Have you ever looked back at history and wondered what would have happened had some event or period in time gone differently? What if the Germans won World War II or what if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated? Major events that, had they gone differently, would have altered the course of history. For writers of Alternate History fiction it’s all in a day’s work. They rewrite World War II, give Kennedy and Lincoln longer presidencies, let the South win the Civil War, or make sure the Roman Empire never fell. It’s an impressive feat and a daunting task to be able to rewrite history—one that writers have been doing for far longer than I had imagined.
According to Robert Schmunk, the creator of uchronia.net, Alternate History fiction has existed since as far back as 1845 with the publication of Nathaniel Hawthrone’s “P’s Correspondence”. And although there were works written prior to 1845, they aren’t completely alternate histories, but they “contain allohistorical digressions within” the story. All of these works were written before Alternate History was thought of as a genre, or sub genre of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Mr. Schmunk’s site has chosen 1939 as the year that Alternate History really became a genre—citing the publication of Science Fiction author L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall” as the first modern Alternate History novel.
Alternate History is an interesting genre in terms of the range it has. You can go as far as changing the entire world, or focus in on one person and give that character a chance to redo his life all over again. You can take your personal “what if I had done this instead of that?” and give a character a chance to not only wonder the same thing, but have the opportunity present itself to allow them to change that one thing. Any period of time is fair game for some creative “revisionist” history, although depending on where you’re located in the world some subjects might not be as appealing as others. Revising World War II would likely be something that would be read around the world, but pick the Civil War and you most likely won’t find anyone outside North America interested in the subject. In the European market, Napoleon is a popular subject for alternate history but here is in the Unites States it’s not. And Alternate History may be considered a part of Science Fiction or Fantasy, but that doesn’t mean you’re limited to those genres. Michael Chabon, author of the comic industry themed “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”, has also written “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, a straight up police procedural and mystery which happens to be set in a modern world where events in World War II took a different path.
Learning about this genre has been a lot of fun, and there’s so much more to cover. The opportunities it offers writers, as well as readers, are never ending. The ideas for table top gaming are there too. The Mutants and Masterminds setting can be called Alternate History in some sense, since you’re adding Supers to our world. But what if on top of that you have a world where Germany dominated World War II. Or set your World of Darkness campaign in a world where the Roman Empire never fell. Everything’s fair game in Alternate History.
[tags]alternate history, science fiction, fantasy, scifi, literature[/tags]