Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  

Alternate History

Entry updated 21 August 2023. Tagged: Theme.


An alternate history – some writers and commentators prefer the designation "alternative history" on grammatical grounds, some use the unelucidative Counterfactual, and others apply the term "uchronia" (see Charles Bernard Renouvier) – is an account of Earth (sometimes extending to exploration of solar-system space) as it might have become in consequence of some hypothetical alteration in history (see Jonbar Point). The earliest example in novel form may be the long title tale contained in Benjamin Disraeli's The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (coll 1833 4vols), though it has been argued that the twelfth-century global empire created in Baghdad by a false messiah actually constitutes a secret history. The first unequivocal alternate history is almost certainly Louis Geoffroy's Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1832: Histoire de la monarchie universalle (1836; trans as Napoléon and the Conquest of the World 1812-1832: A Fictional History 1994), in which Napoleon escapes intact from his 1812 Russian adventure and conquers the known world. Other early examples include Castello N Holford's Utopian re-imagining of American settlement's early years in Aristopia: A Romance-History of the New World (1895), Edmund Lawrence's It May Happen Yet: A Tale of Bonaparte's Invasion of England (1899), Charles Felton Pidgin's The Climax: Or, What Might Have Been: A Romance of the Great Republic (1902) and Ernest Bramah's What Might Have Been: The Story of a Social War (1907). Many sf stories exploit the concept of Parallel Worlds to provide a framework in which multiple alternate histories can coexist, sometimes interacting with one another, while some authors have posited timelines which diverge through a series of incremental changes over time rather than a single dramatic Jonbar point; examples include Stephen Baxter's four-novel Time's Tapestry series (2006-2008) and Terry Bisson's Any Day Now (2012).

Hypothetical exercises of this kind have long been popular with historians (see History in SF) and their virtue was proclaimed by Isaac d'Israeli in The Curiosities of Literature (1791-1823). A classic collection of such essays edited by J C Squire, If It had Happened Otherwise (anth 1931; vt If, or History Rewritten; exp 1972) ostensibly took its inspiration from G M Trevelyan's essay "If Napoleon had Won the Battle of Waterloo" (July 1907 Westminster Gazette), though the twenty-two essays in Joseph Edgar Chamberlin's The Ifs of History (coll 1907) conspicuously anticipate the later volume, as does F J C Hearnshaw's The "Ifs" of History (coll 1929); Squire's contributors included G K Chesterton, André Maurois, Hilaire Belloc, A J P Taylor (in the 1972 edition) and Winston Churchill, who as Worton Spender helps reshape the world in Bernard Newman's The Cavalry Went Through (1930), a Scientific Romance in which the course of World War One is transformed (perhaps for the first time in fiction); the tone of the telling intermittently resembles the speculative essay. More recently, Andrew Roberts's What Might Have Been: Imaginary History from Twelve Leading Historians (anth 2004) follows Squire's model, while Niall Ferguson's essay collection Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals (coll 2000) was cited by Stephen Baxter as an influence on his Time's Tapestry series, which examines possible alternative histories from Roman Britain through World War Two. Alternative history remains something of a recreational "thought experiment" for academic historians, though the spring 1998 issue of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History was devoted entirely to such scenarios. Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (2010) by Richard Ned Lebow makes use of what its author is unfortunately inclined to call counterfactuals in an incisive analysis of contemporary history; his Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives!: A World Without World War I (2014) analyses various possible outcomes for the future if World War One had been averted.

The most common preoccupations of modern speculative historians were exhibited in two essays written for Look magazine: "If the South had Won the Civil War" (22 November 1960 Look; 1961) by MacKinlay Kantor and "If Hitler had Won World War II" (19 December 1961 Look) by William L Shirer (see Hitler Wins). The tradition has been continued in the mainstream (see Mainstream Writers of SF) by the film It Happened Here (1963), Frederic Mullally's Hitler Has Won (1975) and Len Deighton's SS-GB (1978). Another event seen today as historically pivotal, the invention of the atom bomb, is the basis of two novels by Ronald W Clark: Queen Victoria's Bomb (1967), in which the atom bomb is developed much earlier in history, and The Bomb that Failed (1969; vt The Last Year of the Old World 1969), in which its appearance on the historical scene is delayed. Alternative histories are used satirically by such non-genre writers as R Egerton Swartout in It Might Have Happened (1934) and Marghanita Laski in Tory Heaven (1948), and the notion is given a more philosophical twist in Guy Dent's Emperor of the If (1926). The continuing popularity of alternative histories with mainstream writers is further illustrated by John Hersey's White Lotus (1965), Vladimir Nabokov's Ada (1969), Martin Cruz Smith's The Indians Won (1970), Guido Morselli's Past Conditional (1975; trans 1981), Douglas Jones's The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer (1976) and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004), though more contemporary examples, like Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007), no longer really fit the "mainstream" girdle. Following the commercial success of Harry Turtledove's extensive series of alternate history novels, a number of popular novelists otherwise only marginally related to sf have helped establish the alternate-history thriller as almost a separate genre, related to mainstream sf in a way perhaps analogous to the technothriller; these include Robert Conroy, who has produced eight such novels; John Birmingham, especially with his "Axis of Time" series; and even American politician and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who has collaborated on several such novels with William R Forstchen.

