Alternate History or AH is a fictional genre that imagines what would happen if history had gone differently. It often begins by changing a single historical event, called the point of divergence or POD, and tracing how this produces big changes in the world, diverging it from Our Timeline (OTL) and creating a new, alternate and parallel world. Other names include alternative history, allohistory and uchronie.
Physicists and philosophers theorized the existence of Alternate Timelines and parallel worlds in the late-20th Century. They suggested that time has "branches" as a result of numerous points of divergence in the past. Some speculate that all these branches occur simultaneously, perhaps in other universes. The changes would represent "alternate histories," differing in varying degrees from our own.
These theories have helped inspire the literary genre. Pioneering works like The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) and For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel (1973) led to a boom in AH fiction in the 80s and 90s, led by writers like Harry Turtledove and S.M. Stirling. The 90s and 2000s saw many AH-themed video games. Amazon's 2015 show The Man in the High Castle, based on Dick's novel, brought the genre to an even wider audience. On the Internet, Alternate Timelines began appearing in the mid- to late-1990s, first on newsgroups, then on individual web pages, and then on forums and wikis like this one; we started in 2005. Social media like Reddit and DeviantArt now have thriving AH communities, often focused on visuals, but with extensive bodies of written lore. And AH YouTube channels like the Alternate History Hub and The Alternate Historian now boast viewerships ranging from the tens of thousands to the millions.
Alternate History has often accompanied stories about time travel. In the Back to the Future movies, time travelers Doc and Marty have to keep going back in time to correct small changes that have had unexpected effects on the timeline. In this scene, Doc nicely explains the concepts of Alternate Timelines and points of divergence. It's a good explanation; there's a chalkboard.
Some historians have used Althistorical thinking to explore how a hypothetical change in the past could have affected the course of events. This is known as counterfactual history. It's different from AH because its purpose is to better understand real history rather than create a fictional world, but otherwise it involves very much the same thought process.
For a more detailed description of Alternate History as a genre, check out Wikipedia's article.
Elements of Alternate History
In alternate history, an author makes the conscious choice to change something in their past. According to Steven H Silver, alternate history requires three things:
- The story must have a point of divergence from the history of our world prior to the time at which it was written.
- The change alters known history.
- The work examines the consequences of that change.
Alternate history is related to, but distinct from, counterfactual history - what some professional historians do when they speculate about "what might have happened if..." as a tool of academic research. Many historians dismiss the value of counterfactuals, but others have come to its defense, such as Scottish historian Niall Ferguson.
A few genres of fiction can be confused with alternate history. Future history and science fiction, which take place in the author's future but may now be in our past, like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, are not alternate history: the author did not intentionally change the past. Secret history, an explanation of real history using made-up or unknown past events, is also not the same as AH.
Alternate histories do not need to:
- Be set in the past. (Note that on this wiki, we do require timelines to stop at the writer's present.)
- Spell out the exact point of divergence.
- Have just a single point of divergence.
- Deal with large, world-changing events.
- Include famous people.
- Be written in any one particular style.
Online, alternate history has grown into a large, flourishing community across numerous sites. On most of these, the line has blurred between fans and creators, as fans showcase their own works and help fellow fans find interesting works and timelines, professionally published or not.
Uchronia: The Alternate History List is an online database that contains thousands of alternate history novels, stories, essays and other written content, in several languages. Twice Uchronia was selected as the SciFi Channel's "Sci Fi Site of the Week."
The online community has created a new vocabulary to discuss alternate history. On the Usenet group soc.history.what-if, users invented the term "alien space bats" to criticize implausible alternate histories or to add intentionally nonrealistic elements to timelines. One science fiction reviewer in Strange Horizons called alien space bats "everyone’s favourite SF plot McGuffin." Alternatehistory.com popularized the term wank to describe a timeline where one country does unrealistically well.
Online creators have achieved some impressive things. Althistorical maps and other content can be so believable that they're routinely confused with the real thing. Timelines have inspired their own fandoms and fan art. Entire languages have appeared as part of alternate timelines, such as Brithenig, Wenedyk, and numerous other languages created for Ill Bethisad.
Please also see Online Alternative History.
- Stirling Awards - for work here on our wiki
- Sidewise Award for Alternate History - for published AH
- Turtledove Awards - for work on Alternatehistory.com
- Sobel Prizes - for work on the Sufficient Velocity forum
- http://www.helixsf.com/uchronicle/uchronicle0706.htm (dead link)
- http://www.geocities.com/Athens/4824/ah101.htm (dead link)
- What Happens When People Confuse Alternate History with Real History, by Mitro
- Today in Alternate History, a daily-updated blog, featuring "Important Events In History That Never Occurred Today" in several recurring timelines. Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items explore that possibility.
- This Day in Alternate History, dedicated to showing significant events in years past on this day that shaped history... just, not our history.
- Lewis's Argument for Possible Worlds, a summary of the metaphysics of alternate timelines.