What Is Alternate History?
What if ... things had been different? What if ... someone had made a
different choice? How would history have progressed from that point on?
The past can be a signpost to the future. The exciting questions are:
which past ... and which future?
Alternate History is exactly what it sounds like: an alternative to the
history we know and have always thought of as untouchable. It is the
ultimate in "What might have been?" in which an author takes a pivotal
turning point in history, spins it on its axis, and examines what path
events might have taken as a result. Another name for this concept, used
increasingly by historians, is "counterfactual history." It is, without a
doubt, fiction. Yet it is so solidly based in fact that the best of it
reads as if it really happened.
One could, of course, describe any historical fiction as alternate
history, in that the fictional elements never actually occurred. What
distinguishes true Alternate History is its exploration of the ramifications
of the author's machinations. The initial
change--often, but not always, centered on a crucial turning point in
history--can be achieved by science-fictional means, such as time travel,
or by taking actual events and engineering slight but utterly plausible
twists. One example of the latter is Stephen Baxter's Voyage
(1966), which uses the survival of John F. Kennedy to allow the
development of a more ambitious--and very different--space program.
Another is Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain
(1997), which posits a
Civil War in which the famed Confederate orders were not lost, so that the
U.S.A. and the C.S.A. would have to learn to live alongside each
Harry Turtledove has also used science-fictional devices to examine
alternate histories: in his The Guns of the South
(1992), it is the
meddling of time travelers that brings on the victory of the South in the
Civil War, and in his Worldwar
series (1994-1996), an alien
invasion of Earth right in the middle of World War II forces mortal foes,
such as the Nazis and the Polish Jews, to unite in a common cause, thus
drastically changing the course of history from that point on.
The urge to change history isn't new. The earliest Alternate History dates
back to Louis Napoléon Geoffrey-Château's French nationalist
tale Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1823
(1836). In this book, Geoffrey-Château had Napoléon turn away
from Moscow before
the disastrous winter of 1812. Without the
severe losses he would otherwise have suffered (and indeed, in real
history, did suffer), Napoléon was able to conquer the world.
The first English-language Alternate History novel published was Castello
(1895). This one used a more fantastical
premise to tweak history: Aristopia
posited that the earliest
European settlers of Virginia discovered a reef made of solid gold, which
gave them the wealth to build a utopian society in North America.
The next major work of note was actually an anthology, published in 1931,
assembled by British historian Sir John Squire and titled If It Had
. These stories, by Oxford and Cambridge
scholars--some of the leading historians of their time--wrestled with
questions such as "If the Moors in Spain Had Won" and "If Louis XVI Had
Had an Atom of Firmness." In fact, four of the fourteen pieces comprising
the book examined what have remained two of the most popular themes in the
Alternate History genre: Napoléon's victory and the American Civil
War. The authors included such luminaries as Hilaire Belloc, André
Maurois, and Winston Churchill.
In 1933, Alternate History burst on the popular marketplace with the
publication, in the December issue of Astounding
Nat Schachner's story "Ancestral Voices." This was followed quickly by
Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time." William Sell's "Other Tracks"
October 1938) tossed time travel into the mix for
the first time, and a couple of years later L. Sprague de Camp's classic Lest Darkness Fall
and "The Wheels of If" solidly established
Alternate History as a viable and popular concept.
One of the most popular change points explored in Alternate History is
World War II and the possibility of a Nazi victory. The first book to
examine this was When the Bells Rang
(1943), by Anthony Armstrong
and Bruce Graeme. These authors postulated a Nazi invasion of England in
1940. Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle
(1962) looks at
a world in which North America was divided between the victorious Nazis
and Japanese. And in what may be the most successful Alternate History to
date, Robert Harris's Fatherland
, Hitler's final solution was
successful, and the postwar Nazi government actually managed to erase all
knowledge of the death camps.
The other most popular historical change point is that of the American
Civil War. One of the most famous of these examples is Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee
(1953), in which the reader spends much of the
story in a third-world United States that never recovered from its defeat
at the hands of the Confederacy. Harry Turtledove has since examined this
same concept--executed quite differently, of course--in The Guns of the
and How Few Remain
. And in Stars and Stripes
(1998), famed science fiction author Harry Harrison takes a
different approach, postulating a British attack on America at the height
of the Civil War that forces the United States and the Confederates to
unite against a single enemy.
Alternate History can make great entertainment--especially as it so often
involves fascinating political and military strategies and exciting battle
scenes. But it can be more than that. Alternate History can encourage
historical research, spark lively political debate, and, by examining how
things didn't happen, shed light on the reason things did happen the way
history says they did. It can be a wonderful teaching tool--a great way to
incite curiosity in students and history buffs alike. And it's just plain
We at Del Rey Books love Alternate History and believe you will, too. The
following stories were collected to provide a taste of the genre for both
neophytes and converts alike. They've been culled from Asimov's Science
magazine and Analog Science Fiction and
by the editors of those two publications. Give them a try: I
think you'll find they'll change not only the way you think about history
but your own future reading history as well!
Del Rey Books
Excerpted from Roads Not Taken by edited by Gardner Dozois & Stanley Schmidt. Copyright © 1998 by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.