By Gary Oswald
This series will cover 26 topics related to Alternate History, as a beginners guide to the genre, through the format of the A-Z.
G - Games
A lot of people's first introduction to changing history were games of some kind, whether board games or video games. Any kind of War Game, whether as simple as Risk or as complicated as The Campaign for North Africa has players representing different sides of battles, thus depending on player skill and luck, different sides can win than won historically. They are innately Alternate History simulators.
Some people even wargame out scenarios in their Alternate Histories before writing them up. To quote Colin Salt "A heavily wargamed book is going to be distinct. It'll likely be more accurate, at least in a rivet-counting way. And if done well enough-which it has been-it can add to a good "feel" of what the fighting is like (i.e., if it's a close battle or a squash), which in my opinion is more important than strict "plausibility"."
Strategy video games such as Age of Empires and Civilisation, are similar and are likewise gateways to AH fiction. Command and Conquer: Red Alert is even set in an AH, wherein Einstein has invented a time Machine, travelled back in time and killed Hitler thus meaning the war you, the player, fight is instead between Western Europe and the Soviets.
The big gateway drug to AH from gaming however is Paradox Interactive AB. Paradox are a Swedish Video Game company who specialise in historically themed grand strategy games, where the player pick a country and control its economy, politics and army to grow and thrive throughout centuries of conflict. This essentially creates little AH stories, in which the player's Scotland or Azerbaijan enjoy new golden ages and conquer half the world, and each game creates a unique world that noone else got to see and so was often felt worth sharing.
In various video game forums, people began writing up long faux history books and narratives to explain their historical role playing results rather than just showing the maps. How did Scotland conquer Egypt, why has this AI Russia converted to Hinduism, what culture emerges from Somali ran Italy etc.
Some of the most popular ones on Something Awful and the Paradox forums began playing the game solely for the narrative, deliberately making bad gameplay choices but interesting narrative ones for instance or modding the game to introduce new challenges so the narrative would have ups and downs (a popular choice was for players converting a Crusaders Kings game set in medieval Europe to a Europa Universalis game set in the Age of Discovery to mod the new Asian, African and North American countries to be much more advanced so instead of European nations gaining power by conquering weaker countries in the rest of the world, you'd have to fight against an Incan Pizzaro attacking you).
These After Action Reports or AARs (narrative description of events in a game after the game has concluded) were many people's first AH stories. Paradox themselves even published an anthology of AH stories to promote their games.
And for their Hearts of Iron games, war games set in WWII, most countries had fascist/communist and natural routes thus showing off some natural AH. Mods took this further with AH scenarios being adapted as starting situations, Kaiserreich was a mod for Hearts of Iron II about a WWII if Germany had won WWI. That mod inspired the SLP Book, The People's Flag and has become something of a cultural juggernaut in itself.
Many younger AH fans first got into the genre through Paradox games. This has it's own effect on the type of fiction they produce. In both good ways, such as the encouragement of a global lens when viewing changes and in less positive ways, such as the lack of focus on logistics or morale and the assumption that war is just a matter of moving pieces on a board.
H - Historiography
Historiography is the study of the writing of history and of written histories. It looks at why people record what they do about the past, how accurate those records are and what they tell us about the people who write them. A book like 'Races of Africa' which is racist nonsense designed to justify colonialism tells you a lot more about Europe than it does Africa. But even sources written in good faith must be viewed through the filter of the person writing it and so who they are relying on as sources.
In alternate history, Historiography of events prior to the charge will change due to the society changing. I wrote a story once, with the first change happening in 1066, wherein Brunanburh, a real life battle from 937, is a much larger deal in the English cultural memory as a result and so is recorded differently in the histories.
But more than that we also have our own biases and much like the sources we examine how we, as writers, view history, and what sources we rely on, dictates how we write changes to it. Let's look at one of the classic arguments about History, namely: is the driving force of history great men or the masses?
If you believe entirely in the former, then you could happily write a story wherein Thomas Edison dies young and without him pushing for and funding new inventions, we don't have electrical power in 2020. or where without Martin Luther, there is no challenge to the Church
A complete follower of Marxist history, would of course disagree. They would argue that other people were doing similar experiments to Edison, the same results would have still happened because we had reached a point where the resources to do such work was available. Fundamentally science marches on, regardless of individuals. And likewise, Luther tapped into already existing discontent, if he had not spoken up, they would say, then likely one of the many people who agreed with him would have spoke in in his stead.
