What is Alternative History?
Alternative history is becoming much better known because of two TV series: SS-GB and The Man in the High Castle, both set in a world where Nazi Germany won the Second World War.
But what exactly is it that makes these TV shows ‘alternative history’? What does ‘alternative history’ even mean?
Let’s ask Terry Pratchett:
Stories set on Earth, although it may be an Earth that might have been, or might yet be, one that has gone down a different leg of the famous trousers of time.
But doesn’t “an Earth that might have been, or might yet be” include a lot of things? Wouldn’t it include superhero or vampire stories, for example, or almost any science fiction? Do we need a better definition of alternative history?
Elements of Alternative History
There are three common elements:
- Background history the same as the real world.
- A change at one critical point (the Point of Departure).
- A story that explores the consequences of that change.
Point of Departure
A Point of Departure is a single incident that’s not the same in the alternative world as it was in the real world.
To create a point of departure we start with an actual historical event, such as the Battle of Waterloo. Then we give it a different outcome. So, instead of Napoleon losing the Battle of Waterloo, he wins. That’s the starting point for building a different world. Because of that one alteration, more and more things change, creating the alternative history.
So, alternative history is the answer to the question, ‘What if?’ As in, ‘What if Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo?’
See How to Use Point of Departure for more details.
Four Types of Alternative History
The four types of alternative history are, in descending order of rigorousness:
- Counterfactual history.
- Plausible alternative history.
- Hand-waving alternative history.
- Implausible alternative history.
Some academic historians research and make cautious speculations on the possibilities of ‘what might have happened’. The historians who write counterfactual history books write them as non-fiction: articles, essays or chapters in history books.
Despite their caution, many historians dismiss these ‘counterfactual histories’ as frivolous. Others see value in them, as considering alternative outcomes helps to illuminate the consequences of actual decisions and events.
Counterfactual history and plausible alternative history can easily be confused, as some alternative history writers use the ‘history book’ format as a conceit. Counterfactual history though is fundamentally interested in examining the point of departure itself and its historical importance. In contrast, alternate history writers are more interested in developing the hypothetical events that flow from the point of departure.
One counterfactual history book is: Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, edited by Niall Ferguson. It includes essays on a still-born American Revolution, Home Rule for Ireland in 1912, Kennedy surviving his assassination, etc.
Plausible Alternative History
In plausible alternative history, the author takes realistic constraints into account and doesn’t ignore known facts. It takes as a point of departure:
- A likely outcome from an actual event.
- Altering a strategic military or political choice to another that was considered at the time.
- Minor events with big repercussions.
‘Likely outcomes’ include things like close fought battles being won instead of lost or assassination attempts on important figures succeeding. For example, what if:
- The evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk in 1940 had failed?
- The evacuation failing was probably more likely than its historical success – they call it the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ after all.
- The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville takes Dunkirk as its Point of Departure and explores the consequences of a victorious Germany colonising Africa.
- The ‘Valkyrie’ plot to kill Hitler succeeded?
- Hitler survived the bomb blast because of pure luck.
- Fox on the Rhine by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson shows what might have happened.
‘Altered choices’ are political or military strategies that were planned but not carried out. For example, what if:
- Winston Churchill didn’t become Prime Minister of Britain in 1940?
- Many people, including the King and most of the Conservative Party, wanted Lord Halifax and not Churchill to become Prime Minister.
- Dominion by C J Samson uses this point of departure.
- Napoleon escaped from St. Helena?
- Several people made credible plans to rescue the emperor, but he vetoed them.
- Napoleon in America by Shannon Selin explores this scenario.
‘Minor events’ can be things like messages going astray, or being intercepted, weather being different, lucky breaks and accidents. For example, what if:
- A single word was different in the US Constitution?
- In The Probability Broach by L. Neil Smith, this causes a second revolution, the collapse of the USA and the formation of a North American Confederacy.
Hand-waving Alternative History
Hand-waving alternative history includes semi-plausible but unlikely scenarios. Some authors, particularly mainstream authors dabbling in alternative history, don’t explain the point of departure at all. Others attempt to describe how history changed, but either don’t address the plausibility issues or dismiss them.
For example, what if:
- Operation Sealion succeeds?
- The Royal Navy was so powerful, and German plans so inept, that any invasion attempt would almost certainly have failed, even if the RAF lost the Battle of Britain.
- SS-GB by Len Deighton hand-waves the Germans across the channel without explanation.
- Nazi Germany wins WW2?
- Once the British and Soviets held on and the USA entered the war, the Allies’ vast resource superiority made German victory highly unlikely.
- Fatherland by Robert Harris hand-waves victory as due to “the Führer’s genius”.
- Nazi Germany and Japan invade and occupy the USA?
- The sheer scale of North America, the strength of its defences and the logistical challenge of an assault across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans makes an invasion unlikely.
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick offers no explanation of how the invasion succeeded.
Implausible Alternative History
Implausible alternative history uses a point of departure that could only occur through supernatural phenomena or extremely advanced technology. Although the scenarios are effectively impossible, they can lead to unusual and fascinating stories.
For example, what if:
- A WW2 navy officer visits a Nazi-dominated future?
- This is the scenario in The Sound of his Horn by Sarban.
- It’s unclear if the officer experiences a temporal anomaly or has a vision.
- The Confederate side in the American Civil War gets assault rifles?
- As in The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove.
- Time-travellers give the guns to the Confederates.
