elements which are common to all alternate histories, whether they deal with history on the micro-level (personal alternate histories) or the macro-level (world-changing events). These elements include:

  • A point of change from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing;
  • A change which would alter history as it is known; and
  • An examination of the ramifications of that change.

Alternate histories do not:

  • Need to be set in the past;
  • Need to spell out the point of divergence;
  • Need to deal with world changing events; or
  • Need to include famous people.

The boundaries of alternate history

This leads to readers encountering stories which read as though they were alternate history, but which are not. An example would be Robert A. Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon. Written in the 1940s, it posits that the first moon launch is run by a private organization rather than a government agency in the 1960s. New readers encountering the book may well presume that this is alternate history since it is clearly a counter-factual depiction of the first moon launch, now almost 40 years in the past. However, when written, the first moon launch was nearly 30 years in the future. Thus, The Man Who Sold the Moon is out of date science fiction and not true alternate history, however among many fans of the genre such incorrect future history is often considered 'honorary alternate history'.

Also one should not confuse the AH subgenre with secret history, which gives an account of history at odds with our general understanding — presenting its own account as having been concealed or suppressed by an elite.

AH also should not be mistaken for mythical history--a history which supposedly has been forgotten through the passage of time, not through conspiratorial suppression. The works of Robert Howard and J.R.R. Tolkien are excellent examples of fiction based on a lost-history framing, but they do not and cannot specify a point of departure from our own history, since there is no historical, archaeological or paleontological record on which such a POD could be based. Given the lack of any continuity with our world (and the lack of any kind of multiverse framing) such worlds are merely fantasy worlds and cannot be regarded as alternate history even in a borderline sense.

It is also possible to have novels that explore Points of Divergence (the key concept in alternate history) without actually being works of alternate history themselves. One good example is Marge Piercy's critically acclaimed Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) in which a patient in a mental hospital is able to travel into two alternate futures--one an ecotopia run by reformed Weather Underground types and the other a fascist dystopia run by people-hating robots. Decisions she must make to resist an insidious new type of brain operation will determine which future wins. This is a time travel story, a cross-time story, a Christopher Priest style delusional alternate reality story and a POD story all rolled into one but it is not alternate history because the POD occurs in the present (or perhaps the near future) not in the past.

Less obvious is the difference between alternate history and "what if" stories. The latter subgenre extrapolates, from the present, a concrete near-future possibility that is often an expression of current public fears (hence the alternate term "cautionary tale" used by Sackville-West, see below). For instance, beginning in the 1870s the British reading public was treated to a number of what-if books about a German or French invasion of an unready British Isles. During the Great Depression, Sinclair Lewis wrote of a fascist takeover in the United State in his classic It Can't Happen Here (1935). During the early years of World War II, Vita Sackville-West penned the science fantasy Grand Canyon (1942) in which the Germans invade a woefully unprepared United States. One could define such tales as borderline alternate history, since they are usually set in a time that is only shortly after the time of writing and the events described could not have occurred without a branching of history before, if only slightly before, the book was written.

The boundary, like many in literature, is a broad line with grey edges (not unlike the fog around the alternate universe portals in science-fiction stories of fifty years ago). Would a 2005 author writing a story set in 1970 in Heinlein's universe, or Jules Verne's Captain Nemo universe be writing SF or AH? Opinions differ.

Alternate history in other media

In 1953, the NBC radio network aired a show called Stroke of Fate that posited different point of divergence creating an alternate time-line for each episode and dramatized the results along with commentary from various historians. Episodes included changes in the American Civil War, Alexander the Great surviving his illness, an alternate fate for James Wolfe at Quebec City, no Julius Caesar assassination, a different outcome of Aaron Burr's duel amongst other stories. All episodes have been preserved.

Several films have been made that exploit the concepts of alternate history, most notably Kevin Brownlow's It Happened Here. Another such film is 2009 Lost Memories, a Korean film supposing that Hirobumi Ito was not assassinated by An Jung-geun in Harbin, China, in 1909. Other alternate history films include Fatherland (1994), set in the 1960's in a world where Germany won WW II and occupied Britain, and C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America (2004), a satirically humorous and, sometimes, disturbing look at the history of an America where the South won the Civil War, told in the form of a British "documentary."

A few movies about alternate pasts, however, focus on individuals rather than historical events and some students of AH would say these are not alternate histories (e.g., Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life, and more recently the films Sliding Doors and The Butterfly Effect). However, in the Capra film the angel shows Jimmy Stewart an alternate history in which he was never born--the changes in his home town are serious and far-reaching, creating a much darker reality for his neighbors. Thus if one posits, as Capra does, that changes in personal lives create a ripple effect in the larger history, then such stories do qualify as a type of alternate history (one could call them "alternate local history" or "alternate interpersonal history"). Such worlds with relatively small (and sometimes almost undiscernable) changes in personal lives were given the name "cognate universes" by Jack Vance in the novelette "Rumfuddle" (1973).