These views of the world inevitably bleeds into their AH writing. My hypothetical Marxist historian might argue that even without Leopold of Belgium, somebody would exploit the Congo because they had both motive and means or that even without Attlee somebody would create the British welfare state because it was popular and the idea's time had come. And so in their timelines, things change but the broad details are more recognisable, than the world where monks still pray by candlelight.
If I wished to extent that argument perhaps to the point of being a Strawman, I might even say that individuals get eaten up by the circumstances and the demands of the time. As Ghezo of Dahomey told Richard Burton when the latter asked him to abolish slavery, any King who tried that would not be King tomorrow. Leaders can only go so far from public opinion and still be leaders. Maximilien Robespierre a man who, while out of power, had argued for the abolition of the death penalty instead ordered hundreds of deaths when in power because ideals were sacrificed to the greater good of maintaining his own position. If Robespierre had never risen to power, any AH about him doing so would assume he'd rule very different to how he actually did. But the times called for brutality and so any man in that position would be brutal. Cynically, you could then justify a lot of people in your AH doing things which theoretically they, like Robespierre, were ideologically opposed to. In extremis, a particular infamous example of amateur AH had Nelson Mandela support an apartheid government.
That is clearly too far, but I don't think the entire argument, that people once they have power and access to the full reports of the government often end up acting differently, is baseless. The covid pandemic in particular has seen a lot of politicians taking viewpoints that you might not have expected them to have done and I have certainly seen the limits of how much change can happen simply by a different leader within the same system in place like Myanmar. However that argument often comes dangerously close to apologetica and denies any personal responsibility of the leaders in question. I have also witnessed enough changes in leadership to believe that different leaders do make different decisions and so a USA ran by Eugene Debs and one ran by Ezra Pound would not inevitably converge into being basically the same place.
Ultimately both of these worlds, the one with an eternal catholic church and no electricity and the one where a radical government in the UK doesn't actually reform anything are extreme examples and if written would be more satirical than anything else. Most AH attempts to stride a middle line.
It's certainly difficult to read much about the history of monarchies and other dictatorships and not realise how much the characters of the people in power made influential decisions that would have been entirely different had they just been of a different character. The idea that obviously the social and political trends dictate that this happen because anything else would be stupid quickly runs aground against all the people who did stupid things. A lot of the choices that seem in retrospect as obviously the only correct thing to do when considering the overall situation were fiercely criticised at the time. I do think there are an awful lot of places where the choices of individuals changed things on a huge scale. And I think we often underestimate how much things happening can then normalise that as the way things are for the next generation. Trends go both ways and sometimes those huge societal changes you need to change a nation can emerge naturally from the decisions of one man. Famously a lot of progressive laws didn't reach majority acceptance until decades after they were passed.
But on the other hand, I also suspect that a lot of things would go the same even with different people in charge. Inventions would still happen, demands for wealth distribution would still happen, wars would still start. Some convergence is inevitable because people will still be people and thus have the same basic motives. I don't believe that there is only one possible person out of all the people ever born who could have invented the light blub.
I - ISOT
ISOTs are a trope named after Island in the Sea of Time by S.M. Sterling wherein people from one time period are sent to another time period. These are essentially time travel stories, wherein the arrival of people from the future is the reason why history becomes altered. In Sterling's book, the island of Nantucket and the United States Coast Guard cutter Eagle are moved from 1998 to around about 1250 BC.
Sea Lion Press have released eleven books that broadly fit this definition and other publishing companies have released many more. In the same way that Portal Fantasy stories such as the Narnia books use main characters from our reality as a way of introducing the audience to a fantasy land, ISOTs use modern day characters as our guides to the past. And it produces fascinating clashes of cultures, while allowing for inevitable changes in a way that indulges people's desire for AH.
ISOTs also allow writers to realistically portray characters with very racist and sexist mindsets in a way straight historical fiction often avoids because if you need a voice for 'oh my god, that's awful' you have it in the modern characters.
ISOTs are so popular that people have codified various ways in which they can come about. The Alien Space Bats discussed in the first entry of this series is one of them. And the late great Eric Flint came up with the Assiti Shards, a thing created by a mysterious alien civilization which splices time periods together in a reckless form of art. Flint and his collaborators have produced dozens and dozens of books about people being moved through time by Assiti Shards such as 1632 and The Crossing.