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The purpose of this FAQ is to serve as a general purpose introduction to alternate history. It is mainly intended to answer the questions of people who arrive at the AlternateHistory.com web site. It is intended as a starting point, not an exhaustive reference.
This FAQ may be freely distributed for non-commercial purposes (in other words you can't use it to make money), so long as all of the text is kept intact, including disclaimers, copyright, and credits.
Simply put, alternate history is the exercise of looking at the past and asking “what if”? What if some major historical event had gone differently? How might the world have been changed immediately, and in the long term? Popular “what if” questions include “what if the Nazis had won WW2?” and “what if the South had won the US Civil War?”
To be more precise, alternate history generally exists as works of fiction, either in narrative (story) format or in the form of an essay or other non-narrative work, which have been created at least in part to showcase an imagined world where a change at some point in history led to events that could have happened, but did not happen in the actual past. A work of alternate history may focus on a point in the past, showing a departure from real history occurring, or it may focus on an altered world that resulted from the consequences of a departure long past.
In the vast majority of alternate history scenarios the departure from real history occurred within recorded history, but in some cases it may have been an event in prehistory, even a geological difference. The key point is that alternate histories deal with imagined or hypothetical worlds whose history is the same as our history up to some point, and then changes significantly.
Alternate history is sometimes abbreviated “AH” for short. According to some people “Alternative History” is more grammatically correct, but “Alternate History” is now well established as the common usage. Alternate history scenarios are sometimes colloquially referred to as “what-ifs”, or WIs for short. Other less common names include “counterfactual history” (used mainly by historians), “allohistory”, and “uchronia/uchronie” (used mainly in the French language).
Alternate history stories are usually considered a subgenre of science fiction, which is where you will usually find them in the book store, and there are also often alternate history “crossovers” with fantasy. It is entirely possible and in fact quite common, however, for alternate histories to contain no new science or technology, and no fantastic elements, merely depicting a world where history went differently. A great many alternate history novels and short stories have been written, and some non-narrative books. The existence of the genre goes back over a century, although it has only been in the last few decades that it has really become a significant subgenre of its own.
There is also a thriving community of alternate history fans on the web, with many amateur works of alternate history and active discussion forums. In other media, however, alternate history is relatively rare. It is found occasionally in television, film, comics, and computer games. This is probably both because developing an alternate history in such a way that it is interesting requires a level of background that comes across best with the detail of writing, and because alternate history requires a level of historical knowledge and interest that is not present in enough of the potential mass media audience to justify going to frequent effort to do it well.
Generally, “counterfactual” history has been a fringe pursuit of real historians, sometimes engaged in as a pastime but generally not a part of actual scholarship. This has changed a bit recently, as historians have increasingly recognized that looking at the causes, effects, and importance of real historical phenomena is in a way equivalent to hypothesizing what the effect on history would have been if they had gone differently.
The use of counterfactuals by historians, however, does tend to focus mainly on the short-term impact of changes, especially in particular areas, because those are the sort of things that historians can deal with reliably. Professional historians are trying to make strong cases for their ideas, and so they understandably distrust speculations about the more general and long term effect of changes from real history. Large scale or long term change inevitably involves a huge number of factors, beyond the area of expertise of any one person and even beyond the areas that are typically studied by historians at all. This means that it becomes quite hard to make a strong argument for one effect or another when there is so much uncertainty involved.
Real historians have occasionally engaged in explicit alternate history speculation, even in the long term, but the quality of such speculations is no more consistent than that of the speculations of amateurs. Alternate history from historians ranges from some of the best and most believable out there, to the obviously flawed. Explicitly dealing in counterfactuals is by far the most common among military historians, who often deal in military events that obviously could have gone differently to great short-term impact.
Those who are interested can find arguments for and against the use of counterfactuals by historians in the book History That Never Happened: A Treatise On The Question, What Would Have Happened If–? (Alexander Demandt, 1993). Two books of counterfactuals written by professional historians recently, both of them collections of essays, are Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (ed. Niall Ferguson, 1997) and What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been (ed. Robert Cowley, 1999).
Secret history is the name for stories (or real theories) in which history as we know it is in fact wrong - things went differently in the past, but nobody found out. Basically, history changed but it was kept a secret. Secret history differs fundamentally from alternate history in that alternate history involves a change in the past which leads to a world different from our present. Secret history deals with a change in the past, or a difference between the actual past and history as we know it, that causes no difference by the present because it is (largely or completely) unknown. Secret histories do not really feature alternate worlds at all, and as such they are in fact quite different from alternate histories.
