Originally published in Helix SF #1
This being the first in a series of columns on alternate history, it seems as if definitions are a good place to start.
Alternate history is a subgenre in which an author (or even an auteur) makes the conscious decision to change something which happened in our own history. This thing may be personal or it may be extremely public, but the key is that it must have changed history from that point forward in a manner obvious to anyone who reads the story. If it doesn't, it isn't alternate history, but secret history.
Now that I've provided a working definition of what alternate history is, let's look at some of the subcategories of alternate history.
Albert Einstein is known to have written: "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice." However, in the most classical form of alternate history, it may be said that God does play dice with the universe.
When an author decides to write an alternate history, he must decide where his world's timeline differs from our own, a point of divergence. In many cases this can be as simple as having dice fall one way instead of another. What if A had happened instead of B? In Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain (1995), this dice throw is the return of General Order 191 after it was dropped by a Confederate courier.
Martha Soukup presents another coin toss moment in "Plowshare" (1992), in which William Jennings Bryan manages to defeat William McKinley in 1896 for the presidency.
Time travel is often used by authors to create points of departure from our own history. Eric Flint's 1632 (2000), moves an entire West Virginia town back to the time of the Thirty Years' War and it, and subsequent novels, follow the manner in which this town changes the course of political, social, and philosophical history.
Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series (1960-1991) looks at a sort of police force which can travel through time to ensure that whenever the timeline threatens to branch away from history as it is known, it can be rectified and brought back into sync with our own history.
Some alternate histories posit a wide variety of worlds, using the Multiple Worlds Theory of the universe. In these cases, there is not a single timeline, but myriad timelines which are roughly parallel. This type of scenario was explored in 1934 by Murray Leinster in his story "Sidewise in Time," which lent its name to the annual alternate history award. In "Sidewise in Time," these worlds get mixed up, so portions of the world with one history are aligned next to worlds with a different history.
Another example of this multiple worlds alternate history is L. Sprague de Camp's The Wheels of If (1940). In this story, de Camp's protagonist finds himself traveling through worlds which are similar to his own until he comes to settle in one in which the New World was settled by Celtic Christians who had a civilization which never saw a Norman Conquest of England.
Simon Hawke combined the idea of time travel, myriad worlds, and alternate history with literature to create his Time Wars series (1984-1991), which postulates a time line in which his characters can travel to different times in which the works of literature are factual. While his books don't really stand up as alternate history, they do hold some of the flavor of alternate history.
Personal alternate history, or micro alternate history, focuses on life changing for a single individual. If this individual is a major historical figure, such as Napoleon, it can morph into a more standard alternate history. However, if the individual is a regular person, it tends to stay more personal. There are two wonderful films which look at personal alternate history, by showing us two different versions of a person's life.
The more recent one is "Sliding Doors." This film was released in 1997 and stars Gwyneth Paltrow, John Hannah, John Lynch, and Jeanne Tripplehorn. It begins on an awful day for Helen (Paltrow). As she races for a subway train, we are shown her both catching and missing the train. The rest of the film shows the subsequent events in both worlds. Less alternate history than multiple world theory, since the film doesn't look back at her history.
The older film, which is much more widely known, is also a more traditional alternate history on the personal level. Initially showing the main character's life, the film then shows what the world would have been like without that character. This film is, of course, Frank Capra's 1946 film "It's a Wonderful Life," starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore.
Alternate history is frequently used for polemical purposes. The earliest known alternate history appears in book IX of Livy's Ab Urbe Condita and looks at the possibility of an invasion of Italy by Alexander the Great. As one of Rome's great boosters, Livy naturally finds the Roman generals of the Alexandrine period to be superior to Alexander and his world-conquering generals.
In fact, it is important to draw a distinction between polemical historical writings and alternate history. In polemic, as is clear from the example in Livy, the events described do not need to be plausible. The author's purpose is to drive home a point of view. In an alternate history story, the events, from the point of departure onwards, must have some level of plausibility.
To be alternate history, a story needs to meet three qualifications, not always clearly defined. The story must have a point of departure from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing, a change that would alter history as it is known, and an examination of the ramifications of that change.
And finally, for this first installment, a couple of things which may look like alternate history, but most emphatically are not.
As noted above, writing alternate history is an intentional decision on the part of the creator. If an author writing in 2006 writes a story set in 2022, it does not become alternate history when 2022 comes to pass and his world no longer matches the history which happened between 2006 and 2022. At that point, it is simply a science fiction story which may (or may not) be outdated.
Given enough time, almost all science fiction will pass its setting date. This does not make it alternate history, as alternate history requires some intention on the part of the author. Some examples of science fiction which is now set in the past, but wasn't at the time it was written, include George Orwell's 1984 (1949, set in 1984), Robert A. Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950, set in 1978), and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 (1968, set in 2001).
Secret history is related to alternate history in that it documents things which are not known to have happened historically; however, if they had happened, it would not have made a difference to our understanding of the events. While some secret history is published as science fiction, such as Jack Dann's The Memory Cathedral (1995), often secret history appears under the rubric of historical fiction, such as Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers (1844).
In short, to be considered alternate history, a work needs to satisfy three requirements. i) the point of change needs to be prior to the writing of the story, ii) it needs to alter history in a manner which would be known, and iii) it needs to explore the consquences of those changes.
In future installments, I plan to look at the history of alternate history, the influence of science fiction and fantasy on the subgenre, and things which have been done to death in alternate history.