Is Alternate History SF?

The nominees for this year’s Sidewise Awards have just been announced. The Sidewise Awards are given every year for the best long and short alternate history story. Looking at the list (with some considerable interest, because my novel Half a Crown is on it) I noticed what very different books these are, and started thinking again about what alternate history is.

The useful Uchronia site says:

Simply stated, an alternate history is the description and/or discussion of an historical “what if” with some speculation about the consequences of a different result.

The first alternate history I read was definitely “Delenda Est” (1955) the concluding story in Poul Anderson’s Guardians of Time. Guardians of Time is about a time patrol. In “Delenda Est” things go wrong and they find themselves in a twentieth century “America” where Lithuania is a great power and the only language they have in common with the locals is ancient Greek. They figure out that something must have gone wrong with Rome and go back and fix it. I don’t think there would be any doubt in anyone’s mind that this story is SF, even without the giant bronze robots fighting in the First Punic War. (Poul Anderson regularly had ideas that anyone else would have milked for a trilogy and threw them in as scenery.) The “what if” is clear—what if Carthage had won the Punic Wars instead of Rome?—and the consequences of a different result are also clear.

This wasn’t the first alternate history ever written, which seems to have been written in the thirties. But it was the first one I read, it was in a science fiction book, and it made a big impression on me. When I grew up I wanted to write things just like it! And I did (only not as good, obviously…) and then I found out that some people don’t think alternate history is science fiction. Well, they do if it has time travellers or aliens messing things up, but not when it’s just a story set in an alternate history like The Explosionist or my Small Change books or The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. So if they’re not SF, what are they?

Generally as far as finding things in the bookshop goes, alternate history is treated as SF if it’s published by SF writers, and as mainstream if by mainstream writers. This isn’t very helpful.

It’s definitely not fantasy by my excellent definition of fantasy—fantasy is about approaching the numinous. I really like this definition.

The argument against counting them as science fiction is that they don’t have any science in them—which actually would exclude quite a bit of science fiction. But conversely they can’t be claimed for SF just because they contain a “what if”—I mean even Trading Places, the world’s most mainstream novel, has “what if two academics on exchange fell in love with each other’s wives?”

So I’m throwing this open as a question—where does alternate history belong, or is there enough of it for it to be considered its own genre?


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