This category is included mainly for completeness. A future history involves how events turn out in the future, perhaps looked back on from a historical perspective or dealt with as a history. Although a future history story may share some of the trappings of an alternate history story, it is fundamentally about things that haven't happened yet, not the question of what the world might have been like if things had gone differently in the past.
Future history is not alternate history, even when multiple alternate possible futures are considered, or someone encounters or creates what is an “alternate history” from the perspective of people in a fictional future (the past to them, still in the future to us). “What if the Federation and the Klingons had nearly destroyed each other in a war” is not an alternate history, even though from the perspective of characters in the fictional Star Trek universe it could be called an alternate history. (This is, it should be noted, the closest thing to alternate history that is usually found in television, film, and comics - alternate versions of the pasts of entirely fictional worlds, often future worlds).
Time travel involves travelling backward, or forward, in time. A time travel story is an alternate history if the time travel in question causes a change in the past, and that change is shown leading to a significantly different world. A lot of time travel stories are alternate histories in a trivial sense in that the consequences of changing the past are briefly shown or mentioned, but the story deals primarily with the time travelling itself. Many other time travel stories involve time travel that all takes place in our future, or time travel to the past which does not lead to a world whose history departs substantially from that of our own. Time travel stories are thus not necessarily alternate history, although there is a fair amount of common ground between the two genres.
Parallel worlds are worlds which have never been the same as our own, just as parallel lines are lines which never meet. In order for a world to have an alternate history relative to our own, its history had to be the same up until a point where it diverged from our own, thus leading its history down a different path. The term “parallel worlds”, in contrast, is properly applied to worlds which have always been different from our own. They may be similar in many ways, but they have never been exactly the same. Typically, parallel worlds are differentiated by differences in the laws of physics (especially by the presence of magic). Such worlds are by definition not alternate histories.
Often, people will voice the opinion that a great many works of fiction written in the past should qualify as alternate histories. This is simply because when the books were written they were set in the present or the future, but by virtue of the passage of time they are set in our past. It is sometimes said that by virtue of showing worlds where things happened in the past that did not happen in our own world, they should be considered alternate histories. In some technical sense this might be true, but it is not a very meaningful one. First, most works of fiction will never be alternate history because they do not deal with events large scale enough to constitute a meaningful change in history, even though the events are set in the past and did not happen. Most fiction written in the past could be considered in the same category as historical fiction written today. It shows historical events that did not happen, but those events are not shown to result in substantial departures from actual history.
Some works, on the other hand, do result in significant changes from real history. The fact that they were not intended to be alternate history, however, leads to some important practical differences between them and real history. Most obviously, the authors knew nothing of the real history they wrote an “alternative” to, because it was still in their future. They lacked the benefit of hindsight and the ability to compare to real history, so their books tend to look more like simple outdated prediction rather than like well constructed alternate history. Outdated fiction might be called alternate history, but if so in the great majority of cases it would be worse alternate history than what is deliberately written as such. Real alternate history also has the benefit of being able to explicitly target and consider differences between the real and alternate worlds, giving the reader a much better sense of “it could have happened that way”.
An abbreviation for “alternate history”.
A “point of divergence”, often abbreviated as POD, is simply the point in an alternate history where it first becomes different from real history. An alternate world matches our world up until the point of divergence, which is when it first becomes different and heads down an alternate historical path. Often in alternate history stories and scenarios, the point of divergence is a single and easily identifiable change and all other differences are intended to flow naturally from it.
A “scenario” is a term commonly used to refer to an imagined history of an alternate world. Since alternate histories are not always narrative fiction like novels or short stories, scenario is a more general term which includes any hypothetical alternate history even if it is told simply as a listing of events, or as a fake history textbook, or as the outline of an idea.
A “timeline”, or TL, as used by alternate history fans has two meanings. The more general meaning is simply a name for any unique path through history. Our history is a timeline (our timeline, or OTL for short), whereas the history of an alternate world is an alternate timeline (ATL). Imagine timelines being lines through a space of all possible histories, with many branches every time a point of divergence occurs, creating multiple timelines where there had previously been a single unified history. The more specific use of “timeline” refers to a format of describing an alternate history - as a chronological sequence of events, usually listed by year.
