Genrely Speaking: Alternate History

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking! Unless, of course, this is your first encounter with this running gag feature, in which case welcome! Genrely Speaking is where we look at genres, those loosely defined groups of literature that, in theory, frame any discussion about fiction we care to have. Since it’s important to understand what is meant by any given genre – or more specifically what any given person means when they talk about a genre – I’ve taken it upon myself to go through most of the genres I read and talk about and define them for your convenience!

Today’s subject is alternate history (or Harry Turtledove) a genre that skirts around scifi territory but really isn’t. While both are, in one way or another, about human ideas, alternate history does its best to stay within the bounds of, y’know, historical events. You can tell you’re dealing with historical fiction if the following things are present:

  1. A framework of familiar history. While some works of historical fiction can wind up very, very far afield (coughHarryTurtledovecough) they almost always begin with a distinct jumping off point, a moment in history that readers will already be familiar with or can become familiar with in fairly short order. For example, the novel Days of Infamy begins with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, while Guns of the South begins in 1864, just as the Confederacy’s decline began to pick up speed.
  2. One huge difference. This is the alternate part. In order to be alternate history, something must be different from what we knew. Some writers will try and find the smallest possible thing they can change and still make an interesting story but usually it’s pretty big. In Days of Infamy the Japanese follow up the bombing of Pearl Harbor with an invasion of Hawaii. Guns of the South tells how Robert E. Lee actually manages to win the war.
  3. A careful and thoughtful examination of what might actually result if these things had been changed. Some of these can grow to absurd lengths. The complete breakdown of Guns of the South ran through four books, including the original, at a minimum. I haven’t read all of them, trying to hunt down all of Harry Turtledove’s work is an mammoth task.

What are the weaknesses of alternate history? There’s a lot of them. It can come off as dry, particularly if the author is trying to run down and explore all or just most of the fallout of whatever his big idea is. Like many scifi or scifi related genres, alternate history is in danger of drowning under the weight of its own ideas. It shows how invested the author is in his story but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s well told.

Worse, it can drown in its own scope and size. Alternate history authors tend to look at the big and the bold, not the small and the mundane. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that once you change one thing about history the changes snowball until your reader can feel lost and confused. Particularly since people who read this genre tend to be familiar with history already… and thus the new details can get mixed up with the old.

Finally, you see a lot of historical figures creep up in alternate history. Which is fine, but if not meticulously researched and carefully done they can come of not feeling quite right, or worse like a caricature of themselves rather than a real person. Granted, that’s all you can really get from reading a book – but the audience shouldn’t feel like that while they’re reading the book

What are the strengths of alternate history? Well for starters “what if” is one of the most basic questions of human existence, right up there with “why”, and everyone likes to try and answer it. Furthermore, “what if such-and-such had happened” is one of the most common forms of that question, whether it’s in regard to something stupid we’ve done or something stupid someone else has done. So obviously stories that revolve around  just that question are going to interest us.

Secondly, there’s a lot of room for controversy in how a person chooses to answer that question. The people who read a lot of alternate history are also the type of people to have reams of facts to draw on to test the author’s conclusions and will get a kick out of doing it. And then getting on the Internet and rehashing it with everyone they know and thousands of people they don’t. And they will do this at length and in excruciating detail.

While some of them may need a job, a girlfriend or some other aspect of a life they are lacking, they are an impassion fanbase and there’s nothing that will propel the growth and maturation of a genre like an enthusiastic group of people telling you what you did right and what you did wrong (but mostly the latter.)

Alternate history, like many scifi based or scifi related genres, is still young. But it’s also rapidly expanding its appeal and maturing. Sure, sometimes the plots are flat or unbelievable but scifi was the same way a hundred years ago and now… well, now its at least not as bad as it was.

Alternate history is a genre to watch, not only because its fun and interesting, not only because it’s changing from a genre just starting out to a genre that is starting to demand a place of its own in literary circles, but because reading it makes people more interested in real history, and trying to figure out the details of what they just read. What was based on real history? What did the author make up? To answer those questions they’ll learn more about their own past and that can’t possibly be a bad thing.