Adaptations of The Man in the High Castle (original story by Philip K Dick, 1962) and SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) have been the most prominent ‘what if’s in front of the viewing public’s eyes recently. These stories have fascinated us as they depict the most horrific thing that could have happened to Western Europe and America in modern history. Robert Harris’s Fatherland (1992) gave Nazi alternative history fiction a good nudge and then along came C J Sansom’s Dominion in 2012. Perhaps the first two are a projection of fears about the Cold War, the second two a re-examination after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
But as the Tudors are not the only historical period, so the Nazis are not the only alternative history subject. Our cousins in the US enjoy speculating about the outcomes of the War of Independence or the American Civil War, while any respectable French bookshop inevitably has a section on the ‘what if’ of Napoléon winning at Waterloo.
|Alexander the Great, Naples Museum (author photo)|
Alternative history is nothing new
Roman historian Livy speculated on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he’d lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome, Titus Livius). In 1490, Joanot Martorell wrote Tirant lo Blanch about a knight who manages to fight off the invading Ottoman armies of Mehmet II and saves Constantinople from Islamic conquest. This was written when the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was still a traumatic memory for Christian Europe.
What is alternative history fiction?
Althist is a speculative genre with two parents: history and science fiction. Like any genre there are conventions:
– the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence (POD) – must be in the past.
– the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.
– stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.
The world of the alternative timeline can partially resemble our own or be very different. Sometimes documented historical characters appear with or without changed roles and views; sometimes the story centres on entirely fictional characters or a mixture of both. Stories such as Ken Follett’s The Key to Rebecca or Alexandre Dumas’s The Knight of Sainte-Hermine, although ‘what if’ in nature don’t result in a change of the course of history as we know it. Noami Novik’s excellent Temeraire series where dragons fight in a Napoleonic era is, of course, historical fantasy. Time travel machines, heroines falling through temporal portals, time travellers dropping in to sort out history then popping back out, or goddesses putting everything back as it was are not included. Once the historical timeline diverges, that’s it.
In alternative history, the jumping-off point is the point of divergence from the standard timeline, so wise writers research that period to death; religion, customs, dress, food, agriculture, legal background, defence forces, cultural attitudes, everyday life of all classes and groups. Landscapes and climate should resemble the ones in the region where the imagined country lies. And no serious alternative history writer can neglect their imagined country’s social, economic and political development. Every living person is a product of their local conditions; their experience of living in a place, and struggle to make sense of it, is expressed through culture and behaviour.
Writers need to imbue their characters with a sense of living in the present, in the now. This is their current existence, for them it’s not some story in a book(!). Character-based stories are popular; readers are intrigued by what happens to individual people living in different environments as well as taking part in major historical events. Sometimes it’s more interesting to follow the person’s story than the big event itself.
Whether a historical story is fictitious or a near biographical novel, readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their trust. If the story world doesn’t feel plausible and consistent, the reader’s trust will break. However fantastic that imagined world, it also needs to have reached the setting for the current story in a credible way, i.e. have good backstory and history of its own. But no amount of plausibility, research or attention to ‘the rules’, or sense of fun, will disguise poor writing, shallow characterisation and losing the plot.
But how plausible is alternative history?
Alternative history varies in ‘hardness’ with readers and fans grading it by how plausible the 'alternation' is when measured against historical reality. At the ‘hard’ end are well-researched pieces that take into account historical sources and trends and try to relate events that flow from the point of divergence by using historical logic. Having a grasp of how history works despite, or perhaps because of, the butterfly effect is essential. At the ‘soft’ end are works of pure fantasy and ‘Rule of Cool’, generally a result of alien space bats (more classically, the dei ex machina).
I’m very grateful to TV Tropes for dissecting and qualifying the main types so clearly on the sliding scale of alternate history plausibility, and I’ll use their categories to explain in more detail.
Type I – Hard Alternate History: These are works that stick to strict, sometimes scientific, standards in their plausibility. Research is often detailed and intensive. Most historical counter-factuals fall into this category.
Type II – Hard/Soft Alternate History: Often well researched with historical logic and methodology, but allows room for adventurous outcomes or Rule of Drama/Cool/Comedy
Type III – Soft Alternate History: Here, setting up a world that fits the writer’s creative objectives is more important than the plausibility of the setting’s alternate history. Research is often minimal to moderate and plausibility will take a back seat to Rule of Drama/Cool/Comedy.
Type IV – Utterly Implausible Alternate History: These are works that are so ‘soft’ that they melt and so implausible as to be effectively impossible. Often, the author puts their own ideology to the fore at the expense of research, historic details or sensible logistics. Readers with even a passing familiarity with history can’t take it seriously. The original term 'alien space bats' was coined to refer to this level of implausibility.
Type X – Fantastical Alternate History: In contrast with Type IV, these works are deliberately designed as pure fantasy, typically following the Rule of Cool. Mad ideas prevail such as Nazis on the moon in the 2012 film Iron Sky.
Perception is, of course, subjective and depends upon the individual reader’s personal interpretations or on whether they are looking for serious historically logical development, a lighthearted, if not positively wacky, adventure story or something in-between. I stand at the historical end of the scale because I’m a historian as well as a thriller writer.
As with all historical fiction, characters must act, think and feel like real people. The most credible ones live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes. Of course, it makes a stronger story if the permissions and constraints of their world conflict with their personal wishes and aims. But that’s what happens in all good fiction!
Some alternative history themes and stories
England has remained Catholic – Pavane, Keith Roberts or The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have a son and Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain have a daughter – The Boleyn Trilogy/Tudor Legacy Series, Laura Anderson
Alaska rather than Israel becomes the Jewish homeland – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
Roosevelt loses the 1940 election and right-wing Charles Lindbergh becomes US president – The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from St. Helena and winds up in the United States in 1821 – Napoleon in America, Shannon Selin
Is John F. Kennedy killed by a bomb in 1963? Or does he chose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev? – My Real Children, Jo Walton
A secret fifth daughter of the Romanov family continues the Russian royal lineage –The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina’s Legacy, Jennifer Laam
An England in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy – Children’s favourite The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
A dystopian anti-female religious theocracy – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Prolific writers of althist especially from the US viewpoint include Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint and S.M. Stirling.
The Roman Empire has survived into the present day – Romanitas, Sophia McDougall
Alison Morton's latest alternate history thriller, RETALIO, came out in April 2017.