- The island of Nantucket and all its inhabitants travel back to the Bronze Age?
- This is the premise of Island in the Sea of Time by S. M. Stirling.
- An unexplained phenomenon known as ‘The Event’ causes the time travel.
Genres that aren’t Alternative History
There are several genres of fiction that are often confused with alternative history.
Secret history is fiction that supposedly shows ‘what really happened’ or ‘what happened behind the scenes’. It includes fictional explanations for the cause of actual events and incidents that the author claims were hushed up.
Because it includes actual events and actual people, secret history is easy to confuse with alternative history. But, if a novel is about ‘what really happened’ then it’s secret history not alternative history.
Many thrillers are secret histories. For example, The Eagle has Landed describes an assassination attempt on Churchill. Jack Higgins presents the story as ‘based on fact’ and has a clever explanation of why history didn’t record the assassination. It’s a great thriller, but it’s a secret history.
To the reader, the differences between paleofuturism and alternative history are small, but:
- Paleofuturism is an author looking forward and imagining what might happen in the future. Reality has now overtaken that imagined future.
- Alternative history is an author looking back and imagining what might have happened if the past had gone differently.
Almost any novel written in the 19th or 20th century but set in ‘the future’ is now paleofuturism. For example, A Very British Coup, by Chris Mullin describes attempts to destabilise a socialist government in Britain in the 1990s. It now reads like alternative history, but Mullin wrote it in the 1980s, so it’s actually paleofuturism.
Swastika Night written by Katharine Burdekin is an interesting case. It describes a ‘Nazi Germany wins WW2’ scenario that’s set in what is still the future. However, Burdekin wrote it in the 1930s, so I’d still describe it as paleofuturism, as the author was looking forward, not back.
People often call fantasy worlds ‘alternate worlds’, leading to confusion with alternative history.
An ‘alternate world’ could be an Earth where things like magic, superheroes or vampires exist. Unlike alternative history though, in a fantasy world the unreal exists with no major implications for the world, which seems to carry on its usual course, regardless.
For example, His Majesty’s Dragon / Temeraire, by Naomi Novik, is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but in a world where dragons exist. In the novel, the world and its history is exactly the same as in the real world until the events of the story. In an alternative history novel, a world full of dragons would have made history completely different.
However, some superhero stories are alternative histories. In Watchmen, for example, Doctor Manhattan’s existence radically alters the world.
Steampunk stories feature a Victorian Age with advanced technology but powered by steam or chemicals rather than electricity.
There’s not necessarily a theoretical difference between a steampunk story and alternative history. In practice though, most steampunk is set in a fantasy world – there’s rarely any point of departure and the authors wave any plausibility questions away.
One steampunk story that is a hand-waving alternative history is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. The point of departure is that Charles Babbage receives funding to complete his mechanical computer, which in the real world he didn’t.
Steampunk is great, and lots of fun, but it’s its own genre.
The difference between a time-travel story and an alternative history is the scope of events.
If a time-traveller’s actions:
- Create a new history, as in The Guns of the South, then the story is an alternative history.
- Have small-scale or personal consequences only, then the story is a time-travel story.
- Create the world we know, then the story is a secret history.
For example, in the movie The Final Countdown, a modern aircraft carrier arrives in 1941 and discovers the Japanese fleet ready to attack Pearl Harbor. If the time-travellers destroyed the Japanese fleet, and so changed history, then it would be an alternative history movie. But, because of a plot device, they don’t, making the movie a time-travel story.
Other Things that aren’t Alternative History
Some people propose what they call ‘alternative histories’, such as how secret societies like the Illuminati have supposedly manipulated events throughout history. Similar to the secret history genre, these people offer alternative explanations for ‘what really happened’. However, if someone is proposing that their explanation of ‘what really happened’ is a genuine, truthful account then that’s a conspiracy theory.
Conspiracy theories, and the problems they cause, are a huge topic I can only touch on here. For now, all I’ll say is that the amount of imagination people show in inventing them is amazing.
An interesting example is The Tears of Autumn, by Charles McCarry. McCarry weaves a beautifully written novel around a conspiracy theory about the assassination of John F Kennedy. Apparently, the author believed the theory but felt he could only present it as fiction.
Recently some political commentators have started calling differing narratives about what happened in the past ‘alternative histories’. They would more accurately call this ‘post-truth history’ – convenient, and emotionally satisfying, lies about what happened in the past. Post-truth history has nothing to do with alternative history.
Revisionist history is a completely different thing to alternative history. It’s a pseudo-science practised by holocaust deniers and other neo-Nazis attempting to ignore reality and minimise the horrifying nature of Hitler’s regime. Like ‘post-truth history’, it’s lies about what happened in the past and has nothing to do with alternative history.
So, now we have a definition of alternative history:
- A story that changes actual world history and explores the consequences of that change.
And we’ve narrowed down the genre by showing the differences with other genres:
- Secret history
- Fantasy worlds
- Conspiracy theory
- Post-truth history
- Revisionist history
- Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals – a counterfactual history book
- A Kill in the Morning – a spy thriller set in a plausible alternative history
- Fatherland – A mystery set in a hand-waving alternative history
- The Guns of the South – a good example of implausible alternative history
And if you want to explore the differences with other genres:
- His Majesty’s Dragon – a fantasy world
- The Difference Engine – steampunk
- A Very British Coup – paleofuturism
- The Eagle Has Landed – a secret history
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