“Plausibility” is a commonly used term in regard to alternate histories, but somewhat difficult to define. People who use it are generally referring to how believable or likely an alternate history seems. Plausibility is generally meant to refer to a more objective evaluation of how likely and reasonable the events in an alternate history seem to be, rather than being a subjective evaluation of how easy it is to “suspend disbelief” in a well-written story and enjoy it.
A double-blind what if, or DBWI, is mainly seen in online alternate history discussion forums. The person creating the DBWI writes an alternate history scenario as if they themselves were from an alternate history. Thus, there is alternate history not just in the events being described, but in the perspective and assumptions behind them and in the supposed comparisons to “real” history. The most common DBWIs are where people supposedly from a world where event X went differently from our own history, wonder what the world would be like if event X had gone the way we know it really did. This is a particularly common conceit, to the point of cliche, in alternate history fiction. Characters often wonder what it would be like if history had gone differently, but they virtually always imagine the alternative as our own real history rather than any of the many, many other possibilities.
“In the Sea of Time” or ISOT is a term usually used in alternate history discussion groups, especially the newsgroup soc.history.what-if. It originally comes from S.M. Stirling's recent Island in the Sea of Time series, which features the entire island of Nantucket and all its inhabitants being transported thousands of years back in time. ISOT has become a popular term for what happens when an area (as opposed to an individual) is transported back in time with no apparent means of return.
“Alien Space Bats” (ASBs) are a mysterious alien species dreamed up by soc.history.what-if regular Alison Brooks. The ASBs have a peculiar liking for sudden and miraculous interventions in human history. Their original and still primary use is sarcastic - one way to say that a timeline is very implausible is to say that you would need the Alien Space Bats to arrange it. After a while, many posters took to using it as a term for the serious consideration of what would result if impossible or miraculous events did in fact happen (for example, “ASBs give Adolf Hitler a nuclear submarine in 1939, what happens next?”)
By far the most popular sort of alternate history, in general, seems to be one where an underdog or losing side from a historical war wins, and an alternate world results from the change. Direct reversals of the outcome of major historical wars or battles are by far the main source of points of divergence in alternate histories. Also up there in popularity are the failure of major historical powers to fall or radically change at points when they did in real history. Also popular is a variant on one of these two, where a major civilization, religion, culture, or area of the world that was historically an underdog achieves supremacy in the modern world, instead of the western European nations and their colonies.
As for the single most popular period of history for alternate histories to focus on, it is World War II by a large margin. Behind that is the American Civil War (mostly since the US is such a big producer of alternate history - in France, for example, the Napoleonic Wars are a very popular setting). After those come events such as World War I, the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars (mainly the battle of Waterloo), and more recent events such as the assassination of US president Kennedy. The single event in ancient history whose popularity is really noticeable is the fall of the Roman Empire. The exact nature of alternate histories within these genres is predictable - the side that lost, wins (or almost does), in the great majority of cases. A great many other scenarios have been considered in alternate history, but they are relatively rare in a field that is dominated by several major and popular points of historical interest.
No single period of alternate history is really cliched, but for every period there are a few cliches that become very noticeable after reading a lot of alternate history (in some cases, you don't even have to read a lot). There are also a few noteworthy general cliches. Probably the most obvious is “eternal empires” and “world conquest”. Major powers in alternate history stories seem to always change in the direction of becoming larger and longer lived, rather than the other way around. Roman Empires persist to the present day, Nazi Germanies take over not just Europe but the World, Napoleons set up globe-spanning French empires, great monarchies and empires persist long after the historical point where democracy and totalitarianism divided the world, and so on. Alternate history is all too often grandiose rather than subtle.
Some specific events are cliches not just because they are so common, but because they are so fundamentally unlikely and yet far more popular than any of the alternatives anyway. If you got your history by inferring it from alternate history stories, you would come away with a view of a rather odd history. A history where Nazi Germany came within an inch of invading Britain by sea, when in fact they hadn't a prayer of success at it and they knew it. The Confederacy was just a battle or two away from winning the Civil War, despite the overwhelming industrial and numerical superiority of the Union (and Britain and France were just a hair away from entering the war on the Confederacy's side and invading the US, rather than wary of even proposing to possibly mediate between the two sides). Japan or Germany could have conquered the US in 1945, despite its order of magnitude numerical superiority and their complete lack of the capability to actually transport significant troops to it. The Confederacy was quite willing to throw slavery out the window if it won the Civil War, even though its major war aim was the preservation of slavery. Zeppelins, steam cars, Babbage engines, and interplanetary space travel in 1960 were all within our grasp and would have made the world a wonderful place, it just didn't happen in actual history because the world is stupid. If the Roman Empire had managed to resist the barbarians a bit more strongly, it surely would have conquered the world and lasted for millennia. And so on…
As with any genre, alternate history has some books that are generally regarded as the better or major works of the field. Also as with any genre, not everybody shares the opinion of what are the better books. For that reason, consider the following list only a suggestion of some alternate history books that are both better known, and generally regarded as good. For this list I have made no attempt to focus on books that are easily available in stores today, although amazon.com does carry most of them. These books should be of general interest, and this list is not intended to be exhaustive (also note that there are various good collections of alternate history stories and essays which I largely do not mention).