The science fiction television show Sliders presented alternate histories under the science-inspired guise of quantum-navigating the multiverse. The alternate Americas in most episodes are nasty dystopias, although sometimes this is not evident at first. Another such television show, a South Korean drama, Gung presents a point of divergence where the Korean monarchy is restored after independence from the Japanese Empire even up to the 21st Century.[1] (Note: This website is in Korean)

The dramatic possibilities of alternate history provide a diverse genre for exploration in role-playing games. Many games use an alternate historical background for their campaigns. In particular, GURPS uses a setting containing multiple different alternate histories as its default campaign setting.

For the same reasons this genre is explored by role-playing games, alternate history is also an intriguing backdrop for the storylines of many video and computer games. One of the most famous example of an alternate history game is Command & Conquer: Red Alert. It presents a point of divergence where Albert Einstein goes back in time to eliminate Adolf Hitler long before he gained power in Germany to prevent World War II from ever taking place. He is successful in his mission, but in the process allows Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union becoming powerful enough--as a direct result of not having a strong rival dictator like Hitler to keep his power in check--to launch an all out campaign to conquer Europe, sparking an alternate (And ultimately costlier) version of the Second World War.

Points of divergence

The key change between our history and the alternate history is known as the "Point of divergence" (POD). In Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, the POD is the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in Miami in 1933. In reality, this attempt failed. Another alternate history with a point of divergence connected to Roosevelt is the backdrop to Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America, in which Roosevelt is defeated in the 1940 US presidential election by the isolationist Charles Lindbergh, who reaches an accommodation with the Axis powers in World War II and keeps the United States out of the war. In Robert Harris's Fatherland, the POD occurs when a German attack into the Caucasus succeeds in the Nazis seizing vital oil and cutting off supplies to the Red Army. This forces the USSR to surrender, enabling the Axis Powers to bring the remaining Allies to the peace table, one by one. Some variants of the theory of the multiverse posit that PODs occur every instant, springing off parallel universes for each instance.

Even mainstream science fiction stories are known to have points of divergence - the Star Trek franchise, for example, diverts from ours in that several key space disasters never occurred, resulting in a much faster and smoother development of rocketry than in our timeline. In fact, the entire franchise itself is an alternate history. The Eugenics Wars of the Star Trek universe's late 20th century were started by a group of genetically engineered humans known as Augments, including Khan Noonien Singh. The birth date of Khan is in the early 1960s - before the original series aired, and at a time when the genetic and technical knowledge required to create an Augment simply didn't exist (it still doesn't). For Khan and the other Augments to have been created, the world of Star Trek must have a POD in the early part of the 20th century at the very latest, and more likely earlier, in order for 1960s genetics to be at least fifty years ahead of where they were. There have been several stories which attempt to reconcile the history of the Star Trek universe with the history of the world as we know it, most notably Greg Cox's The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, which places the Eugenics wars as happening out of the public eye, but being the cause of several major events (including the French nuclear tests on the island of Mururoa).

However a much more classical (and simpler) example of Point of divergence, appears in one of the older episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series: The City on the Edge of Forever (1967), where Kirk falls in love with Edith Keeler.

Counterfactual and virtual history

See main articles: historical revisionism, virtual history

Historians also speculate in this manner; this type of speculation is known commonly as "counterfactual history" or "virtual history". There is considerable debate within the community of historians about the validity and purpose of this type of speculation.

For alternate histories which some assert to be factual rather than speculative, see conspiracy theory and historical revisionism.

Sidewise Award for Alternate History

In 1995, the Sidewise Award for Alternate History was established to recognize best Long Form (novels and series) and best short form (stories) within the genres. The award is named for Murray Leinster's story "Sidewise in Time."

Published alternate histories

See main article: Published alternate histories

Online alternate histories

See main article: Online alternate histories

Further reading

  • Chapman, Edgar L., and Carl B. Yoke (eds.). Classic and Iconoclastic Alternate History Science Fiction. Mellen, 2003
  • Collins, William Joseph. Paths Not Taken: The Development, Structure, and Aesthetics of the Alternative History. University of California at Davis 1990
  • Gevers, Nicholas. Mirrors of the Past: Versions of History in Science Fiction and Fantasy. University of Cape Town, 1997
  • Hellekson, Karen. The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time. Kent State University Press, 2001
  • McKnight, Edgar Vernon, Jr. Alternative History: The Development of a Literary Genre. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 1994
  • Snider, Adam. "Thinking Sidewise: Tips for building an Alternate History collection". School Library Journal April 2004[2]

See also

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