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The Multi-Faceted Nature of Alternate History

By Jared Kavanagh.

Is this the shape of Alternate History?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One of the perennial questions I’ve seen in online discussions about alternate history is how to categorise it. Colin Salt has distinguished between five types of alternate history related categories, including among others alternate history as setting and alternate history as genre. Other people have argued for different classifications. So, is alternate history a genre of fiction? Is it a subgenre of science fiction, or maybe of historical fiction? Is it a setting? Is it a storytelling device?


There are several cheeky answers to these questions: “It depends”; “In which tradition”; or possibly “All of the above,” depending on the context.


The first aspect to consider is one Alexander Wallace pointed out in a previous article on this blog; there are at least three traditions in alternate history – a print tradition, an online tradition, and a broadcast tradition. How alternate history is categorised depends in part on which tradition(s) that are being discussed.


I’d add to this classification that the online tradition of alternate history is itself an outgrowth of several sources, which don’t necessarily have a great deal of overlap. Some people came to online history from tabletop wargames. Others came to it as an outgrowth of various online wargames and related games, such as Paradox games. Another course was the study of history, which originally showed up in Usenet newsgroups (soc.history.what-if and alt.history.what-if), and which then migrated to online forums such as and others. Some people got involved to discuss alternate developments of fictional universes, or of supernatural themes, or from any of several other sources.

One what-if that got discussed back in the early days of soc.history.what-if involved alternate suffragettes. But this was back in the days when people didn't distinguish between suffragette and suffragist. Fortunately, we know better now.

Don't we?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Alternate history in the online tradition – both in forums and other areas – started out as a hobby for those taking part. People wrote about topics that interested them, not because they were trying to sell books (as per the print tradition) or attract viewers (as per the broadcast tradition). They wanted to explore “what if” in a variety of contexts. So, when categorising it, it could largely be described as alternate history as an (online) genre, or more generically as “the alternate history is the point.”


Of course, the online tradition continued and developed over several decades, and evolved considerably as it went along, particularly as it crossed over with the development of self-published fiction. I’ve witnessed (and been part of) the online tradition from the study of history, where it started as being mostly discussion of scenarios, to “chronological list” timelines, to timelines which incorporated narrative elements and “historical” works, to online alternate history which developed into more of a story/pure narrative format. The latter comprises a lot of the alternate history that comes from self-published works and small presses these days (most obviously Sea Lion Press). Some of the works which Sea Lion Press publishes would fit fine within the print tradition, even when they started life in the online tradition.


So, for the online tradition, it’s still largely the case that alternate history is a genre, aka “the point”. But that line has become more blurred due to the crossover with print (including e-print) tradition, and still leaves open the question of how to categorise alternate history in those traditions.


In these cases, the question remains about how to categorise alternate history – is it a setting, is it a genre, a storytelling device, or something else?


My view is that arguing that alternate history works need to be AH as setting or AH as genre is a false dichotomy. It’s perfectly possible for a work to be both, or neither, such as if it’s simply alternate history as a storytelling device.


To deal with the last one first, sometimes the alternate history is just a gimmick or a device within a print or broadcast work. It’s not even necessarily a key part of the setting. Take, for example, the Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds. In that film (spoiler alert for 14 years in the past), the ending of that movie used an alternate history so that viewers were left guessing. It meant they couldn’t know the outcome because of what happened in real history – instead it could be revealed that what had been happening was an alternate history. But that was at the conclusion of the film, and was only sketchily part of the setting (otherwise every historical film which makes up fictional characters was set in an alternate history). The film ended without exploring most of the ramifications of that alternate history, so it didn’t fit with alternate history as genre either. It was more of AH as storytelling device.


When trying to disentangle setting and genre, it’s crucial to define what each of those terms means. The print tradition of alternate history is a good way to illustrate this. The print tradition is, primarily, printed fiction. Therefore it needs the three core elements of any fiction: plot, characters, and setting. In a print tradition AH work, the actual alternate history forms part of the setting. The setting may enable the plot and characters in any number of ways, but it’s still a story told through the traditional medium of narrative (or other forms of storytelling). The alternate history part of the setting will be whatever is needed to drive the story.


So, for instance, in a story about a successful Sealion, the alternate history is part of the setting. The story itself might be an invasion story, an occupation story, a tale of suspense, of heroic resistance, of futile resistance, or whatever the story might be about. But the alternate history elements of the setting simply help that story happen.


Genre, however, is not an element of what makes something a work of fiction. Genre is fundamentally a marketing term. It refers to a collection of tropes, conventions, settings, plot devices, themes, or some combination of these. Classifying a story within a genre or subgenre is designed to make it easier for readers to find books that suite their tastes.


A genre is not a platonic ideal of separate categories where a story needs to be classified solely into one genre or another. It’s perfectly possible for a story to be pitched in more than one genre. Books with alternate history settings are particularly malleable in that regard. There’s plenty of science fiction books, for example, which could be marketed as alternate history but weren’t. There are alternate histories in some romance stories, and they aren’t primarily marketed as alternate history either. This is because the authors and/or publishers were looking to market these books to the widest audience and – let’s face it – alternate history is usually not the largest marketing category out there.


When it comes to marketing alternate history as a genre, that’s harder because it’s not really all that codified as a genre. Indeed, as Adam Selby-Martin observed in a recent blog article, it’s extremely atomised. It is possible to identify something of an emerging genre (or subgenre) of alternate history over the last few decades, particularly around the works of Harry Turtledove, SM Stirling, the late Eric Flint, and others. This emerging subgenre works from the familiar premise of picking a historical divergence and then exploring how history changes from there. Many (though not all) of SLP’s published works fit within such a genre, and are marketed as such.


However, there are plenty of other works in the print tradition of alternate history which don’t necessarily need to be marketed as alternate history. For example, Fatherland or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are both detective stories set in alternate histories, and while either could be marketed as being in the genre of alternate history, they could be (and on some occasions at least, were) marketed in other ways. Similarly, an alternate history romance such as Fugitives of Fate by TL Morganfield has a strong alternate history presence, but it was marketed as romance.


Even plenty of books by Harry Turtledove, who is arguably the most prominent writer of works in the genre of alternate history, don’t fit within the conventions of that emerging genre. This is because they lack a clear historical divergence or exploration of that divergence – such as his Videssos books about a Byzantium-analogue with magic, or his Darkness series which is a fantasy retelling of the Second World War (also with magic).


So, in short, when it comes to categorising alternate history, it’s possible to have works which are both set in an alternate history and in the genre of alternate history, but the allocation of them to a genre is a marketing decision (or reader preference when describing what they read), rather than needing to be exclusively one or the other.



Discuss this article Here.


Jared has had a hand in several SLP books; these include being the author of The Land of Red and Gold series, and he edited the anthologies Apocalypse How? [5] and Alternate Australias [6].






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