The SF Megatext as currently understood has readily incorporated nineteenth-century themes and topoi of the sort described above, though it was not until the second decade of the twentieth century that Murray Leinster introduced the idea of alternate worlds to Genre SF in "Sidewise in Time" (June 1934 Astounding). Stanley G Weinbaum used the device in a light comedy, "The Worlds of If" (August 1935 Wonder Stories); but the first serious attempt to construct an alternative history in sf was L Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall (December 1939 Unknown; exp 1941; rev 1949), in which a man slips back through time and sets out to remould history by preventing or ameliorating the Dark Ages. This story is set entirely in the distant past, but in "The Wheels of If" (October 1940 Unknown) de Camp displayed a contemporary America which might have resulted from tenth-century colonization by Norsemen. Most subsequent sf stories in this vein have tended to skip lightly over the detailed process of historical development to examine alternative presents, but sf writers with a keen interest in history often devote loving care to the development of imaginary pasts; a later enterprise very much in the tradition of Lest Darkness Fall is Harry Turtledove's Agent of Byzantium (coll of linked stories 1986). Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna (2003), presents a series of episodes over some 1500 years depicting the survival of the Roman Empire until the present.

The extraordinary melodramatic potential inherent in the idea of Alternate Worlds and alternate history was further revealed by Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (May-July 1938 Astounding; rev 1952), which features alternative futures carrying out Changewar for their very existence, with crucial battles spilling into the past and present. The idea of worlds battling for survival by attempting to maintain their own histories was further developed by Fritz Leiber in Destiny Times Three (March-April 1945 Astounding; 1957) and in the Change War series, which includes The Big Time (March-April 1958 Galaxy; 1961 dos) (see Changewar). Such stories gained rapidly in extravagance: The Fall of Chronopolis (1974) by Barrington J Bayley features a time-spanning Empire trying to maintain its reality against the alternative versions which its adversaries are imposing upon it. Attempts by possible futures to influence the present by friendly persuasion were presented by C L Moore in "Greater than Gods" (July 1939 Astounding) and by Ross Rocklynne in "The Diversifal" (Winter 1945 Planet Stories).

The notion of competing alternative histories is further recomplicated in Time-Travel stories in which the heroes range across a vast series of Parallel Worlds, each featuring a different alternative history (alternate universes are often created wholesale, though usually ephemerally, in tricky time-travel stories; see also Time Paradoxes). The policing of time-tracks – either singly, as in Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity (1955), which features the totalitarian control of history by social engineers (see Hard SF), or in great profusion – has remained a consistently popular theme in sf. One of the earliest of such Time Police forces is featured in Sam Merwin Jr's House of Many Worlds (September 1951 Startling Stories; exp 1951) and Three Faces of Time (August 1953 Startling Stories as "Journey to Misenum"; exp 1955 dos); the exploits of others are depicted in H Beam Piper's Paratime series, begun with "Police Operation" (July 1948 Astounding); in Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series, whose early stories are in Guardians of Time (coll of linked stories 1960); in John Brunner's Times without Number (fixup 1962 dos); and – less earnestly – in Simon Hawke's Time Wars series, begun with The Ivanhoe Gambit (1984). Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium (1962 dos) and sequels, Avram Davidson's Masters of the Maze (1965), Jack L Chalker's Downtiming the Night Side (1985), Frederik Pohl's The Coming of the Quantum Cats (1986), Mike McQuay's Memories (1987) and Michael P Kube-McDowell's Alternities (1988) are convoluted adventure stories of an essentially similar kind. John Crowley's Great Work of Time (in coll Novelty 1989; 1991) is a more thoughtful work about a conspiracy which attempts to use Time Travel to take charge of history.

