by Ryan Fleming
What would the British Empire have done with a new technology that could have turned vast swathes of the solar system pink? Or how would they have reacted to a successfully repelled extra-terrestrial attack at the height of their power? How would the belligerents of the Second World War have reacted to a similar attack at the height of that conflict? Or the United States if their early attempts at spaceflight had attracted the attention of some alien power? Or South Africa at the height of Apartheid to an alien craft appearing over their largest city? How would the entire world have continued if the end feared for decades finally came, not from ourselves. but from outer space? Or how would the imperial powers of the Victorian era have dealt with the mass societal upheaval that would come with the impact of one or more asteroids?
These are all questions that have been answered or posed in various fictional works going back over a century, and although they all sound like they could be alternate history only around half of them were conceived as such. The rest were done as science fiction where the intervention of some extra-terrestrial agency sets the world on a path it would not have gone on otherwise. Where this is alternate history we commonly call it part of a subgenre of 'Alien Space Bat' ('ASB') alternate history. There are a great many existing works of science fiction literature, film, and other media that can be considered almost honorary alternate history. Similarly, there are a number of works of alternate history that look at the intervention of such alien agencies as though the fantastical elements actually happened historically.
Two authors that loom large in this sort of science fiction, as well as the wider aesthetic of steam punk, are Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. Separated by three and a half decades, both authors wrote novels that concerned humanity's first attempts to break free from the earth and travel to the Moon - Verne's From the Earth to the Moon coming in 1865 and Wells' The First Men in the Moon in 1901. They differed in many respects, including the method used to propel their heroes from the earth and toward its satellite. Verne had his characters use a cannon to launch their craft from the earth; whereas Wells invented a fictional anti-gravitational substance he called 'cavorite' to get have his characters achieve the journey. Wells was roundly criticised for this by Verne, with the latter author remarking "I sent my travelers to the moon with gunpowder, something one sees every day. Where is Monsieur Wells' Cavorite'? Let him show it to me!" Curiously, Wells had used a space gun in a previous work - but for a journey from the opposite direction.
The influence of Wells' The War of the Worlds on the development of science fiction cannot be trivialised, itself part of a vast number of invasion literature works popular in Britain in the late nineteenth century, and its potential as a launching point for alternate history has already been realised by several authors. The 1996 anthology War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, looked at the events of the original novel from a global perspective using various famous figures of the day. It examined how the socio-political issues of the late nineteenth century might have been coloured by the launch of the Martian invasion, with an epilogue that looked 'forward' to 1928 and to how the world had changed in the generation since the invasion as a result. The lan Edginton written, D'lsraeli illustrated comic series Scarlet Traces took the concept and ran with it, showing the British Empire in the decades after the invasion adapting Martian technology to their own ends and launching a counter-invasion of Mars. Even Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds realised this potential, with the last track featuring an epilogue of a future NASA landing on Mars triggering another invasion.
Alien invasions of earth remained a staple of science fiction ever since Wells first published The War of the Worlds, an offshoot of this would be the development of various styles of space war in which humanity might engage in as they sought to explore the galaxy. In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, published in 1974, the author imagined a future conflict where disappearing earth colony ships led to war with an alien species known as the Taurans. The first such action against the Taurans was launched in 1997; so it would appear humanity was sending colony ships into space at some point between the 1970s and the 1990. Certainly to a modern audience this might seem more akin to alternate history than science fiction, even though most of the novel stil takes place in our (for the moment) future.
The combination of invasion literature and science fiction would finally cross over fully into alternate history with Harry Turtledove's Worldwar or Tosev series, a run of eight novels published between 1994 and 2004 that look at another alien invasion of earth. This time, the invades make the mistake of attacking in the middle of the Second World War. The repercussions of the Allies and Axis powers forced into an uneasy alliance upon the arrival of a greater foe reverberate throughout the series, and like others the impact of technology far in advance of their own coming into their hands decades before is a running theme.
The explicit presence of something different from our own history does not always mean the alternate history potential is fully examined or even the main crux. If a work first released in 2009 and set in the following year featured, as part of its backstory, Aliens arriving at earth in 1982 it would be tempting to label it as alternate history. District 9, directed by Neill Blomkamp, forgoes this. As far as is presented in the film, history has continued more or less as it did in our own timeline despite the appearance of an alien craft and multiple alien species in Johannesburg at the height of Apartheid and the Cold War. Rather than, for instance, the government of P. W. Botha attempting to extort the major world powers to head off. disinvestment in an attempt to keep South Africa's system of racial segregation going no major changes seem to have happened to history as we know it.
On a related note is Independence Day: Resurgence. Should this be considered alternate history? The first film can perhaps be from a modern perspective if all fictional works technically become alternate history after the fact. The second, which takes a look at a world two decades on from global devastation that never happened in our own history, might have more of a case to be made. Certainly the 2016 of the sequel seems very different to the 2016 we experienced in reality, with seemingly greater global cooperation arising from the ashes of the initial attempted invasion. How does this differ from, for instance, Scarlet Traces? A sequel to a work that takes into account the ramifications that might have arisen from the original on a global scale. The question then becomes how far to take this? Is Jurassic World alternate history? Is Ghostbusters II? How about every contemporary set Doctor Who story since the first episode in 1963?
The merging of classic science fiction and alternate history can also work its way backwards, but there are two routes that this can go down. The first is where this is just as a means to maintain a desired aesthetic or style, an example of which is S. M. Stirling's The Peshawar Lancers. Published in 2002, and technically set in the future of 2025, it looked at a world where a meteor shower devastated the northern hemisphere in 1878 and forced the mass evacuation of the British Isles to the colonies in warmer climes save for a few remaining bands of cannibals. This backstory though is an effort to marry together several conflicting genres of the swashbuckler, the Victorian adventure, steampunk, and post-apocalyptic fiction. Here it is almost certainly done or punk'. rather than for alternate historical interest.
On the opposite side of the coin is 2017s The Twilight's Last Gleaming by Tom Anderson, here a similar event (a single asteroid strikes the southern hemisphere in. 1886, rather than a storm of meteors striking the northern hemisphere in 1878) is looked at from the perspective of the immediate ramifications across the globe. There is no compromise for aesthetic reasons, the Gilded Age react to an arguably science fiction induced disaster as one would expect- warts and all. Here the setting of the story is looked at with more of an alternate historical interest than a'-punk' one; arguably giving a more realistic estimation. of the reactions than its counterpart.
There is a great deal of potential in looking at the fantastical science fiction elements of the past through the lens of alternate history last year's Vintage Worlds: Tales of the Old Solar System, edited by John Michael Greer and Zendexor, features several stories that use the conceit of ASB style alternate history to imagine our nearest neighbours teaming with Iife as they were imagined during the heyday of Edgar Rice Burroughs. This highlights how it can unlock science fiction concepts that the march of science might have invalidated in the decades since they were first used. From the other side of the coin it can also be used to examine how history might have been affected by changes brought about by fantastical changes. If fantastical or science fiction. elements are to be introduced in a historical context (and their suppression or destruction or insignificance not covered therein) then the changes those might have caused have to be considered, if not it ceases to be a work of alternate history and becomes a work of fantasy. The marriage between classic science fiction and alternate history need not be confined to works of ASB though, as we'll take a look at next week.