Read an Excerpt
What Is Alternate History?
What if ... things had been different? What if ... someone had made a different choice? How would history have progressed from that point on?
The past can be a signpost to the future. The exciting questions are:
which past ... and which future?
Alternate History is exactly what it sounds like: an alternative to the history we know and have always thought of as untouchable. It is the ultimate in "What might have been?" in which an author takes a pivotal turning point in history, spins it on its axis, and examines what path events might have taken as a result. Another name for this concept, used increasingly by historians, is "counterfactual history." It is, without a doubt, fiction. Yet it is so solidly based in fact that the best of it reads as if it really happened.
One could, of course, describe any historical fiction as alternate history, in that the fictional elements never actually occurred. What distinguishes true Alternate History is its exploration of the
ramifications of the author's machinations. The initial changeoften, but not always, centered on a crucial turning point in historycan be achieved by science-fictional means, such as time travel,
or by taking actual events and engineering slight but utterly plausible twists. One example of the latter is Stephen Baxter's Voyage
(1966), which uses the survival of John F. Kennedy to allow the development of a more ambitiousand very differentspace program.
Another is Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain (1997), which posits a
Civil War in which the famed Confederate orders were not lost, so that the
U.S.A. and the C.S.A. would have to learn to live alongside each otheralbeit very unhappily.
Harry Turtledove has also used science-fictional devices to examine alternate histories: in his The Guns of the South (1992), it is the meddling of time travelers that brings on the victory of the South in the
Civil War, and in his Worldwar series (1994-1996), an alien invasion of Earth right in the middle of World War II forces mortal foes,
such as the Nazis and the Polish Jews, to unite in a common cause, thus drastically changing the course of history from that point on.
The urge to change history isn't new. The earliest Alternate History dates back to Louis Napoléon Geoffrey-Château's French nationalist tale Napoléon et la conquête du monde, 1812-1823
(1836). In this book, Geoffrey-Château had Napoléon turn away from Moscow before the disastrous winter of 1812. Without the severe losses he would otherwise have suffered (and indeed, in real history, did suffer), Napoléon was able to conquer the world.
The first English-language Alternate History novel published was Castello
Holford's Aristopia (1895). This one used a more fantastical premise to tweak history: Aristopia posited that the earliest
European settlers of Virginia discovered a reef made of solid gold, which gave them the wealth to build a utopian society in North America.
The next major work of note was actually an anthology, published in 1931,
assembled by British historian Sir John Squire and titled If It Had
Happened Otherwise. These stories, by Oxford and Cambridge scholarssome of the leading historians of their timewrestled with questions such as "If the Moors in Spain Had Won" and "If Louis XVI Had
Had an Atom of Firmness." In fact, four of the fourteen pieces comprising the book examined what have remained two of the most popular themes in the
Alternate History genre: Napoléon's victory and the American Civil
War. The authors included such luminaries as Hilaire Belloc, André
Maurois, and Winston Churchill.
In 1933, Alternate History burst on the popular marketplace with the publication, in the December issue of Astounding magazine, of
Nat Schachner's story "Ancestral Voices." This was followed quickly by
Murray Leinster's "Sidewise in Time." William Sell's "Other Tracks"
(Astounding, October 1938) tossed time travel into the mix for the first time, and a couple of years later L. Sprague de Camp's classic
Lest Darkness Fall and "The Wheels of If" solidly established
Alternate History as a viable and popular concept.
One of the most popular change points explored in Alternate History is
World War II and the possibility of a Nazi victory. The first book to examine this was When the Bells Rang (1943), by Anthony Armstrong and Bruce Graeme. These authors postulated a Nazi invasion of England in
1940. Phillip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962) looks at a world in which North America was divided between the victorious Nazis and Japanese. And in what may be the most successful Alternate History to date, Robert Harris's Fatherland, Hitler's final solution was successful, and the postwar Nazi government actually managed to erase all knowledge of the death camps.
The other most popular historical change point is that of the American
Civil War. One of the most famous of these examples is Ward Moore's
Bring the Jubilee (1953), in which the reader spends much of the story in a third-world United States that never recovered from its defeat at the hands of the Confederacy. Harry Turtledove has since examined this same conceptexecuted quite differently, of coursein The Guns of the
South and How Few Remain. And in Stars and Stripes
Forever (1998), famed science fiction author Harry Harrison takes a different approach, postulating a British attack on America at the height of the Civil War that forces the United States and the Confederates to unite against a single enemy.
Alternate History can make great entertainmentespecially as it so often involves fascinating political and military strategies and exciting battle scenes. But it can be more than that. Alternate History can encourage historical research, spark lively political debate, and, by examining how things didn't happen, shed light on the reason things did happen the way history says they did. It can be a wonderful teaching toola great way to incite curiosity in students and history buffs alike. And it's just plain fun.
We at Del Rey Books love Alternate History and believe you will, too. The following stories were collected to provide a taste of the genre for both neophytes and converts alike. They've been culled from Asimov's Science
Fiction magazine and Analog Science Fiction and
Fact by the editors of those two publications. Give them a try: I
think you'll find they'll change not only the way you think about history but your own future reading history as well!
Del Rey Books