By Alexander Wallace
As alternate history continues its slow lurch into the mainstream it becomes clearer and clearer to me that the genre is far from homogeneous. It is obvious that a Wolfenstein game is very different from a Harry Turtledove novel, and both differ significantly from For Want of a Nail. They are united only in asking in the critical question 'what if something historical was something different'.
I’ll echo some of the preexisting online discussion on this topic (my friend Colin Salt has done a good article on the subject) and invoke the division of alternate history into two distinct camps: alternate history as setting and alternate history as genre.
Alternate history as setting uses the point of divergence to create a scenario in which a certain story can be told; these stories often overlap with spy fiction or military fiction or straight up science fiction and fantasy. The emphasis remains mostly character-based and on spinning a good yarn, and most alternate history novels and shows fall into this category.
Then there’s alternate history as genre, the very bookish sort of AH that focuses intensely on the ramifications on the point of divergence, and specifically on their plausibility. Most textbook-style alternate history falls into this category.
Putting that distinction aside for a moment, some months ago I wrote a post that I posted on four different fora that divided the history of alternate history into three different traditions based on their origins. These three are:
The print tradition: originating out of alternate world and time travel stories in science fiction magazines in the first half of the twentieth century. Harry Turtledove is the most well known of this tradition, and includes most alternate history authors from big-name publishers. This tradition emphasizes the story and the characters, and the spinning of a good adventure tale.
The online tradition: diverged from the print tradition in the 1980s and 1990s, becoming a fully realized subset of the genre in the 2000s. This tradition emphasizes historical research and hard plausibility, even when the initial divergence is supernatural. Most online textbook-style timelines are in this tradition; despite its name, there are print antecedents to it in works such as Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail.
The broadcast tradition: so nebulous I wonder whether I should call it a tradition. This came about in the late 2000s or so when network and film executives realized alternate history’s potential as a new setting for dramas. These works often rely highly on shock value, overwhelming you with the idea that our reality was not guaranteed. The Man in the High Castle pioneered this tradition with its suffocating atmosphere of an Axis victory, and it encompasses just about every televised drama made in the past ten years or so.
There’s also that category of books that use alternate history to expound a sociopolitical statement, and, more importantly for the purposes of categorizing a tradition, did not come from authors who are traditionally alternate history authors, and sometimes not even speculative fiction writers. These are people who most likely came across the notion of altering the past independently of the traditions that existed previously; I consider works such as The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and The Plot Against America by Philip Roth. This has a tenuous relationship with the broadcast tradition; some adaptations of these works are works in the broadcast tradition, and a lot of these works also rely heavily on shock value. One could argue that the broadcast tradition is taking these works and merging them into a more coherent trend.
To synthesize this with Salt’s formulation, one could say that what I call the Print Tradition is Alternate History as Setting, whereas the Online Tradition is Alternate History as Genre. This leaves the Broadcast Tradition in a somewhat strange categorical position, as a good portion of these works relies on shock value. To provide an answer to this, I would like to once again invoke Colin Salt, in particular his notion of alternate history’s “missing middle." He describes the phenomenon of works focusing heavily on the effects of the point of divergence and works focusing on the story with alternate history as a backdrop.
The Broadcast Tradition, and the uncategorized print work I’ve mentioned, attempt to reach the missing middle, albeit in a different way than what Salt says. Salt emphasizes the historical effect of the point of divergence; these works emphasize the emotional effect of the point of divergence. Take The Plot Against America: one of its main focuses is on how the point of divergence harms the American Jewish community in New Jersey, and implicitly draws the comparison with the historical experience of Jews in Europe. We are lucky, implies Roth, that America did not have the same experience Germany did.
This pattern is found in other works: The Man in the High Castle shocks with the idea of America under foreign master since the independence of the Republic, Fatherland shocks with the horror of the most evil regime in history surviving, and The Underground Railroad shocks with how its altered America hurts African-Americans in ways not done in our history. A recurring motif in all this is the notion of suffering: people who didn’t suffer in our world suffer in this world, or those who did suffer in our world suffer in a different way in theirs. Alternate history is currently being discovered as a form of catharsis for writers and for communities, and it has produced an emphasis different than that which came before. Indeed, this might be synthesized with the Broadcast Tradition to become the “Activist Tradition” or something of the sort.
I can see why alternate history would be attractive to activists; it goes against the underlying premises of majority-sponsored Whig history, and presents alternatives where sacred shibboleths of today never came to be or are shown as being comprehensively subverted, like constitutional democracy in the United States (again I can cite The Plot Against America). Since activism is often about challenging that which is held sacred (albeit in secular language much of the time nowadays), the notion of changing the past can be seen as quite useful.
I think by the end of the 2020s we will see a solidification of the Broadcast Tradition into something more concrete, and perhaps something we can trace to aforementioned uncategorized books, perhaps defined by its social themes.. I have no doubt that writers like Harry Turtledove, S. M. Stirling, and Eric Flint will continue to propagate the print tradition, and forum dwellers the online tradition. What remains to be seen is if these traditions will coalesce, as Broadcast Tradition content creators begin to realize the depth of the other two traditions.