Friday, June 16, 2006

What Is Alternate History?

The state of TIAH

June 16th, 2006 - something a little different

What is Alternate History?

From time to time, confused people have emailed the Academy or commented on our posts to tell us that we got this or that historical fact wrong, or to ask us where we got our facts, since we know something different from the “official” record. Usually, we will simply reply by telling them that this is an alternate history site, and therefore what they see recorded here are events that didn't actually occur. One person became so offended by this that he declared himself anti-alternate-history. Our email can be interesting at times.

Some people who do get the concept sometimes feel that a lot of what we do here at the Academy isn't real Alternate History; we introduce aliens, or supernatural events, or give Pete Best talent. It could be said that virtually any fiction could be interpreted as an alternate history, diverging from our own world at some point and in some unknown way. The people who complain about the Mlosh, or neo-Nazi time travel, or Pete Best's inevitable superstardom, have a much narrower definition in mind. For them, Alternate History is focused on either/or moments in actual history, and they only want to see stories about that.

This definition of Alternate History has a long and storied pedigree – Winston Churchill wrote an essay about how different the world would have been if the American Confederacy had lost the Civil War, Newt Gingrich ruined William Forstchen's career with 1945, and there was even a much-bandied about piece in The New Republic about George Bush's removal from office. In this view of Alternate History, the only fictionalizing allowed is that moment of decision – instead of following the pattern of events in our own timeline, the Alternate History goes down the other path, and we have a 20th Century American Confederacy, a triumphant Nazi regime reigning over Europe, or a world where George Bush actually did something besides vacation in his early presidency.

But, no less a giant in the Alternate History world than Harry Turtledove – a real-life historian of our very own timeline – has included fantastic elements such as aliens in his fiction, and made wonderful stories out of this. I would say that if you are limiting Alternate History by placing artificial restrictions on it, you are limiting yourself to a world view that is too narrow, and not opening yourself up to all of the possibilities that lie in this genre. I'm not going to go so far as to say that all fiction is Alternate History, but I would like to see a wider embrace of supernatural elements within it.

That's our opinion here in the Academy. What do you think? As always, we have the Forum and comments section for you to weigh in on – let us know your definition of Alternate History.

Back to the fiction tomorrow!

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Ryan said...

I tend to see TIAH posts as being part of one of three categories:

First Degree: Entries in this category take a singular event in history and invert the outcome (often humorously), frequently accompanied by some elaboration on the effects of that alternate outcome. This takes some token amount of creativity, and can very entertaining, especially when several variations on one historical event are presented en masse (see April 20 or Nov. 22 for examples). To me, first degree alt-hist is what brings me here. They concurrently tickle my brain and my funny bone.

Second Degree: Here, several historical events must be changed in order to make this entry possible. A time traveler will have a lot of legwork to do to bring this entry about. 2deg posts often invoke familiar names and places that we in this timeline are familiar with. The neo-Nazi timeline is a good example of this, as it involves reversing the outcome of WWII and making time travel a practical reality (other examples are the 1890s Mormon War and the Coming of Estelle in 2003). Some parts of the SSA timeline count as 2deg as well, but that concept in general is more akin to 1deg (the topical reversal of our own reality, Bizarro world-style). While 1deg entries get my attention, 2deg entries will hold it.

Third Degree: This has scant basis in our timeline. Very few historical characters or places are employed in this timeline, and the plot of which is almost completely fabricated from scratch. Although these are the most creative entries, I tend to read around them. They are alternate for sure, but they lack the second criteria for TIAH: historical basis. I encourage the Alternate Historian to keep producing creative fiction like this, but I doubt that TIAH is the proper vehicle for presenting this writing. Imagine the greater attention to detail and artistic language that these timelines could acquire in the more verbose form of a short story!

To me, the best TIAH entries resemble something about our "normal" timeline, yet are a strong departure that they can truly be considered alternate. A good alt-hist entry should be familiar to the reader (either well known history or at least easily researched), but require a few mental exercises about how that alternate history could occur.

Consider the Baron von Heflin timeline. For all we know, this really did happen under our noses. It's not really alternate because it doesn't change our timeline, only expand upon it. Neither is it history, which is something that can be said about the currently-running 2017 storyline; it's not alternate history since there is no history to alter! To be engaging, alternate history must have a mixture of the known and the unknown.

It is purely a matter of personal preference, but I tend to consider supernatural or Earth Meets Aliens plots in fiction to be some of the most cliched creative material out there. It disappoints me to see the intrusion of ghosts, spells, or little green men into historical settings; this is why I'll always prefer Cutthroat Island over Curse of the Black Pearl any day.

Passing thought... What about alternate events from fictional history? Changing the timeline of Star Trek or Seinfeld or the Wizard of Oz? Reversing the outcome of the Khitomer massacre, for example.

Robbie Taylor said...

Wonderful comment, Ryan - let me see if I can put up something as well thought-out :)

Let me start with your last point, first - I love alternate reality stories in established fiction - the Mirror universe in Star Trek, the What If...? comic book series from Marvel, even the Friends episode where they showed alternate friendships. However, the thought of being sued keeps me from posting anything like that here, much as I like that style - although fan fiction sites get away with it, so I might, too. However, I made this site for my original work to appear, so writing fiction set in someone else's world would kind of defeat that purpose.

I think your degrees capture the concept of alternate history very well. I agree that the introduction of supernatural or paranormal elements is a matter of personal preference - I love it, which is why I wanted some comments on other fans of the genre to see how they felt about it. As far as cliched - well, it's said that no plot is original except in the way it's handled by the author, so I would hope that my take on some of these elements rises above the usual. There are a couple of exceptions - the Australian scientists timeline is one cliche after another; I refer to them as my "summer blockbuster" timelines because they are reminiscent of the kind of fare you get in summer movies. To me, these are fun to write because they are kind of campy, and I hope that they're read in the same light.

One more note before I close, just a little rant I can't resist - the 2017 timeline has history to alter. That timeline obviously has a more robust space program than our own reality because there is no way that we could mount a manned mission to a comet with the current lackadaisical attitude the world's major governments exhibit towards space travel.

TIAH Editor says we'd like to move you off the blog, if you're browsing the archives - and most people are - more than half of them are already on the new site. We need to be sure the new web site accomodates your archive browsing needs because we don't want to lose any readers. Please supply any feedback or comments by email to the Editor and please note the blogger site is shutting on December 1st.