Bring the Jubilee (Ward Moore, 1953) is one of the best known “Confederacy wins the American Civil War” books.
The Domination (S.M. Stirling, 1999) is an omnibus edition of the first three books of his Draka series, which is out of print. Reader opinions on this series seem to vary widely, but it is certainly well known enough to get a mention here.
Down in the Bottomlands (And Other Places) (Harry Turtledove and L. Sprague de Camp, 1999) is a collection of short stories which is often regarded as containing some of Turtledove's best work.
Fatherland (Robert Harris, 1992) is the quintessential novel about life inside a victorious Nazi Germany.
For Want of a Nail (Robert Sobel, 1973) is an alternate history book written as a fake text of the history of a North America where the American Revolution failed. It is incredibly detailed, though a bit dry, and has recently been republished.
The Guns of the South (Harry Turtledove, 1992) involves time travellers who help the Confederacy win the American Civil War.
The Iron Dream (Norman Spinrad, 1972) is famous mostly because it is presented as having been written by an alternate universe version of Adolf Hitler.
Lest Darkness Fall (L. Sprague de Camp, 1949) involves a time traveller who brings modern technology and knowledge to the Roman Empire.
The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick, 1962) is an older, well regarded novel about a timeline where the Axis won the Second World War.
Voyage (Stephen Baxter, 1996) is a very highly regarded novel about an alternate space race, although its narrow focus makes it of most interest to space enthusiasts.
Opinions on what constitutes the best alternate history vary substantially, although most people who like alternate history like many of the “classics” listed in the previous section. It may be helpful to check out the Sidewise Awards at Uchronia, which are an annual award bestowed on the best short story and novel in alternate history (in the opinion of the Sidewise judges). You can see not only the previous winners, but the various nominees as well.
Recently, the most popular alternate history books have been series from authors S.M. Stirling and Harry Turtledove. Turtledove is easily the single most prolific alternate history author around, and his Worldwar and Great War series have sold well. Stirling's recent Island in the Sea of Time trilogy was also very well received. Nearly a decade ago, Robert Harris' novel Fatherland broke into the mainstream, got on the New York Times best seller list, and even had a movie of the same name based on it. Since there are actually not very many authors who spend much of their time writing alternate history, the list of popular books these days basically matches the output of the most popular and prolific authors whom I just listed.
A list of many to-be-published alternate history books can be found in the “To Be Published” section at the Uchronia web site (see “Where Can I Find Alternate History Books?” below).
Without a doubt, the best place to find listings of alternate history books is Uchronia. This site contains a searchable database of the great majority of alternate history books and stories ever written, complete with relevant publication data and often cover art and synopses. There are a great many search options, including listing by the date of the point of divergence. Uchronia is a more complete reference than you will find anywhere else. It does lack reviews, and unfortunately there is no web site or publication with a really comprehensive set of AH book reviews. However, the amazon.com site does, as usual, have not only the most extensive collection of AH books around but also customer reviews and various ways to search for popular alternate history books.
There are many different alternate history discussion forums available, but most are fairly small. By far the largest is AlternateHistory.com. The usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if has/had a very large archive of posts going back over a decade, but its activity level has dropped substantially as usenet loses popularity.
There is currently no comprehensive listing of alternate history web sites. Partial lists can be found in the wikipedia article and in the Google Directory. Web sites with many detailed scenarios include the AlternateHistory.com Timelines and Scenarios forum and Changing the Times.
Alternate history as defined at the start of this FAQ is relatively rare in media other than books (and of course the web). Most “alternate history” in other media is best called alternate fiction or alternate futures - it depicts what are alternate histories from the perspectives of fictional characters involved, but not from our perspective in the present. Examples of this are the many alternate timelines featured in the popular television series Star Trek, virtually all of which involve points of divergence which are well in the future. Comic books also frequently feature alternate versions of their own fictional timelines.