Early genre-sf stories of conflict between alternate worlds tend to assume that our world is better than most of the alternatives. This assumption owes much to our conviction that the "right" side won both the American Civil War and World War Two. Ward Moore's classic Bring the Jubilee (November 1952 F&SF; exp 1953) paints a relatively grim portrait of an America in which the South won the Civil War; and images of histories in which the Nazis triumphed (see Hitler Wins) tend to be nightmarish – notable examples include "Two Dooms" (July 1958 Venture) by C M Kornbluth, The Sound of His Horn (1952) by Sarban, The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K Dick, The Proteus Operation (1985) by James P Hogan, Moon of Ice (March 1982 Amazing; exp 1988) by Brad Linaweaver, and Fatherland (1992) by Robert Harris. An interesting exception is Budspy (1987) by David Dvorkin, where a successful Third Reich is presented more evenhandedly. Other turning-points in which our world is held to have gone the "right" way include the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution – whose suppression produces technologically primitive alternate histories in Keith Roberts's excellent Pavane (fixup 1968), Kingsley Amis's The Alteration (1976), Martin Green's The Earth Again Redeemed (1978), Phyllis Eisenstein's Shadow of Earth (1979) and John Whitbourn's A Dangerous Energy (1992) – and the Black Death, which aborts the rise of the West in Robert Silverberg's The Gate of Worlds (1967) and L Neil Smith's The Crystal Empire (1986). One of the most globally ambitious such works is Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2002), which covers some six centuries in the history of various world cultures as they developed in the absence of Europe, which was virtually wiped out by the plague. A similar premise was used by Harry Turtledove in In High Places (2005).

The idea that our world might have turned out far better than it has is more often displayed by ironic satires, including: Harry Harrison's Tunnel Through the Deeps (1972; vt A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!), a Steampunk precursor in which the American colonies never rebelled and the British Empire remains supreme; D R Bensen's And Having Writ ... (1978), in which the Aliens, whose crashing Starship is assumed to have caused the 1908 Tunguska explosion, survive to interfere in the course of progress; S P Somtow's The Aquiliad (fixup 1983), in which the Roman Empire conquered the Americas; and William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine (1990), in which Charles Babbage's calculating machine precipitates an information-technology revolution in Victorian England. More earnest examples are fewer in number, but they include "The Lucky Strike" (in Universe 14, anth 1984, ed Terry Carr) by Kim Stanley Robinson, in which a US pilot refuses to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Elleander Morning (1984) by Jerry Yulsman, which imagines an alternate history where Hitler was assassinated before precipitating World War Two and the attendant Holocaust (which see; also Holocaust Fiction), Stephen Baxter's Voyage (1996), in which the NASA space program of the 1960s continued through a later mission to Mars, and Kathleen Ann Goonan's duology In War Times (2007) and This Shared Dream (2011), in which a device invented by a brilliant physicist seems capable ot altering timelines from World War Two through the 1960s. A more ambivalent view of similar alternative timelines is presented in Christopher Priest's The Separation (2002).

More philosophically inclined uses of the alternate-history theme, involving the worldviews of individual characters rather than diverted histories, were explored by C S Lewis in "The Shoddy Lands" (February 1956 F&SF) and pioneered in Genre SF by Philip K Dick in such novels as Eye in the Sky (1957), Now Wait for Last Year (1967) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974). Intriguing homage is paid to Dick's distinctive use of the theme by Michael Bishop's The Secret Ascension (1987; vt Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas 1988), a Recursive SF novel featuring Dick himself. Other novels which use alternate worlds to explore personal problems and questions of identity include Bob Shaw's The Two-Timers (1968), Gordon Eklund's All Times Possible (1974), Sheila Finch's Infinity's Web (1985), Josephine Saxton's Queen of the States (1986), Ken Grimwood's Replay (1987), Thomas Berger's Changing the Past (1989), and Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy Pashazade (2001), Effendi (2002), and Felaheen (2003).

The "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory encouraged the widespread exploitation of the theme in late twentieth-century sf, notable examples including Frederik Pohl's The Coming of the Quantum Cats (1986), featuring hostile interactions between multiple versions of contemporary America; Cowboy Angels (2007) by Paul J McAuley, in which an American government seeks to undermine the less "desirable" Americas in alternate histories called "sheaves"; the Young-Adult "Everness" series by Ian McDonald, beginning with Planesrunner (2011) and Be My Enemy (2012), in which a boy seeks his kidnapped father through a succession of parallel Earths; and the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, beginning with The Long Earth (2012), involving the colonization of a series of parallel worlds, none of which seem to have evolved intelligent human life.

Radical alternative histories, which explore the consequences of fundamental shifts in biological evolution or geological history, include Harry Harrison's series about the survival of the Dinosaurs, begun with West of Eden (1984); Harry Turtledove's A Different Flesh (fixup 1988), in which Homo erectus survives in the Americas until 1492; Turtledove's Atlantis series beginning with Opening Atlantis (2007), in which a mid-Atlantic subcontinent calved off from North America in the geologic past; Brian M Stableford's The Empire of Fear (1988), in which seventeenth-century Europe and Africa are ruled by Vampires; Robert J Sawyer's Neanderthal Parallax series, beginning with Hominids (2002), in which a world where Neanderthals became the dominant hominid species interacts with our own.

