So, alternate history?

What if the Nazis had won the Second World War (Fatherland – Robert Harris, The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick) or England had remained Catholic (Pavane – Keith Roberts, The Alteration – Kingsley Amis) or if Alaska rather than Israel had become the Jewish homeland (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon)? Or perhaps if Roosevelt had lost the 1940 election and right-wing Charles Lindbergh had become US president (The Plot Against America – Philip Roth)?

These are serious works. No aliens, no time-travellers slipping back to points in history to change it, no fantasy or magic, just a development of history on a different course  triggered sometimes by  a very minor historical event. I recommend Erik Durschmied’s The Hinge Factor – How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History which shows how easily this could, and has, happened.

So what if it did?

The trigger causes a “point of divergence” (POD) splitting it from “our timeline” i.e. the history we know and live in, to the “alternate timeline” in which some or many things have changed to create a new, alternate world. Quite a number of things in the alternate world will seem the same as the ones we know in our normal time which gives us a false anchor. Others, including social structures and attitudes as well as politics and nations, may be disturbingly different.

Scientific investigation into parallel universes and alternate worlds has prompted new thought and writing. With the advent of the Internet, wide-ranging discussion and speculation has appeared in newsgroups, blogs, and produced sites like Althistory WikiAlternative History Weekly Update  and a well-respected magazine AltHist which publishes alternative and historical short stories. The Historical Novelists’ Society embraces alternative history in its remit and is including a session on alternative history in its September conference.

In books, film and television, alternate history has often been flavoured with time travel or timeslip, e.g. Sliding Doors or Eric Flint’s 1632 series of books or fantasy such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell or Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Steampunk, which originated during the 1980s and early 1990s, incorporates elements of alternate history as well as science fiction, fantasy, horror and speculative fiction.

As with any other genre or sub-genre, the writing varies, as does the plausibility of themes and plots. Personally, I believe you have to know your own timeline history well, or know how to research it methodically and extensively before attempting to “alternate” it. New terms have been created in alternate history discussion groups to deal with anomalies. Said to have originated on the usenet group soc.history.what-if, the term “alien space bats”  is used to criticise implausible alternate histories or an improbable deus ex machina. Dan Hartland in Strange Horizons  called alien space bats “everyone’s favourite SF plot McGuffin”.

For me, the most appealing alternate history stories are those set naturally in their world without info dumps or long explanations. Yes, we need some clues, and yes, we need character 1 to tell character 2 to duck when a steam-driven arquebusque loaded with a radiating bullet is about to blow their head off. But we don’t need a full explanation of how the technology was developed. Keith Robert’s Pavane suffers a tad from this. In her Eve Dallas detective series set in 2057 J D Robb effortlessly describes the futuristic elements as they arise, and only in bare, scraped detail. These are not alternate history as such, but crime stories set in a different, though possible future. I use them to illustrate the style I’m aiming for.

Writers can use techniques such as photos, pictures, the new person asking the long-standing resident, reading the info online, reading a map, or asking a guide, getting an older relative/mentor to recount something to fill in these gaps, but not in a dump-y way. The essential thing is to get the alternate world’s history right and then develop it around the story in a plausible way. This is not easy and the odd spreadsheet helps…

At its best, alternate history challenges fixed ideas while providing entertainment. Readers, especially those who haven’t tried an alt history book before, are intrigued by the different setting, but are still after the things I listed at the end of this post – in summary, a cracking good story with emotional grip.  In my own books, where the POD was over 1,500 years ago. I use an alternate world not only as a setting but as an essential interactive layer – a mix of culture clash with temperament clash.

And plot? In Book 1 the heroine, from a version of the New World that looks reasonably familiar to us, is having enough trouble dealing with an uncompromising special forces officer from a very different Europe, let alone struggling to stay alive when a vengeful enforcer is attempting to obliterate her.

Alternative history gives us a rich environment in which to develop our storytelling. I’m taking full advantage of this, but above all, I’m aiming to give the reader some damn good thrillers!

More info:
Alt Hist: Historical Fiction and Alternate History -The new magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History
Alternative History Weekly Update
Wikipedia – Alternate history article
Uchronia: The Alternate History List is an online database that contains 2900 alternate history novels, stories, essays and other printed material

3 comments to So, alternate history?

  • Cat

    And there are Joan Aiken’s series which are set in a period when the Hanoverian succession did not take place (starting with “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase”). Alternative history is a fascinating concept.

  • Alison

    Of course, “James III” is another favourite scenario, especially as he seems much more romantic than the dour William III.

    And then there are several favourite American alternates – the Civil War, the British retaining the colonies in 1776, the non-assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

    I’m surprised not more alternate history is written or like mine, used as a framework. Maybe it’s all the research, but I would think it’s not that much harder than researching for a historic novel, but I’m prepared to be corrected!

  • Agree with you about plausibility in alternate history novels. Mine, The Madman Theory, uses a “point of divergence” that very nearly was and that’s it. No science fiction. The divergence is President Eisenhower rejecting the advice of his vice president to not campaign vigorously on his behalf in 1960, rather than accepting it. That campaigning shifts a small number of votes in critical states, which WOULD have changed the election outcome, with Richard Nixon as president when the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs in ’62. For that story, I use the people most likely to have been in a ’60 Nixon administration and their actual views to drive the story line. The point for me is to know what really would have happened and this seems the only way to do it. Unfortunately, I sometimes get criticism that my novel is too realistic for fiction!