By Matthew Kresal
"Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things."
So says a line by Robert Browning that was a favorite of Graham Greene. That line might also be true of those interested in and practitioners of alternate history, imagining the past as it might have been. It could also apply to the blurring of lines between subgenres and their ultimate impact on an underlying question asked by Alex Wallace in the recent plausibility panel I participated in: What do we want alternate history to be?
On the surface, what constitutes an alternate history story seems simple. Notionally at least, it's something that takes place in a version of history that's not our own. The problem, of course, is that criteria is slightly open-ended and raise questions where other genres butt up against what we would ordinarily perceive as alternate history.
Here's an example I came across recently from page and screen. James Bassett's 1962 novel Harm's Way, adapted for the screen as In Harm's Way by Otto Preminger three years later, focuses on a handful of US Navy officers during the first year of the war in the Pacific. On the surface, it would appear to be a straightforward work of historical fiction. Delve beneath the surface, however, and you'll discover a host of warships that weren't part of the US Pacific fleet, an entire campaign around a South Pacific island chain, and a climactic naval battle that's a version of the Battle off Samar that occurred two years later. The latter two had been effected on and upon the wider Pacific theatre. Would that make Bassett's novel and Preminger's cinematic adaptation works of alternate history or still a work of historical fiction?
Here's another example, one cited by Matt Mitrovich from commenters on the recent “Alternate Histories of Mars” video for his The Alternate Historian YouTube channel. When Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles was first published in 1950, collecting and adding to several previously published stories, its narrative began in 1999, carrying through the next quarter of a century. Though set on a Mars that owed more to Percival Lowell's turn of the century vision of canals and Edgar Rice Burroughs's pulp visions than established science by 1950, the novel's legacy remained in place even as eventual space probes worked to bury old Mars. So much so that starting in 1997, new editions moved the time frame of the narrative 31 years past its original start date. Given the examples Mitrovich's video cites, including Harry Turtledove's 1990 novel A World of Difference set on a Mars closer to the imaginings of old, there's an argument to be made that Bradbury's work could be considered a work of retroactive alternate history. Does that make The Martian Chronicles a science fiction alternate history or pure science fiction?
There are countless other examples elsewhere on this blog. From this author alone are pieces on things as wide-ranging as The West Wing, Bridgerton, and Larry Bond's Cauldron. Ryan Fleming wrote a series of articles entitled Days of Future Past, exploring numerous other examples of futures that hadn't come to pass. Should they be considered retroactive alternate histories?
It depends on who you ask. Steven H Silver, the founder of the Sidewise Awards, put forth this three-part definition: (i) A point of divergence from the historical record, before the time in which the author is writing; (ii) A change that would alter known history; and (iii) An examination of the ramifications of that alteration to history.
In those words, most of the examples cited earlier in this blog wouldn't be considered alternate history. Indeed, retroactive alternate history would not seem to exist by this definition, which uses authorial intent to make its case. The problem is that authorial intent doesn't always mesh with wider interpretations, as (to use a non-alternate history example) John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has helped to prove. In the novel, George Smiley seeks out a double agent or mole known by the codename of Gerald within the British secret service. When Smiley realizes who the mole is has become a topic of debate. On the one hand, le Carre insisted that Smiley didn't sense Gerald's identity until the novel's climax, even as readers and adapters have had the moment of realization come earlier during his investigation. Which interpretation is, ultimately, correct? The author, the reader, both in a paradox, or neither?
Alternate history tends to be viewed by some (though not all, by any means) as a subgenre. As such, it is worth mentioning a number of its relatives, particularly the one that's come to be known as secret history. Authors such as Jack Higgins in The Eagle has Landed or Ken Follett in The Man from St. Petersburg built stories in and around historical events, with fictional narratives and the possibility of history changing (but ultimately not). The duology of Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars novel by Greg Cox fits into this description, with Cox working the rise and fall of Khan Noonien Singh and his genetically augmented brethren around real-life events and calamities in the 1990s. Contrast the latter with IDW's 2013-14 comic book series Khan which presented the Eugenics War as an open conflict that resulted in the use of nuclear weapons against major cities in the 1990s. IDW's Khan is a case of alternate history instead of the secret history that Cox's novels portrayed.
From this author's point of view, the line between many of the genres and subgenres discussed in this article is like that between genius and insanity. Namely, very thin and occasionally blurred. Perhaps a Venn diagram is more appropriate at times, given the overlap in some cases. Their impact on alternate history as genre and setting is apparent, too, particularly in how the crime and thriller genres neatly fit into so many of its tales.
Like so much in life, the answers seem just out of reach. The possibilities tantalizie but never materialize. Perhaps because they lie, like all opinions of art, in the eye of the beholder, on the dangerous edge of things.