Alternate History , or what, how and when did it all go wrong?

Until recently I wasn’t that big a fan of this sub-genre of history/historical fiction.  What would have happened if Napoleon B had won Waterloo?  Well hey, he didn’t so why worry? Recently though my point of view seems to have changed and I’ve started to see the genre with less of a jaundiced eye.

Since the nineteenth century the genre has spread to include serious academic study (Niall Ferguson‘s ‘Virtual History) and science fiction.  Strictly speaking, Ferguson’s work moves beyond alterante history to something called ‘counterfactual history‘.  This is tool of academic historical research and uses thoroughly researched and very carefully reasoned speculations to examine what might have happened differently.  Crucially, speculation is constrained by number and range of alternatives open to people at the time.  At the other end of the scale we have science -fiction style tropes such as ‘cross-time’ travel, where people from the future travel between various alternate histories.  Michael Moorcock‘s ‘Nomad of the Timestreams’ is one of the best examples of this.

To be alternative history, a story needs: 1) a point of divergence or pivot point from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing, 2) a change that would alter history as it is known, and 3) an examination of the ramifications of that change.  As with any genre, it all depends what floats your boat. My personal preference is for work as close to ‘counterfactual history’ as possible.  That said, there is plenty to entertain at the other end of the spectrum – Harry Turtledove‘s ‘Ruled Britannia‘ features William Shakespeare and is set in 1598, ten years after the successful Spanish Armada.  SM Sterling gives us an intriguing vision of a post-apocalyptic Pax Britannica in ‘The Peshawar Lancers‘.

At its best, alternate history can be a dark glimpse into a world we are lucky to have missed – Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’ is an excellent example of this.  Another is a short story (possibly by Harry Turtledove) about one Senator Joe McCarthy becoming President in 1960 with Richard Nixon as his running mate.  To paraphrase the title of the story, no matter how bad things are today, they could have been a whole lot worse.

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