Alternate history is a genre encompassed in two little words: what if.
What if the Confederacy won the Civil War? What if the Roman Empire never fell? What if the Chinese colonized America? What if the Axis Powers won World War II? What if John F. Kennedy survived the assassination attempt?
The list goes on and on because there are as many “what ifs” as there is history. This makes for a rich and varied genre. But what kind of genre is it? Science fiction? Fantasy? Literary? Historical fiction? The answer is yes. Alternate history fits into a number of genres.
For example, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon imagines a world where the state of Israel was crushed in its infancy. Jews instead take refuge in a portion of Alaska allotted them by the United States. As the book begins, that arrangement is about to come to an end. While this situation propels the novel forward, the heart of the story is a murder mystery with a hardboiled detective protagonist.
Philip K. Dick, a scifi master, wrote an alternate history novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” that contains very little science fiction, aside from mention of the Nazis colonizing Mars. He creates a world 20 years after the Axis powers have won World War II. Those living under Japanese rule on the west coast of the U.S. consider themselves lucky not be under the iron fist of the Nazis, who, having killed all the Jews, have extended their final solution to the inhabitants of Africa. In a neat twist, a forbidden novel has been published; one that imagines a different world, in which Franklin Roosevelt had never been assassinated and the Allies had won the war.
As a fantasy subgenre, alternate history’s “what ifs” are of a fantastical nature. In “His Majesty’s Dragon,” author Naomi Novik writes of a world where the Napoleonic Wars were fought with dragons. Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell,” also set in Napoleonic England, has wizards influencing the outcome of historical events.
In all these examples there is a “what if” that changes history and the world. According to Steven H Silver, as quoted by Wikipedia:
Alternate history requires three things: 1) the story must have a point of divergence from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing, 2) a change that would alter history as it is known, and 3) an examination of the ramifications of that change.
It’s both fun and frightening to imagine what might have happened if… fill in the blank. Which is part of what makes alternate history such an appealing and enduring genre.
A good example of alternate history is the Belisarius Saga by David Drake and Eric Flint. Set in the sixth century, a real historical figure, Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius, is pitted against the Malwa Empire of India, with interference by far future factions wanting to alter history. The second book in the series is available for free from Baen eBooks. It is listed below.
In the Heart of Darkness
The Malwa Empire has conquered 6th century India and is forging the subcontinent’s vast population into an invincible weapon of tyranny. Belisarius, the finest general of his age, must save the world. Guided by visions from a future that may never be, he and a band of comrades penetrate the Malwa heartland, seeking the core of the enemy’s power. And when Belisarius leads the forces of good, only a fool would side with evil.
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