The one major exception to this trend was the television show Sliders, which was based around travel to alternate and parallel worlds. There have also been a few alternate history movies, such as the film version of the best-selling novel Fatherland, some true alternate history comics such as Captain Confederacy. In the venue of computer and video games, explicit alternate history is rare, but can be found as part of the backstory of games including Red Alert and Crimson Skies. Many computer games allow you to refight historical battles or control historical civilizations (such as the popular Civilization games), although this is usually at a very abstract level.
For those wishing to role-play alternate history, detailed and comprehensive alternate history roleplaying sourcebooks are available for the GURPS role playing system. GURPS: Alternate Earths and GURPS: Alternate Earths 2 each contain six detailed alternate worlds, plus tips and rules for alternate history role playing (the main GURPS books are also required if you wish to use the GURPS role-playing system itself).
There are several sources of specific help for aspiring alternate history authors. Amateur authors seeking to have stories put on the web for free mght try Changing the Times, an alternate history ezine. An excellent resource for authors aiming at professional, in-print publication is the zine Point of Divergence, an APA (Amateur Publishing Association) that functions as a sort of writer's workshop by mail. POD (for short) is a private member-published magazine that has been around for many years, putting out an issue every two months (normally with hundreds of pages of content each). It is not available to subscription, only to contributing members, of which there are normally about two dozen. It functions as a writers workshop in that members can critique each others' stories, discuss general alternate history issues, and share their experiences with each other.
Writing a plausible alternate history is not easy, and a how-to guide for it is not really within the scope of a document such as this FAQ. There are a great many useful resources out there, and rather than pointing to specific ones I will say that you will encounter plenty of useful ideas if you check out the discussion forums, and the web sites listed on AlternateHistory.com. Writing a plausible alternate history takes experience, and one of the better sources of that is reading other alternate histories and other peoples' ideas. Reading a bunch of them, not just a few documents that claim to have magic bullet answers.
The single best approach is to try coming up with some scenarios and getting feedback on them from those with more experience, or taking part in critiques of the scenarios of others. The discussion forums offer this. Another good reason to check out as much of alternate history itself as you can is that to write a good alternate history, you not only need people to believe it, you need people to be interested in it. A great way to get people interested is to write something original, and it is easier to be original when you are familiar with what has been done before. Of course, it is also true that a great way to write something good is to avoid the worst mistakes, which you can become familiar with by seeing other people making them.
Beyond that, writing a good alternate history requires knowledge, consideration, and an idea of how to get from points A to B to C in a developing scenario. Knowledge means research - read some history books on the period you're interested in. Not only is this information vital to making a scenario that knowledgeable people will believe, it will also suggest ideas and facts which will help you to fill in the gaps and come up with more interesting events. Consideration requires thinking about causes and effects - writing alternate history does require some thought, and you should reflect and re-evaluate what you are writing rather than just spewing out a timeline that seems decent and considering it done. Think about the events you are writing about, and ask yourself how things could go differently in each case, and how they might affect some other event you're writing about.
Getting from A to C requires having some idea of the general direction you think your alternate history should be going in - so that you can catch yourself if you try to butcher history with a dull knife to get there. It can be tempting to come up with a point of divergence and an end result you want, and just try to fill in the gaps from there. The connect the dots approach to alternate history, however, has a problem - it tends to lead people to repeatedly “twist” events in favor of where they want them to go, at many different points in their alternate history scenario. Before long, though, the reader starts to catch on to the fact that “God” (the author) has definitely taken sides. When that happens, they are going to have real trouble suspending their disbelief.
There are two main ways to resist this problem. First, be willing to consider many different points of divergence if you have a certain sort of end result in mind. You may be able to get the results you want as fairly straightforward effects of one or a few big changes, rather than many many small shoves. Second, don't become too attached to a particular result. If a particular event looks really unlikely but also necessary to get where you want to go, consider where the likely course will lead. It may not be somewhere you expect. Some of the most interesting alternate history scenarios out there have been produced by people who took a few historical “turns” because they seemed sensible consequences of (alternate) past events, rather than because they wanted to turn a particular way, and who thus ended up in a surprising and interesting place. Sometimes a relatively “blind” process of reasoning from a few changes can be more creative than the list of destinations that are though of in advance.