Yes, okay, The Man in the High Castle (original story by Philip K Dick, 1962) and SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) are the most prominent ‘what if’s at present. These stories grip our imaginations as the most horrific thing that could have happened to Western Europe/America in the recent history. Of course, Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) gave Nazi althist a good nudge and then along came C J Sansom’s Dominion in 2012. Perhaps the first two are a projection of fears about the Cold War, the second two a re-examination after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Or is it just Rufus Sewell in a beautifully tailored black and silver uniform?
But as the Tudors are not the only historical period so the Nazis are not the only alternative history.
What a wealth of other choices there are out there! Our cousins in the US enjoy speculating about the outcomes of the War of Independence or the American Civil War, while any respectable French bookshop inevitably has a section on the ‘what if’ of Napoléon winning at Waterloo.
Alternative history is nothing new
Roman historian Livy speculated on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he’d lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome, Titus Livius). In 1490, Joanot Martorell wrote Tirant lo Blanch about a knight who manages to fight off the invading Ottoman armies of Mehmet II and saves Constantinople from Islamic conquest. This was written when the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was still a traumatic memory for Christian Europe
Alternative or alternate?
Before we go any further let’s get the name thing out of the way. ‘Alternate’ to British English speakers means one of two taking turns with the other, e.g. alternating current in electricity. Staying with them, ‘alternative’ signifies any possible other e.g. what alternative solutions do you propose? So ‘what if’ scenarios are alternative, i.e. any number of different timelines could exist.
In North America, ‘alternate’ works hard to carry both meanings. So just on numbers, the ‘alternates’ have it and ‘alternate history’ has become the generally accepted name. But we Brits are a plucky lot and stubborn with it, so we hold out and still call it ‘alternative history’. I’m a fence-sitter and duck out and use the short form ‘althist’ which offends nobody.
So what is alt hist when it’s at home?
Like any genre there are ‘da rulz’ when writing althist stories:
– the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence – must be in the past.
– the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.
– stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.
The world can partially resemble our timeline or be very different. Sometimes there are documented historical characters, sometimes entirely fictional ones or a mixture of both. In no case are alternative history stories parallel or secret histories such as The Da Vinci Code or fantasy like Noami Novik’s excellent Temeraire series. Nor can you have time travel machines, heroines falling through time, time travellers dropping in to sort out history then popping back out, or goddesses putting it all back as it was. Once it’s done, it’s done.
Althist is a speculative genre with has two parents: history and science fiction. Its fiction can sit anywhere along a sliding scale from the well-researched counter-factual following historical logic and methodology to the completely bonkers story designed only to be cool. I explain the types in full detail here; I stand at the historical end because I’m a historian as well as a thriller writer.
Some alternative althist stories
England has remained Catholic –Pavane, Keith Roberts or The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have a son and Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain have a daughter – The Boleyn Trilogy/Tudor Legacy Series, Laura Anderson
Alaska rather than Israel becomes the Jewish homeland – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
Roosevelt loses the 1940 election and right-wing Charles Lindbergh becomes US president – The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from St. Helena and winds up in the United States in 1821 – Napoleon in America, Shannon Selin
Is John F. Kennedy killed by a bomb in 1963? Or does he chose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev? – My Real Children, Jo Walton
A secret fifth daughter of the Romanov family continues the Russian royal lineage –The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina’s Legacy, Jennifer Laam
An England in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy – Children’s favourite The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Prolific writers of althist especially from the US viewpoint include Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint and S.M. Stirling.
Or if a remnant of the Roman Empire had survived into the present day, but with a twist – the Roma Nova thrillers. 😉
So what’s althist for?
Like any other story written in any genre, there must be a purpose to an althist story. It can’t be “Look at this new world I’ve invented, aren’t I clever?” It needs a strong story. As a reader of fiction I want to be entertained, to learn something and be encouraged to think. That’s what writers are supposed to deliver to the reader. Alternative history gives us a rich environment in which to develop our storytelling and let our imaginations soar. Like all speculative fiction and a fair bit of historical fiction, althist may well reflect concerns of the time when it’s written. But above all it allows us to explore unthinkable, frightening or utopian worlds from the safety of our favourite reading chair.
Oh, and steampunk? Now that’s a whole other question!
Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO. The sixth, RETALIO, will be published in Spring 2017. Audiobooks now available for the first four of the series
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