Steampunk Primer: Alternate Histories

We all wonder what would have happened if a certain course of events in our lives turned out differently—a different first love, a move we contemplated but didn’t make, a job opportunity missed. If our personal lives and agendas might have been so different following such a change, what would have resulted if major historical events had gone another way?

This is the landscape of Alternate History. Heroes are re-imagined as villains, the defeated are victorious, influential people live or die—with subsequent results—when they take a different route in their decision-making process. Trivial changes can have drastic effects. This concept of history trivia is fascinating as it branches out to numerous outcomes.

What we think of today as the Science Fiction subgenre of Alternate Histories (AH) originated in the 19th century, beginning with French author Louis Geoffrey’s 1836 novel Napoléon et la conquête du monde, in which the General wins the war with England via a successful invasion. This led to dozens of other books detailing alternate outcomes to military conflicts, including The Battle of Dorking (1871), The Great War in England in 1897 (written in 1894) and The Invasion of England in 1910 (written in 1907). H.G. Wells’ The War in the Air (1907) hypothesized how aircraft would change warfare, while his story “The Land Ironclads” (1903) predicts the armored tank.

A Land Ironclad from Wells’ story

Other authors, including such notables as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Saki and Stephen Vincent Benet, have written AH stories with a focus on the personal—a man remembers a different history from everyone else; a clubman negotiates a London under Kaiser rule; an obscure old military vet is a Bonaparte who never came to power.

Some authors focus on a seemingly trivial event that once changed, ripple the time continuum with catastrophic or wonderful outcomes. A political or war strategy is made a day later or sooner, and the British Army fails to evacuate from Dunkirk, or the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler is successful.

More playful authors, literary daredevils like Fritz Leiber and Tim Powers or genre-mashers like Gail Carriger, have introduced supernatural phenomena into the mix. A Nazi might be given a dire vision of a German victory. Time travelers give advanced ammunition to past armies, or a witch’s spell sends a King into making wrong decisions. All these scenarios are technically impossible, but a fun boost to the reader’s imagination.

Werewolves, Vampires and more in Carriger’s Alt-History Series

In the related field of counterfactual writing, historians and academic theorists make assumptions of what might have happened differently in the wake of certain key events. Kennedy surviving his assassination, a still-born American Revolution and a successful Easter Uprising in Ireland have all been explored in essays and books. These can be so convincing that such works have been taken as actual history books by some naïve readers.

Rufus Sewell in The Man in the High Castle

With the success of AH TV shows like Fringe and Man in the High Castle (adapted from Philip K. Dick’s famous novel about America under Axis rule), the genre is enjoying something of a mass-culture Renaissance—as unlikely a scenario as many put forward by SF authors!

Perhaps the greatest use of Alternate History is not in fantasizing about changing our own past decisions, but in imagining how we can make our present and future a better place for ourselves and people around us, while providing a stimulating foundation for fiction writers and idealists.

by Ashlie Lopez

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