May 11 2009 6:38pm

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?

1. GoblinRevolution
No, Alternate History is not S/F, unless of course, the Alternate History takes place in an S/Fnal frame. At best, Alternate History should be considered fantasy, at worst given its own sub-sub-sub-genre. Quite frankly, I am tired to death of the endless Turtledove et al novels, and for once would like to see an alternate history whose point of departure isn't a war, a battle, or political.
With all of history to play with, why not choose something obscure and see how that might have made everything different. Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Years of Rice and Salt" would be a good example if the plot had been half as interesting as the concept.
Bruce Baugh
2. BruceB
Yes, alternate history is sf. I believe it was Damon Knight who described as sf as appealing to the authority of science to justify its imaginary worlds, as opposed to needing to have any real scientific content. Any bar about scientific content will be too high for a lot of the works that are going to be in any sane description of the field.

The science in alternate history is social science, broadly speaking: the belief that people have minds we can understand, and that they behave in ways we can analyze when faced with changing circumstances, and for that matter that changing environments produce...not uniquely "correct" sets of diverging responses, but that there are sensible ties between what happens when the world goes this way and how people go that way.

It's not rigorous, but then it's not outright bogus the way a lot of physical science is in sf, either.
3. Stella Omega
Writers sometimes argue that there is a science involved in these what-ifs-- sociology.

Myself, I like to call them 'speculative Fiction.'
Bruce Baugh
4. BruceB
Speculative fiction works fine for me, too. I'm one of those people often willing to point at several different taxonomies and say "I like 'em all, I'll make stew."
5. Betsybookworm
I'd also call it part of speculative fiction, just like sci-fi and fantasy. Speculative fiction is a pretty broad umbrella, but it makes a lot of sense (and it's not exactly the only broad umbrella in genre definition, either).

I agree with BruceB in that there's often a lot of social science involved in alternate history. Sometimes alternate histories can be fairly analytical about it, too. But not all. And some sci-fi is largely about social science as well.
Andrew Gray
6. madogvelkor
There's a broad enough body of work in Alternate History that I think it needs to be considered it's own genre at this point.

As mentioned above, there are plenty of cases where it's SciFi -- it has clear elements of that genre. But there are cases where it's also mystery/crime such as the Yiddish Policeman's Union. Or Fantasy, such as the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card.

You could probably subdivide it further into the origin of the alternate world -- Time Travel as in "Delenda Est", multiple worlds as in Stross's "Merchant Princes" series, non-human intervention as in Stirling's "Lords of Creation", or unexplained as in "Ruled Britannia".
walter tingle
7. wjtingle
If by SF you mean science fiction, I vote no. I agree alt.hist is part of sf, speculative fiction. It's not clearly fantasy, other than that all fiction is a fantasy. It should probably be its own sub-genre of sf along with sci-fi, fantasy, and 'other'.

Jack Tingle
Tex Anne
8. TexAnne
Oh my *god* I want to translate that Napoleon one. Oh. My. God.
9. Stella Omega
@7, you probably define science fiction along narrow lines-- as do I. But I've come to realise that much sci-fi could actually be called "tech fic" because very little of it actually deals with science(being a method of learning about our world) and most of it deals with technology-- the fruits of science-- and the things that happen with it.
Bruce Baugh
10. BruceB
"Tech fic" is a neat category!

TexAnna, get it translated and I'll buy it.
Tex Anne
11. TexAnne
Bruce, I'm not going to do it for free. Those guys were loquacious. But it's in the public domain--if any publishers are reading this, I invite you to begin a bidding war!
King Rat
12. kingrat
I wouldn't call it science fiction generally. I would definitely call it speculative fiction. But if you want to call it science fiction, go ahead. I don't think it's worthwhile to get into religious labeling wars. Whatever floats each person's boat. There's no Science Fiction Police or Board of Science Fiction Standardization.
Clark Myers
13. ClarkEMyers
I think it has to be all SF else the story overtaken by events has to be reshelved recataloged Dr. Pournelle now refers to his CoDominium stories as alt history but once upon a time he didn't and they weren't.

Many stories are written with SF handwaving to allow a variation of game playing or playing out a scenario - Lord Kalvan/Gun Powder God but then again Dr. Pounelle's Jannisaries series for all it's SF handwaving is a variation on game playing. That is: setting different forces out of the dungeon master's book against each other.

