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Alternate history

This article deals with the genre of fiction commonly known as alternate history. For the branch of history that deals academically with speculative alternate histories, see Virtual history.


Alternate history is a type of science fiction in which the basic premise is that some specific historical event never happened, or happened differently (compare future history). Stories set in a future which has since come and passed (such as George Orwell's 1984) are not alternate history.

Currently the most prolific practitioner of this type of fiction is Harry Turtledove, who has written a series in which the South did not lose the American Civil War. Other stories by this author include the premise that America had not been colonised from Asia during the last Ice Age; as a result, the continent still has living mammoths and prehuman species. See also steampunk.

The earliest example of alternate history appears to be Book IX, sections 17-19, of the Livy's History of Rome from Its Foundation. He contemplates the possibility of Alexander the Great expanding his father's empire westward instead of east, and attacking Rome in the 4th century BC. (Wikipedia contains spoilers: Livy was a patriotic Roman -- Alexander loses.)

Many people one would not consider science-fiction authors have written alternate history.

In "The Forfeited Birthright of the Abortive Far Western Christian Civilization," Arnold J. Toynbee describes a world in which the Franks lost to the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732.

Winston Churchill wrote an essay entitled "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" that considers what sort of world would have resulted if the North had won the American Civil War -- from the point of view of a historian in a world where the Confederacy had won.

The key change between our history and the alternative history is known as the "Jonbar Hinge." In "Man in the High Castle" for instance, the Jonbar Hinge is the attempted assassination of Franklin Roosevelt in Miami in 1933. In our reality, this attempt failed. In Dick's novel, and in other Nazi-win-the-war scenarios, Roosevelt's death results in an America wracked by the Depression and holding tight to its neutrality, thus causing Britain to fall. The theory of the multiverse posits that Jonbar Hinges occur every instance, springing off parallel universes for each instance.

Historians also speculate in this manner; this type of speculation is known commonly as counterfactuality. There is considerable debate within the community of historians about the validity and purpose of this type of speculation.

In 1995, The Sidewise Award for Alternate History was established to recognize best Long Form (novels and series) and best short form (stories) within the genres. The award is named for Murray Leinster's story "Sidewise in Time." A complete list of the winners can be found at The Sidewise Award website (http://www.uchronia.net/sidewise/).

For alternate histories which some assert to be factual rather than speculative, see conspiracy theory and historical revisionism.

Representative works

  • SS-GB by Len Deighton is a detective novel set in 1941 Britain where the German have successfully occupied the country.

  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis is set in a world very similar to that of Pavane; the novel concerns the attempt to prevent a young boy with a perfect singing voice from being recruited to the Vatican's eunuch choir. There are a number of in-jokes, where famous works of fantasy and science fiction appear, under slightly different titles: 'The Wind in the Cloisters' and 'The Lord of the Chalices' for example.

  • See Alternate Earths (ISBN 1-55634-318-3) and Alternate Earths II (ISBN 1-55634-399-X) and "What might have been" game addendum for the GURPS Role-Playing System. Includes a Confederate victory world, a Nazi/Japanese Empire world, an Aztecs-rule-America scenario, and a unique "Gernsback" world in which the dreams of the mad scientists and Doc Savage have become reality.

  • Ong's Hat by Unknown[?] is a Internet legend that deals with a group of renegade scientists from Princeton that developed a means of travel to parallel universes and fled this Universe to found a colony in another world.

  • How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove is set twenty years after a Southern victory in the American Civil War established the Confederate States of America. This novel is followed by a trilogy set during a Great War in the 1910s and another trilogy following the Great War. A third trilogy will eventually be released.

  • Making History (1996) by British actor, comedian and novelist Stephen Fry is one of the most recent examples of alternate history. In Fry's parallel world, Adolf Hitler was never conceived, let alone born.

  • For Want of a Nail - an alternate history of North America by Robert Sobel, details a world in which the American Revolution failed. The British colonies become the Confederation of North America (CNA), while the defeated rebels go into exile in Spanish Tejas, eventually founding the United States of Mexico (USM) - a bitter rival to the CNA.

  • The Domination by S. M. Stirling[?] - after the USA conquers Canada in the 1812 war the Loyalists move to South Africa, where they set up an slavery-based empire called the Domination of the Draka. The story tells of the struggle between the Domination and the free world.

  • Conquistador by S.M. Stirling - What if Europeans never reached America?

  • soc.history.what-if is a usenet newsgroup devoted to discussing alternate histories.

See also:

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