Alternate History (sometimes abbreviated AH) is the most frequently used term for the fictional genre which often presupposes a change of a minor historical event that produces an incredible series of changes in the world, diverging it from Our Timeline (OTL) and creating a new, alternate and parallel world. Other terms used include alternative history, allohistory and uchronie.
In the scientific field, these Alternate Timelines and parallel worlds were theorized by physicists in the late-20th Century. They suggested that time has "branches" as a result of numerous points of divergence (POD) in the past. While some believe many branches occur in our universe, due to numerous departure points, others speculate further that all branches occur simultaneously, and perhaps in other universes. The changes would represent "alternate histories," differing in varying degrees from history as it unfolded in OTL.
This scientific knowledge has become inspiration to the literary world, and especially on the Internet, where Alternate Timelines began appearing in the mid- to late-1990s first on newsgroups, then on individual Webpages and most recently on Althistory Wikipedia.
In literature and in other media, especially film and television, Alternate History has often been used in conjunction with, and are often caused by, time travel. In the film series Back to the Future, a lead character, "Doc" Brown, explained the concepts of Alternate History, Alternate Timelines and points of departure, as well as time travel.
Alternate History have also been used as a literary device by historians to explore how social and political changes in the past may have affected events in OTL.
This is a brief summary of the Alternate History genre. For a more detailed description of Alternate History as a fictional genre, please visit Wikipedia.org
Definition of Alternate History
Alternate history happens when the author makes the conscious choice to change something in our past. According to Steven H Silver 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.
Alternate history is related to, but distinct from, counterfactual history - the term used by some professional historians when using thoroughly researched and carefully reasoned speculations on "what might have happened if..." as a tool of academic historical research. Many historians dismiss the value of counterfactuals, but some have come to its defense including Scottish historian Niall Ferguson.
There are several genres of fiction that have been confused as alternate histories. Science fiction set in the future but at present is now in the past, like Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, are not alternate history because the author has not made the conscious choice to change the past. Secret history, works that document things which are not known to have happened historically, is also not to be confused with alternate history.
Elements of Alternate History
There are certain elements which are common to all alternate histories, whether they deal with history on the micro-level (personal alternate histories) or the macro-level (world-changing events). These elements include:
- A point of change from the history of our world prior to the time at which the author is writing;
- A change which would alter history as it is known; and
- An examination of the ramifications of that change.
Alternate histories do not:
- Need to be set in the past;
- Need to spell out the point of divergence;
- Need to deal with world changing events; or
- Need to include famous people.
Fans of alternate history have made use of the internet to showcase their own works and provide useful tools for those fans searching for anything alternate history. "Uchronia: The Alternate History List" is an online database that contains 2900 alternate history novels, stories, essays and other printed material, in several different languages. Twice Uchronia was selected as the Sci Fi Channel's "Sci Fi Site of the Week."
New terms have also been created in alternate history discussion groups. On the usenet group soc.history.what-if, users there popularized the term "alien space bats", a term used to criticize implausible alternate histories or to be used as a deus ex machina. One science fiction reviewer in Strange Horizons called alien space bats "everyone’s favourite SF plot McGuffin."
- 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.