Peter Dickinson is properly listed on Uchronia and shown with a date of divergence but I'd look for his books first in mystery not in SF - though there have been any number of bookstores like the lamented Science Fiction and Mystery Book Store in Atlanta that combined the two - if they be two - genres.

Then too like the mystery which has had suggested rules of fairness so to the alternate history has had rules of being alternate - deriving from a point of change and following logically from that change - and stories that IMHO could never have followed logically from any simple change and have either the author or the alien space bats to credit for the state of the world at the time of the story. Do I separate those out or lump them with SF?
Caoimhe Ora Snow
14. keeva
What if it's fantasy and not SF?

What if it's "historical fiction" and not SF?

Are all historical fiction novels necessarily alternate universe stories?

What if there are MAMMOTHS?
15. isingbass
Alternate History is as much SciFi as Fantasy is SciFi. It takes something that will NEVER happen, something that takes imagination to enjoy, and puts it on paper. I am not a big Fantasy fan, but I do not deny its place in SciFi. I challenge this same discussion in reference to that realm.
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16. heresiarch
I think the people who point out the importance of social science in alternate history are onto something important--we tend to view Science as mostly being about physics, biology, chemistry and the other hard sciences, but the social sciences can provide us with interesting SF too.

Beyond the role of social science, I'd say that alt-hist is very sfnal in that it adresses the same question as most SF does: how does technology affect humanity? By playing around with what gets invented when--gunpowder in the BCs! hot air balloons in the Middle Ages!--alt-hist tests the relationships between social structure and technology.

But then, I always argue for maximalist definitions of SF.
Avram Grumer
17. avram
Alternate history and SF are both rigorously speculative in a way that fantasy rarely is (and the mushier kinds of SF aren't, either). When done well, they can both provide a particular intellectual tingle, the recognition of a familiar thing made strange.

It occurred to me while reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union that the perfect combination of alternate history and mystery (which would inevitably get tagged "alternate mystery") would be a book where the divergence point was hidden from the reader for most of the story, with its revelation being entangled with the solving of the crime.
18. O.G.N
AH is often considered Science Fiction, but only because many early AH stories involved SF elements like time machines. One can easily image a timeline where AH is often considered Fantasy because a lot of early AH stories involved time traveling sorcerers.

I think that AH should probably be considered a separate genre, equal to Science Fiction and Fantasy, under the banner of Speculative Fiction.
Marissa Lingen
20. Mris
@1, Goblin Revolution asks, "With all of history to play with, why not choose something obscure and see how that might have made everything different."

From a writer's perspective, I can tell you: I know all sorts of wonderful tidbits of Finnish history, and they very easily could have shifted things over much of their region, continent, or world if they'd come out differently. But it's a lot harder to write an alternate history when people don't know how the real alternative actually went. Even with major historical events that are widely known in the dominant culture you're writing for, such as the ones Jo used in the Small Change trilogy, you will run into a portion of the readership that cannot identify why it's alternate and so miss a great deal of what's going on. Then they complain about it later, either because they have caught one thing as an authorial "mistake" or because they don't see the point. The more obscure a point of history you pick to change, the harder this is to get across.

Doesn't mean it's not worth doing if you can do an interesting job of it. Obviously not every story is for every reader. But if you're alienating intelligent and patient readers who simply don't happen to have the background in the same obscure bits of history as you do, it's a lot harder to think that's as worthwhile as doing something else where you can convey the point of change quickly (and ideally subtly) and move on to why the story is interesting.
21. Brian2
There's disagreement, going back decades, about whether to speak of "alternate" history or "alternative" history. By one argument, "alternate" basically has a binary sense -- you switch between A and B -- and in this context is a tone-deaf replacement for "alternative." Not a huge issue, in any case.
CD Covington
22. ccovington
Mris, I'm hitting that wall myself. I'm working on an alternate early 20th century Germany, as a backstory for my long-timeline space opera, and I'm finding that among my friends (college-educated, mostly SF nerds), knowledge of German history in 1900 is, uh, minimal at best. (I took a poll in my LJ. It was enlightening.)

Do you mind if I contact you privately about Finnish history? It is relevant to my interests (and timeline.)

I also think AH is in the spec fic umbrella. Social science is still science. Though I like war stories and political stories, so that's the part I geek about.
23. Mr Wesley
"With all of history to play with, why not choose something obscure and see how that might have made everything different."

I'll add to what Covington said above. One one hand, AH uses well-known points of history because they're well-known. In the Civil War, you know who the sides are. In the Second World War, you know who the sides are: Nazis, Allies. Done. When I read AH, I don't want to have to spend the first half of the book learning what the original timeline was in order to understand where it diverges and why that's important.

On the other hand, nobody cares about the small stuff. I'm sure someone could write a well-crafted story about some treaty in feudal Japan going a different way, but I don't read Sci-fi, fantasy, alternate history, or what-have-you because I want a quiet historical drama. I read fantasy for adventure, I read sci-fi for the examination of concepts (and adventure, I admit). And I read alternate history because it's got a good mix of both.
24. GoblinRevolution
@Covington and Wesley

The departure point need not be obscure. It could be Robinson's Black Death in "The Years of Rice and Salt", or it could be Marco Polo dying on his first expedition to China. You don't have to search out the most obscure historical events to build an alternate history. The divergence doesn't have to be important either. It can most certainly be beside the point. The story does not always require the "event" be something world shaking or even explicated in an infodump. The story, you know, could be about people and not events. Besides, if an alternate history is built carefully and intelligently enough, then the reader does not need to "spend the first half of the book learning what the original timeline was". That information will either reveal itself through the plot and characterization or clever asides that the author can work in if they are skillful enough.

Furthermore, the choices that most alternate history authors have made reveal a distinct cultural bias. Do you think that the United States is the only country that has had a civil war? What ever happened to expanding your horizons and learning something? Alternate history could be a powerful tool for teaching if it wasn't stuck in the ghetto of WWII and the US Civil War.

Authors like Turtledove, while popularizing alternate history as a sub-genre, have also done it a great disservice by catering to people whose grasp of history does not extend past the US Civil War and World War Two.

Ultimately, most alternate history is boring. It adds nothing new. Walton's trilogy is interesting because it is about people, not about some gedankenexperiment about a re-hashed battle in some idiotic war. Walton neither has nor requires lengthy infodumps on the divergence, or why its important, and it is not because she is writing about the mid-20th century. It is because, ultimately, the Fascist Cold War doesn't matter; her characters do.

Try something new, something innovative. But of course new and innovative do not sell to the lowest common denominator.
25. firkin
but why should changing something "small" or "obscure" only lead to small changes? sure, in major wars you know who the sides are and it may be easier to extrapolate how things might have gone differently if the south won, or communicate to the reader that that's the POD. otoh, why would "some treaty in feudal Japan going a different way" necessarily lead to "a quiet historical drama"? why couldn't it lead to japan colonizing north america, or developing computers in the 18th century, or something?

for me, this is what could be really cool about alternate history and branching multiverses: that the smallest, most potentially trivial detail could actually lead to major, very interesting changes.

(and on preview, what GoblinRevolution said, much better.)
26. Steven Rogers
I read the first book of Turtledove's Alternate First World war series and rather liked it. I stopped there, because it was clear that the series would focus only on the North American theater. It was a World War goddammit! I was deeply, deeply disappointed. There were throw-away lines about what was happening elsewhere, but that was about it. One line in particular referred to operations in the Atlantic ocean as a "giant cavalry campaign at sea". Turtledove didn't think that would be interesting to people? Jesus H. Christ!
27. Mr Wesley

I understand the cultural bias, but on the other hand, even your examples pivot on Europeans and how European culture affected other areas of the world.

It kinda reminds me of what I think when I hear comments like, "Why don't we have more African science fiction?" And that's because, for better or worse, we're not in Africa, and American readers (myself included) and editors prefer to read stories that are easier to identify with by having a more American mindset than another cultures.

I think it's the same thing with AH. I'd rather read historical fiction, AH or not, that deal with the American Civil War, WWI & II or the American Revolution over the Bolshevik Revolution or the Java War. And I don't think that that's bad, necessarily. I don't feel those are less important, just that I'm more interested in the conflicts that have affected me personally.
28. Mr Wesley

You're right about small divergence leading to major changes, of course. But I was responding to GoblinRevolution's first post. I thought the poster was implying that Turtledove's novels are bad because they all (or mostly) deal with wars.

Now, I haven't read all Turtledove's novels (which I'm not even sure is possible with the speen he cranks them out), but of the six or so that I've read, the stories are less about the conflicts the characters are in than how those conflicts affect the characters. His current Atlantis series is the best example I have of this.
29. GoblinRevolution
@ Wesley

Sorry for the misconception about Turtledove (although I still don't like his work, especially his characters which are about as three dimensional as a sheet of paper). I was not saying that his books are bad because they are only about war, I was merely using him as an example of the overwhelming presence of war and politics as the basis for alternate history. There are so many other things that could be written about, but these are the only ones we see on the shelves. Time for something new. I am bored to death of it. (and the Black Death killed more than just Europeans, btw, but you probably already knew that). Alternative History as a sub-genre could be so much more, but it isn't, and that is a pity.

Yes, the current crop of American speculative fiction is being marketed to Americans and so we see little of the literature from other countries and cultures. This, again, is a bias almost limited to the American market. I have the luxury of being able to buy a lot of British and European SF (by virtue of living in Canada) and while there is some cultural bias there, it is neither as prominent nor as profound as that in American SF. The Europeans seem to have a much more global viewpoint. Works like MacDonalds' "Cyberidad Days" and his future Brasil stories are an excellent example.
CD Covington
30. ccovington
@firkin: Is Kaiser Friedrich III not dying of throat cancer 99 days into his reign obscure enough for you? ;) He was a much more liberal man than his son, Wilhelm II, and less prone to starting wars.

I haven't read any of the Turtledove, because its subject matter doesn't appeal to me. When I have time to read fiction again, I might borrow one from the library.
31. Andrew Wheeler
"Is Alternate History SF?"

Well, some of it is. Some of it is fantasy. Some of it is neither. A few things -- such as Robert Sobel's amazing For Want of A Nail -- are more like non-fiction than anything else. But I wouldn't agree that the mere fact of having an alternate-historical premise makes a story science fiction any more than having a dead body makes a story a mystery.

Alternate History by SF writers tends to have science fictional premises and furniture, and a lot of SF writers wrote quite a bit of AH for SF magazines and publishers over the past seventy years. So those stories are both AH and SF, but that doesn't mean the two types of stories are irrevocably welded together at the hip.

There's fantasy AH as well, such as Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" novels. And AH novels from mainstream writers, like Robert Harris's Fatherland, tend to use the AH purely as a background for telling other kinds of stories. Alternate History, as an idea, arose separately in several different areas, and so can't really be defined as absolutely one single thing -- it's an inclusive tag rather than an exclusive category. (But I think most genres -- mystery, fantasy, romance -- are inclusive rather than exclusive at this level of discussion. Nothing stops a novel from being an alternate-historical romantic fantasy mystery, after all.)

Here's my tongue-in-cheek litmus test: if an alt-hist story has a dirigible in it, it's SF. If it has dragons, it's fantasy. If it has dour policemen, it's mainstream.
32. vcmw
My impression is that when you want to change something that is more cultural than political, or if you want to make a host of small changes and then really look at the effects of those changes, it is easier to label your story world as just a fantasy world (secondary world? I get the terminology muddled) and let it show that it's closely modeled on some real world place than to write an explicitly alternate history.

Then people who know the history of your area well will appreciate and note the parallels, while people who do not will accept the generated version whole cloth as a not-here world and move along with the story.

As to why there isn't more alternate history set outside of North America / Western Europe and written by United States authors, well, I think it has to do with how hard it is to get good histories of other countries and regions in English, published in the United States, that offer the range/scope/analysis necessary for tightly constructed alternate histories. If you're not tied in to the academic world closely, or a very passionate specialist, figuring out good major works to read is hard. The specialist niche works that will give you individual pieces of the history puzzle are easier to find, but harder to understand well enough to use absent those large-scale works.

I think the same difficulty of finding the works (and the time to read them) informs why alternate histories are usually fairly limited in the geographic scope they cover - to write a detailed alternate history that involved several instigating events across multiple countries and then to show the effects across those countries would just take ludicrous amounts of study and analysis. Huge. Tens of thousands of pages of research, and hundreds of pages of notes, I'd think.
33. GoblinRevolution
@ Andrew Wheeler

What an excellent explication of the issue. Well done.


There is the internet ;) However, if an author is serious about writing a believable alternate history, they had bloody well have done the research. Historical research materials are not that hard to find, and narrowing them down to generalist texts is fairly straight forward. Anyone who has spent any time in well stocked university library should be able to walk away with good starting materials in a few hours. Then bibliographies of those lead to more and more specialist texts on the particular subjects you would want to use.

Saying that writers cannot find enough historical information or the kind they need is not an excuse for turning out the same sorts of alternate histories again and again. Sure, if you do all of your research in your local big-box bookstore's history section you might have a hard time, but what writer worth their ink does their research in a bookstore?
34. YetiStomper
In the future, will people look back on classic science fiction as alternate history?

Doesn't alternate history, like science fiction, try to speculate the future, only from a different point of origin?
Scott Sherris
35. ssherris
Maybe, to YetiStomper's point, it would be more fair to classify all Science Fiction as Alternate History.

All SF requires a divergence from reality as we know it. No matter how short a time a story looks into the future, it won't converge exactly with our reality of that future. Therefore any future fiction is alternate history - just one that hasn't occurred yet.

So if science fiction is a subset of alternate history, does that make alternate history the largest and most underappreciated genre of literature?
Stephen Covey
36. coveysd
I don't have anything significant to add, other than my opinion.

GoblinRevolution, avram, and Andrew Wheeler covered all of the important points I came up with, and I agree with them all.

My vote is that alternate history is not Science Fiction. It is only rarely fantasy, and should generally be called speculative fiction.

My preferred definitions are:
Science Fiction is about what might be.
Speculative Fiction is about what could have been.
Fantasy is about what could never be or have been.

As an example (one out of a hundred I've thought of): a vampire story could be set up as science fiction or speculative fiction, as long as there are no pure fantasy elements such as shapeshifting a 200 pound vampire into an 8 ounce bat. What happened to conservation of mass/energy?
37. Stella Omega

Speaking for myself, I already do! Nostradamus-- speculative fiction about an alternate universe (or political criticism, carefully disguised).
Orwells' 1984, Prince's song 1999, 2001 Space odyssey-- alternate histories, all of them. The whole of the current Steampunk school, which includes plenty of hardware...

Seems to me, I read a short story about someone falling into the alternate universe where the tall, clean, Moderne architecture and wide roads, great zeppelins piloted by jumpsuit-wearing citizens of those 1940's illustrations had come to pass... Quite fun!
René Walling
38. cybernetic_nomad
@37: Sounds like The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson
40. MarcL
No, it is not.
Clifton Royston
41. CliftonR
I have no definition to offer (though I tend to think of it as SF) but perhaps a thought to spark some further thoughts:

If we take the central point of all alternative histories as a "What if X had happened otherwise?", perhaps all "what if"s are not equal.

In Hofstadter's lovely Godel, Escher, Bach, he devotes one of his dialogs and the better part of a chapter to considering hypotheticals, and how we can evaluate one hypothetical as more far-fetched than another. (I don't have access to it at present, so forgive the paraphrase.) He poses the question: Suppose you're driving in your car on a summer day, with the windows slightly open, and pass through a swarm of bees flying across the road, and have to shoo one out of the car. You might think "Good thing the windows weren't completely open!" or "Too bad I hadn't come by a minute or two later!" or "Wish I'd had the windows completely closed!" or "Good thing it didn't sting me!"

Much less likely: "Good thing those bees weren't a deer!" Even less likely: "Too bad those bees weren't made of solid gold!" Less likely still: "Good thing that I'm not those bees and the bees aren't me!" or "Good thing those bees couldn't enter my car through the fourth dimension!"

All of these hypotheticals are of course equal in that they're wrong, so how is it we consider some more plausible and others ludicrous?

The difference in classification of alternative histories as mundane, science-fictional, or fantastic is perhaps a related question: just how plausible, improbable, or outre is the counterfactual "what if" that it poses?
42. Stella Omega
@38, that's the one, thank you :)
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43. heresiarch
Avram @ 17: "It occurred to me while reading The Yiddish Policemen's Union that the perfect combination of alternate history and mystery (which would inevitably get tagged "alternate mystery") would be a book where the divergence point was hidden from the reader for most of the story, with its revelation being entangled with the solving of the crime."

You mean like Oliver Stone's JFK?

(And I vote for alt-hist-myst myself--genre abbreviations should be rendered as excruciating as possible.)

GoblinRevolution @ 24: "Walton neither has nor requires lengthy infodumps on the divergence, or why its important, and it is not because she is writing about the mid-20th century."

That's untrue for at least this story. A huge chunk of it is info-dump, and the infodump is essential to creating the atmosphere and setting up the climax.

I feel the larger point you're arguing for is also flawed: the alternate-ness of the universe does matter. It has to matter, or otherwise why bother creating an entire alternate history at all? It'd be like those irritating urban fantasy novels where there are goblins and elves under every rock and none of them affect a damn thing.* Either the divergences matter, or you're just putting propellors on beanies.

*Exceptions to every rule, of course: Pan's Labyrinth is fantastic in every sense of the word.

Andrew Wheeler @ 31: "There's fantasy AH as well, such as Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" novels."

I feel like this is an example that works against your argument: dragons or no, the logical, step by step extrapolation from the divergence point feels very sfnal to me. Spoiler ROT-13: Gur pyvznk bs gur frevrf vf jura gur Oevgvfu ner sbeprq gb pbasebag naq npprcg gur zvyvgnel naq zbeny vzcyvpngvbaf bs qentba fragvrapr naq gur punatrf vg jvyy ragnvy. How some new discovery or invention rocks society is one of the classic sf plots.

I really like the point that YetiStomper made--the only difference between alternate history novels written about the 20th century now and sf written about the 20th century in the 19th is publication date.
44. Steven Rogers

Interesting. Do the opponents get in trouble because they do not do that?
45. GoblinRevolution

I was speaking specifically about the Small Change trilogy that some one had used in their argument above, The story you linked to is entirely *about* the point of divergence and so is really nothing more than an infodump.I still maintain that a well constructed alternate history does not need someone to come through and explain everything about the divergence.

My main argument is not that the alternate-ness of the universe does not matter, it is that the point of divergence does not need to be based on something that absolutely everyone knows about, like WWII. Not to sound snarky, but I don't think you read my entire argument.

Besides, a true alternate history would not be so divergent from our own that it is unrecognizable. Turtledove's new Atlantis books, for example, are not alternate history, they are fantasy. We know that Atlantis isn't real, and it was known by the time period Turtledove is using. Jo Walton's Small Change falls directly into alternate history; it is close enough to our own world to count as "could have been". A truce between Great Britain and Nazi Germany was entirely possible at one point.

In response to the "step by step extrapolation" feeling s/fnal comment you directed at Mr. Wheeler: Just because something is explicitly laid out for the reader in easy to digest steps with rigorous logic doesn't make it science fiction. If that were the case, there are several fantasy books that would be science fiction as well like Lyndon's "Master of Five Magicks" (at least I think it is Lyndon) where his magic system is dissected with all the skill of a medical examiner. Yet it is clearly fantasy.
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46. heresiarch
Steven Rogers @ 44: I'm confused. What are you talking about?

GoblinRevolution @ 45: "My main argument is not that the alternate-ness of the universe does not matter, it is that the point of divergence does not need to be based on something that absolutely everyone knows about, like WWII."

And I agree with that point. Nonetheless, in your post you wrote "{the divergence} can most certainly be beside the point," "it is about people, not about some gedankenexperiment," and "the Fascist Cold War doesn't matter; her characters do." The second two quotes are specifically about the Small Change series, but the first is a general point about alt-hist as a whole. You can't claim that argument isn't there in your post.

"It's not about X, it's about people!" is a false dichotomy--most great SF (and by extension, alt-hist) is about people AND something else too. Take "Escape to Other Worlds" as an example. Describing it as "nothing more than an infodump" is missing a whole lot: it's also about the relationship between paranoia and economic uncertainty, scapegoating and authoritarianism. More relevantly, it's about how all those things are affecting Linda Evans, her sister, and the Bundts. You know, people.

"Besides, a true alternate history would not be so divergent from our own that it is unrecognizable. "

What about an alternate history where there aren't any domesticable grains in the Eurasian continent?

