Alternative history (fiction)

From Academic Kids

Alternative history or alternate history is 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?". 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. Stories that were set in the future when they were written which has since come and passed (such as George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four) are not alternative history, however they are erroneously considered to be by many people. 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 also 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 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.

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 proved to be an extremely influential and 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.

The late 1980s and 1990s saw a boom in 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.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, 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 prehuman species.

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.

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 Dick's novel, and in other Nazis-win-the-war scenarios, Roosevelt's death results in an America wracked by the Great Depression and holding tight to its neutrality, thus causing Britain to fall. 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:

  • 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.
  • See Alternate Earths (sic) (ISBN 1-55634-318-3) and Alternate Earths II (sic) (ISBN 1-55634-399-X) and "What might have been" game addendum for the GURPS Role-Playing System. Includes a Confederate victory world, a Nazi/Japanese Empire world, an Aztecs-rule-America scenario, a Viking empire and a unique "Gernsback" world in which the dreams of the mad scientists and Doc Savage have become reality.
  • Ong's Hat ( by Ong's Hat, New Jersey is a 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 1632 ( by Eric Flint - (found online at the Baen Books free library in various ebook formats.) Its sequels, starting with 1633 ( are available for sale. A series based on the premise that an entire modern West Virginia town is transported in time and space to Germany during the Thirty Years War.
  • 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: What 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?

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.

  • Shattered World ( (Bobby Hardenbrook) is a devastating alternative World War II, resulting from a Soviet invasion of Poland in 1937. The timeline currently continues up to the summer of 1948.
  • A Loose Bandage ( (Beck Reilly) is an alternative 20th century following the failed assassination of William McKinley.
  • 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.

See also

External links

de:Alternativweltgeschichte fr:Uchronie it:Ucronia no:Kontrafaktisk historie pl:Historia alternatywna sv:Alternativvärld Historia


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