Alternative history fiction

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Template:Speculative fiction Alternative history or alternate history is a genre of speculative 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 that employ this rubric are set in factful historical contexts, yet feature several social, geopolitical or industrial circumstances that developed differently or at a different pace from our own, sometimes as a result of progress in technological or social paradigms that were accomplished via the understanding already present in the given zeitgeist. While to some extent all fiction can be described as alternative history, the genre proper comprises fiction in which a change happens that causes history to diverge from our own. For a variety of reasons, alternate history is generally classified as a subcategory of speculative fiction. Secret history, which gives an account of history at odds with our general understanding, presenting its own account as having been lost or forgotten, is not alternate history.

In France, alternative history novels are called uchronie. This neologism is 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


The earliest example of alternative 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 alternative history published as a complete work, rather than an aside or digression in a longer work, is believed to be Louis Napoléon Geoffroy-Château's French nationalist tale, Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1823 (1836) – in English "Napoleon and the conquest of the world". In this book, Geoffroy-Château postulates that Napoleon turns away from Moscow before the disastrous winter of 1812. Without the severe losses he suffered historically, Napoleon is able to conquer the world. Geoffroy-Château'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 alternative 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

Academic works

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 alternative 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, Oxford and Cambridge scholars turned their attention to such questions as "If the Moors in Spain Had Won" and "If Louis XVI Had Had an Atom of Firmness."

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 "alternative-alternative history".) Other authors appearing in Squire's book included Hilaire Belloc and André Maurois.

Popular fiction

The next year, 1933, would see alternative history move into a new arena. The December issue of Astounding published Nat Schachner's "Ancestral Voices". This was quickly followed by Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time". While earlier alternative 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.

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 Belisarius. De Camp's work is concerned with the historical changes wrought by his time traveler, Martin Padway, thereby making the work an alternative history.

A "cross-time"/"many universes" variant was used to satirize the s-f pulps in Fredric Brown's classic What Mad Universe (1949) and to comment on McCarthyism in Clifford Simak's Ring Around the Sun (1953).

Also in the late 1940s and the 1950s, writers such as H. Beam Piper, Sam Merwin Jr. and Andre Norton wrote thrillers set in a multiverse in which all alternative 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 the exploration of numerous historical alternatives within a single novel, either via the hero chasing the villain(s) through multiple worlds or (less artfully) via discussions between the paratime cops and their superiors regarding the histories of such worlds.

The popular subgenre 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.

The concept of a cross-time version of a world war, involving rival paratime empires, was developed by Richard C. Meredith in his Timeliner trilogy in the 1970s and by John Barnes' Timeline Wars trilogy in the 1990s.

A fantasy variant 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. Philip Pullman also mined the cross-time theme in His Dark Materials (1996-2000), a trilogy for young adults that is half-fantasy/half-science-fiction.

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 plausible hard-science-fiction foundation for such stories, it is probably that this subgenre will continue to flourish in tandem with the more "conventional" counterfactual-history stories described below.

Late 20th century

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, greatly popularized the genre of alternate history. It 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. (Some critics believe that Nabokov's parallel world should be interpreted as a delusion in the mind of the hero, but this would suggest that Nabokov was borrowing from other Dick novels as well!)

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 among the most prolific practitioners 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 colonised 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 launched a series in which the Japanese not only bomb Pearl Harbor but also invade and occupy the Hawaiian Islands.

1992 saw the publication of Fatherland, a novel by writer Robert Harris, set in Europe following a Nazi victory in the Second World War. Fatherland has been critically acclaimed for portraying a more believable society and series of events than many other works of fiction set in a Nazi world.

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.

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
  • An examination of the ramifications of that change

Alternate histories do not

  • Need to be set in the past
  • Need to show the point of divergence
  • Need to deal with world changing events
  • Need to include famous people

This leads to readers encountering stories which read as though they were alternate history, but which are not. An example would be Robert Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon. Written in the 1940's, it posits that the first moon launch is run by a private organization rather than a government agency in the 1960's. New readers encountering the book may well presume that this is alternative history since it is clearly a counter-factual depiction of the first moon lauch, 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 Science fiction, not alternative history. The point of divergance happened after the time at which the author was writing.

The boundary, like many in literature, is a broad line with grey edges. 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.

Alternative history in other media

Several films have been made that exploit the concepts of alternative 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. Many movies about alternate pasts, however, focus on individuals rather than historical events and are not considered alternate histories (e.g., Frank Capra’s It's a Wonderful Life, and more recently the films Sliding Doors and The Butterfly Effect).

The science fiction television show Sliders presented alternate histories under the science-inspired guise of quantum-navigating the multiverse.

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.

Points of divergence

The key change between our history and the alternative 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 our reality, this attempt failed. 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.

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 alternative 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 alternative histories

Literally thousands of alternative history stories and novels have been published. Following is a somewhat random sampling:

  • Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card, in which Card imagines North America where people wield magic, or knacks, and the revolution was only partly successful.
  • In "The Forfeited Birthright of the Abortive Far Western Christian Civilization," Arnold J. Toynbee describes a world in which the Franks lost to the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732.
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton is a detective novel set in 1941 Britain in which the Germans have successfully occupied the country.
  • If Hitler Had Invaded England, by C.S. Forester, found in his collection of published short stories, Gold from Crete. The story is a fictionalized account of a German invasion of Britain in 1940, based on what Forester saw as realistic projections of German and British capabilities. The German invasion fails short of reaching London due to continued British supremacy at sea and in the air. The resulting lack of river transport capability leads to an Allied victory.
  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis is set in a world very similar to that of Pavane. In this world, Martin Luther, rather than beginning the Protestant Reformation, became pope. The novel concerns the attempt to prevent a young boy with a perfect singing voice from being recruited to the Vatican's eunuch choir. There are a number of in-jokes, where famous works of fantasy and science fiction appear, under slightly different titles: 'The Wind in the Cloisters' and 'The Lord of the Chalices' for example.
  • GURPS Alternate Earths (ISBN 1-55634-318-3) and GURPS Alternate Earths II (ISBN 1-55634-399-X) a pair of "What might have been" supplements for the Third Edition of the GURPS role-playing game. Includes a world with a surviving Confederacy, a Nazi/Japanese Empire world, an Aztecs-rule-America scenario, a Viking empire and a unique "Gernsback" world in which the dreams of mad scientists and Doc Savage have become reality. The conflict between the Infinity Patrol and Centrum across the multiplicity of parallel Earths detailed in these supplements (and originating in GURPS Time Travel) was made central to the Fourth Edition of GURPS as the default setting in the Basic Set and in the supplement GURPS Infinite Worlds.
  • Ong's Hat by Ong's Hat, New Jersey is an Internet legend that deals with a group of renegade scientists from Princeton that developed a means of travel to parallel universes and fled this Universe to found a colony in another world.
  • The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove and actor Richard Dreyfuss is set in modern times under the assumption that King George III of Great Britain and George Washington reached a settlement where the 13 Colonies remained within the British Empire with increased autonomy and virtually all of their grievances redressed. The book follows two Royal American Mounted Police officers attempting to recover the famous painting of the meeting between the Two Georges by Thomas Gainsborough after it had been stolen by anti-British terrorists. The painting had become a national treasure and the principal symbol of the unification between Britain and America.
  • For Want of a Nail (ISBN 1853675040) - an alternative history of North America by Robert Sobel, details a world in which the American Revolution failed. The British colonies become the Confederation of North America (CNA), while the defeated rebels go into exile in Spanish Tejas, eventually founding the United States of Mexico (USM) - a bitter rival to the CNA. The gigantic multinational corporation Kramer Associates, originally from Mexico but later based in Taiwan, is the third world power, and the first power to detonate an atomic bomb. This book is of particular interest because it is written in the format of a standard popular history, complete with footnotes and discussions of differing historical interpretations, and for the fact that for many years, at least one major municipal library (the Denver Public Library) had this book filed in its history collection rather than as fiction.
  • Conquistador by S.M. Stirling - an interdimensional gateway is discovered in California, which gives access to an alternative Earth in which the empire of Alexander the Great flourished, and where Europeans never discovered America.
  • Rivers of War by Eric Flint is an alternative history of the American frontier. It posits that Sam Houston was not injured at the beginning of the War of 1812, and substantially revises the history of the Trail of Tears.
  • The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith One single word in the Declaration of Independence differs and the US becomes the North American Confederation, a libertarian society. In the present some scientist will invent the Probability Broach and make contact with other universes.
    • The Venus Belt
    • Their Majesties' Bucketeers
    • The Nagasaki Vector
    • Tom Paine Maru
    • The Gallatin Divergence
  • The Coming of the Demons by Gwenyth Hood imagines if the execution of Conradin Hohenstaufen in Naples on October 29, 1268 was averted by the arrival of the Pelezitereans, exiled alien wanderers from another galaxy, seeking an uninhabited planet on which to reestablish their advanced culture.
  • The Belisarius series of novels by David Drake and Eric Flint take place when opposing factions from the future influence early times through intermediaries for their own purposes: the 'good' side operating through the Byzantine general Belisarius and the 'evil' side operating through the Indian state of Malwa.

Online alternative histories

soc.history.what-if is a Usenet newsgroup devoted to discussing alternative histories. This newsgroup has spawned a number of interesting alternative timelines, including an online role playing game which has run continuously since 2000 called SHWI-ISOT with a POD in 1800 and in which the characters are based on the players being sent from the 21st century back to an alternate early 19th Century, where they have started altering history. The concept was inspired by S.M. Stirling's "Island on the Sea of Time" books.

In online alternative history, the timeline is usually referred to by the abbreviation ATL (Alternative Time Line), as contrasted with OTL (Our Time Line) which refers to real history.

  • 1933 an alternative view of the 20th century post-1933 in which Adolf Hitler succeeds in creating an alliance between Nazi Germany and the British Empire resulting in the invasion and conquests of France and the Soviet Union, and the resulting long and prolonged cold war between the Anglo-German alliance and the United States.
  • Sealion Fails (Steven Rogers) is an alternative World War II in which Germany invades England, but the invasion is defeated.
  • For All Nails is an ongoing, collaborative online continuation of For Want of a Nail, which ended in 1971, the year the book had been written. The authors believed the world depicted at the end of For Want of a Nail was an unpleasant one — hence the name inspired by Chet's For All Time.

Eric Flint's rare policy of supporting fanfiction based on his 1632 novel universe has created a vibrant forum section at Baen's Bar, discussing the consequences of an event in which the fictional modern American town is transported back in time into the middle of the Thirty Years' War, in the German province of Thuringia.

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

External links

bg:Алтернативна история cs:Alternativní historie de:Alternativweltgeschichte es:Ucronía fr:Uchronie it:Ucronia no:Kontrafaktisk historie pl:Historia alternatywna sv:Alternativvärld Historia