"If that were the case, there are several fantasy books that would be science fiction as well like Lyndon's "Master of Five Magicks" (at least I think it is Lyndon) where his magic system is dissected with all the skill of a medical examiner. Yet it is clearly fantasy."

Having not read them I can't speak to Lyndon's works, but there are a number of arguably fantasy novels for which I think it's quite rewarding to examine them from within the sf tradition: Mieville's Bas Lag books, the afore-mentioned Temeraire series, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, etc. Fantasy isn't fantasy just because it's got dragons in it--there's more to it than that. Conversely, just because it's got dragons in it doesn't necessarily mean it's fantasy.
47. Steven rogers

Sorry. ROt-13: Qvq gur serapu trg vagb gebhoyr orpnhfr gurl qvq abg znxr gur fnzr ernyvmngvba?
Marissa Lingen
48. Mris
ccovington, sorry to take so long to get back to you. Please do contact me if you want to talk Finnish history. My gmail address is marissalingen.
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49. heresiarch
Steven Rogers @ 47: Oh, I see. Ab, gur Serapu ernyvmr vg svefg, hfr gurve vafvtug gb pbadhre zbfg bs Rhebcr nurnq bs fpurqhyr naq vainqr Ratynaq, gurerol sbepvat Ratynaq gb zngpu fhvg. Gur Serapu, ogj, tbg vg sebz gur Puvarfr.
50. EmmetAOBrien
Andrew@31: All alternate histories contain airships. They are the decay products at various points down the timeline you get when timelines fission. This is a consequence of Hindenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

heresiarch@43: The complete lack of logical extrapolation from there being dragons in Roman Britain that leads to a recognisably the same as our world Napoleonic war is why I regard the Novik books as about as unSFnal as they come.

Goblin Revolution@45; IIRC the author you mean is Lyndon Hardy.
Ursula L
51. Ursula
I'm surprised that no one has yet brought up Bujold's concept of SF as "fantasies of political agency." This strikes me as useful, both for defining the line between alternate history and the "what ifs" of any literature, and for conceptualizing where AH fits with SF.

In AH, the "what if" is almost always a political one (in the broad sense of politics), and the protagonists grapple with an issue that is tied closely to the change in political direction. The point of telling the story is the same political point of SF - how do we grapple with and change the larger world?

For example, in the "Small Change" series, it wouldn't work as AH if the murders and plots had actually turned out to be an ordinary murders and plots for individual reasons - as AH, it has to be tied in some way to the primary historical change made, and exploring the consequences of that change.

However, I would consider it more useful to look at AH as a companion to SF, rather than an identity. SF is about "what might happen", AH about "what would have happened." Calling SF of the past the AH of the present is a mistake in perspective.

An AH writer knows what did happen, and knows it very well if they're to make their story work. A SF writer does not have that benefit of hindsight.

Trying to read SF of the past set in what is now the present or past as AH doesn't work well. Good SF may well be very bad AH, because the author doesn't know the actual history that their universe is being compared with. Such a reading demands that the SF writer know things that she couldn't possibly have known at the time of writing and tries to force the text to answer a different set of questions than what it was written to address.
52. Steven Rogers
Heresiarch @49,

Oh that is just awesome! My initial reaction to the series was "Dragons, meh", but I may have to put it on my to read bookcase now.
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53. heresiarch
EmmetAOBrien @ 50: "The complete lack of logical extrapolation from there being dragons in Roman Britain that leads to a recognisably the same as our world Napoleonic war is why I regard the Novik books as about as unSFnal as they come."

There's an essay I've been meaning to write for a while now, titled "Secret Histories and the Intrusions of the Fantastic." It's about Temeraire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the irritating tendency of a lot of fantastic literature (role-playing settings especially) to entirely ignore the implications of their fantastic nature. Instead they deliver us a setting that has vampires and werewolves and all sorts of mystical stuff, but it's just like our world!!Yay!!

...or it's just like our worl--right up to the start of the story. When it's faceless ancestors with massive mystical powers failing to make any mark in the world, that's fine. The protagonists, though--it just isn't plausible that they wouldn't use their powers to radically change the face of the world. Take Buffy: in the first season, Sunnydale is indistinguishable from our world, except perhaps for an unusually high murder rate. By the seventh season, Sunnydale has been reduced to a smoking crater and there are dozens, if not hundreds of Slayers running around the world. The presence of the fantastic has completely derailed Buffy-verse from our track--as it should.