More radical still are novels which portray Alternate-Cosmos universes where the laws of Physics and the structure of the world may be different; some such ideas are described in George Gamow's series of educative parables Mr Tompkins in Wonderland (1939). A classic example in sf is Philip José Farmer's "Sail On! Sail On!" (December 1952 Startling), which initially seems to depict Columbus's voyage as an alternate history, but reveals the entire cosmology to be different (see Flat Earth). Later writers such as Lester del Rey explored similar ideas, as in The Sky Is Falling (1954) where a computer engineer finds himself in a world of medieval cosmology; but few have explored this notion in as many varieties as Ted Chiang, who has set his stories in the world-view of Babylonia in "Tower of Babylon" (November 1990 Omni), medieval alchemy in "Seventy-Two Letters" (in Vanishing Acts, anth 2000, ed Ellen Datlow), even fundamentalist Christianity in Hell Is the Absence of God (in Starlight 3, anth 2001, ed Patrick Nielsen Hayden; 2002 ebook). Michael Swanwick also set a tale fully in the world of Sumerian mythology with "Urdumheim" (in The Dog Said Bow-Wow, coll 2007). More recently, Greg Egan developed a rigorously Hard SF exploration of the notion in his "Orthogonal" series – comprising The Clockwork Rocket (2011) and The Eternal Flame (2012) – set in what Egan calls a "Riemannian universe" in which light travels at different speeds according to wavelength, resulting in radically altered Physics, Biology, and astronomy (see Thought Experiment).

A few writers, exploiting the notion that any alternate history is essentially a fictional or textual conceit, have even experimented with the notion of alternate worlds existing entirely within texts. In Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania series (2005-2008), England has been destroyed by a tidal wave, Roumania and Germany vie for European domination, and our own "real" history exists merely in a magical book concocted by a sorceress. Similarly, Lavie Tidhar's Osama (2011) portrays a world in which global terrorism never took hold, but in which a pulp novelist has written a series about a terrorist named Osama Bin Laden, whose "fictional" exploits describe our own reality; a similar subjunctivity governs Matt Ruff's The Mirage (2012), where Bin Laden, caught in a less toxic history, attempts to conjure a world where he won: our world. A similar effect in a non-sf context is achieved by Ian McEwan in Atonement (2001), in which a significant portion of the narrative is revealed to be part of a novel by one of the characters, and by Peter Straub in the duology lost boy lost girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004), in which the first novel is revealed to be entirely a work of fiction within the context of the second. The "fantastic" world in Christopher Priest's delicately Equipoisal The Affirmation (1981) is a false diary composed in the book's "real" world, and vice-versa: each creates the other, as in M C Escher's lithograph Drawing Hands (1948).

Worlds of Maybe: Seven Stories of Science Fiction (anth 1970) edited by Robert Silverberg contains further work on the theme by Poul Anderson, Philip José Farmer, Larry Niven and Silverberg, as well as the Murray Leinster story "Sidewise in Time" cited above. In addition to further stories, including the de Camp story mentioned above, Alternative Histories: Eleven Stories of the World as it Might have Been (anth 1986) edited by Martin H Greenberg and Charles G Waugh includes the definitive version of Barton C Hacker's and Gordon B Chamberlain's invaluable bibliography of the theme, "Pasts that Might Have Been, II: A Revised Bibliography of Alternative History"; the first version appeared as "Pasts That Might Have Been: An Annotated Bibliography of Alternate History" in Extrapolation, Winter 1981. Gregory Benford edited five anthologies on the theme: Hitler Victorious (anth 1985), with a Hitler Wins theme; plus the series What Might Have Been: Volume 1: Alternate Empires (anth 1989), What Might Have Been: Volume 2: Alternate Heroes (anth 1989), What Might Have Been: Volume 3: Alternate Wars (anth 1991) and What Might Have Been: Volume 4: Alternate Americas (anth 1992), all co-edited with Martin H Greenberg. Alternatives (anth 1989), edited by Robert Adams and Pamela Crippen Adams, presented original stories told from Libertarian perspectives. Alternate Presidents (anth 1992) edited by Mike Resnick examines a particular aspect "from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Dukakis"; the same editor's Alternate Kennedys (anth 1992) narrows the focus yet further, and his Alternate Skiffy (anth 1997) with Patrick Nielsen Hayden gathers Recursive SF stories in which the history of Genre SF itself took other paths. The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century (anth 2001) edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H Greenberg is a compilation by one of the leading practitioners of the form, while The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories (2010), edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates, is somewhat more extensive. Other Worlds Than These (anth 2012) edited by John Joseph Adams rather oddly combines alternate history with portal Fantasy tales (for Portals see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy).

In 1995 the importance and popularity of the alternate-history subgenre were marked by the establishment of the Sidewise Awards, given annually for such sf works only in both short and long forms. [BS/GKW/DRL]

see also: Crimson Skies; Fallout; GURPS; Icons; William Maginn; Paranoia.

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies