On Asking Good Alternate History Questions

By Alex Wallace



In my capacity as the administrator of the Alternate History Online (AHO) Facebook group, I have seen many new alternate historians cut their teeth on speculating. More often than not, they ask about World War II or the American Civil War or other such things that are quite common in our community. I do not begrudge them; indeed they sometimes come up with new ways at looking at well-trodden subjects. One of the things they do need to improve in is the art of asking a good alternate history question.


A brief clarification before the main argument: I refer specifically to questions asked within discussion fora (like Alternate History Online or Alternate Timelines, both of which I have a role in running, or the Sea Lion Press forum of which I am proudly a member), and not to the writing of narrative works. Indeed, following any of this advice when writing an alternate history story may in fact be deleterious to the narrative; however that is a different discussion that is best covered elsewhere.


The notion of asking a good ‘what if?’ is something that looks easy but is in fact deceptively hard. One rookie mistake I see a lot is asking a question that is simply too vague. Take the following cliche statement:


“What if the Nazis won World War II?”


I’ve seen variants on that basic sentence posted multiple times in that group. To the initiate in the field, I can understand this seems like a good question: there’s a defined distinction of results, almost like the difference between 0 and 1 in programming. It’s a binary state, with two easily definable options: the Nazis winning, or the Nazis losing.


But this is based on the flawed notion that history is so simple as to be reducible to Boolean algebra. For one, how are we defining ‘winning?’ Is it total domination of the world, or at least a large portion of it, a la The Man in the High Castle? Is it cowing the British and rendering the Soviets impotent, like Fatherland or Dominion? Do they succeed in implementing every sordid detail of Generalplan Ost?


Another large issue with the question is that it does not take into account how victory, however defined, can be achieved. Nazi Germany as a regime existed for twelve years, and perhaps eight of those years could produce something resembling victory. What this consideration does is render the question so broad as to be meaningless, because all these different ways the Nazis could have been more successful are oftentimes so divergent that they have very little in common with one another other than the barest basic historical facts.


Hence, there is a need for specificity. Asking, say, “What if the Germans secured a peaceful end to the war in Western Europe after the Blitz?” is a much more reasonable question on the basis that there are only so many lines of inquiry one can go on. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of material or complexity in the historical record (for there is plenty on the subject), but there are only so many questions you can ask while keeping on subject, in a way that a broader question just lacks. Specificity in questions makes for better discussions, as there is more shared material to consider as a group.

Thus is the reasoning for Alternate History Online’s rule 5 (which is the rule I end up invoking the most in posts in that group):


“All ‘what if’ scenarios must contain an explicit point of divergence unless they are asking for points of divergence. This is to maintain a baseline level of coherence of discussion.”

That rule’s imposition was for the sake of doing just that: ensuring “baseline level of coherence of discussion.” Discussions which are more than simply people going off on different tangents are far more burdensome to a moderator (and to those involved in the discussion) than those that have intellectual common ground.


How can the neophyte alternate historian improve their questions? I think it’s ultimately a matter of mindset. A mistake many newcomers make (and this is a nation encouraged by many online historical discussion fora, not just alternate historical spaces) is assuming that history is simply the aggregation of bits of trivia, whose own complex interrelationships are neglected. This reduces the study of history to a collection of trinkets rather than the system of the world that many academics spend entire lives studying but a tiny portion. This is not something that newcomers should feel overly guilty over; this is how history is taught as in many school systems before the university level.


What this requires then, is a willingness to do research, and to be broadminded. One thing I suspect of many newcomers is that they have read the great alternate history novels of Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint, John Birmingham et al., but haven’t read many history books. Again, they should not be morally castigated for this, but they should very much be encouraged to rectify this situation. To ask good questions about World War II, one needs to be familiar with how the war went in its various fronts (and not just the famous ones), as well as how wars are conducted in general, in strategic, diplomatic, and economic aspects. This allows the alternate historian to pinpoint what exact factors are being changed to produce a possible outcome, and from there one can create a discussion that is far more likely to produce speculation of both aesthetic and intellectual value.


The sort of broadmindedness I discuss above is ultimately what I think is one of the greatest benefits of practising alternate historical speculation as a hobby. The fandom is full of those who have spectacularly different areas of expertise, with sympathies towards different historical methodologies. Exposure to these areas of thought and modes of thinking not only improves one’s capacity to practice alternate historical speculation, it improves one’s capacity to evaluate the world around them. That is the reward of continuously hashing out scenarios in detail on discussion fora, and many have been the better for it.

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