...or even by the end of the story, the fantastic has failed to have any substantial effect at all. In some ways this is far worse: you are a guardian of an ancient and mystical secret, endowed with powers both terrible and wondrous, and you don't change the world? You are so happy with the way things are that you don't feel the need to intervene? You like starving brown people and arrogant, unaccountable plutocrats? If the fantastic doesn't actually make any difference, then it's nothing more than a metaphor, and I have higher expectations for my spec-fic than that.

Temeraire comes into the essay because Novik is entirely aware of all this. Despite her starting point--Napoleonic wars with dragons!--she doesn't shy away from the implications of her fantastic, and in fact the series is something of an exploration of those implications. The further you get from England, the less the world resembles our own, and the more thoroughly dragons are integrated into the world. Really, I feel the Napoleonic war setting is best understood as a freak coincidence of intersecting timelines, with both a past and a future radically unlike our own. Or possibly as a literary device, to allow us to hook into a world entirely unlike our own without running and screaming. (Also, it is awesome.)

So, Temeraire: come for the ridiculous pulpiness, stay for the well-thought-out world-building.
54. Steven Rogers
The Anita Blake series is a particularly irksome example of this. I mean, weres and vamps are common knowledge but the police aren't issued silver bullets as a matter of course? C'mon. The cops I know wouldn't hesitate to buy them out of their own pockets, if nothing else.
55. Stella Omega
stephen rogers@54

Oh dude, those books are like Gor, for women. Nobody reads them for *anything* but the prOn...
56. Steven Rogers
Well, it turned into that, yes, but it started out as sorta like supernatural CSI, albeit with problems...
57. EmmetAOBrien
StellaOmega@55: This is not in fact true; I read them because I am a hopeless addict to complicated ongoing plots however large the shark they jump (see also Chung Kuo). If what I wanted was porn I could find much better elsewhere.
58. Steven H Silver
Yes, AH is SF, if SF is speculative fiction. Possibly it is also science fiction.

Several years ago, I was on a panel at Rivercon with Harry Turtledove, Laura Frankos, and Jack Nimersheim. After we opened up the floor to questions, Hal Clement, who was sitting in the front row made the comment that creating a plausible alternate history followed the same path he used to create a plausible world in science fiction. Following a change (either physical in his case, or historical in the case of AH), the the author extrapolates what would happen following that change.
David Dyer-Bennet
59. dd-b
Andrew@31: I'll get right to work on the alt-hist where dour policemen riding dragons give traffic tickets to airships, then :-).

(I almost think you were angling for this, they go together so well.)
David Dyer-Bennet
60. dd-b
heresiarch@43: Yes, the alternateness matters. It's the game readers wanting AH look for, and it's the point of doing AH instead of a created world.

AH is more about the world-building than even most SF.

The Small Change trilogy seems to me a very interesting use of AH. The basic story (how individuals fall to or resist the pressure of a society sliding into evil, very roughly) could be written in a created world -- but it wouldn't have the freight that the real-world events of WWII carry (I suppose in theory an author could invest their created world with the freight if they were good enough. I don't think even Tolkien actually did to that degree, though.) By doing it as AH, Jo got to borrow the weight of real Nazis, and make it harder for people to think of themselves as not at risk for being involved in such events.
61. Mezz
There are, I've heard, books looking at the Mirror Universe of Star Trek:The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine It sounds like there are interesting possibili/ities.

This also reminds me of the odd brain-whiplash I had watching a film from the mid-1930s set some 20 or 30 years in the future. It was called either e Tunnel or Transatlantic Tunnel, and naturally there was no hint of WWII nor the Cold War.
Adam Callaway
62. Weirdside
I think this comes down to what you consider history as. If you consider history as a soft science, than alt history novels are every bit as much a part of science fiction as the new wave was. If you don't consider history a science, then the stories are fantasy. In any event, they take a lot of attention to detail and cleverness to pull off, and whether it is sci fi or not, they are a part of speculative fiction and that's good enough for me.

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