Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Points of Divergence: Frameworks of Alternate History

Alternate history encompasses a vast territory of “what if”. Although much ink has been written about this genre, there is at least one consensus that seems to be universal: to be an alternate history, a story world must contain at least one significant point of divergence (POD) from our time line (OTL), and the ensuing tale is concerned with the consequences of that divergence.

In subsequent posts in this series, I'll look at some of the less common rationales for having a time line diverge from our original. For now, to create a frame of reference, I want to sketch out what seems to be the most common approach to creating an alternate history.

Typically, a variant timeline takes as its jumping off point a particular historical event or political outcome. Not surprisingly, the two most popular eras/events treated in this genre are the American Civil War, and Hitler's Third Reich in World War II; different fates for the Kennedy brothers, Napoleon, and the Roman Empire vie for second place in popularity.

Another commonplace in most alternate history fiction is that historical figures of note in our own time are in play in the story in significant roles. They often fill different roles or experience non-historical fates, for part of the appeal to alt-history is to see how the life of a key figure may have played out differently in the altered circumstances of the new timeline.

A less obvious standard, though one often articulated in alt-history writing groups, is the assumption that things in the alt timeline are pretty much as we know them to be here, except for what is affected by the divergent event. A world where Hitler triumphed in World War II almost certainly has Germans speaking German, an America that grew out of 13 British colonies, and a world in which war-time economies lifted many countries out of their Depression-era stagnation.

What the reader sees of this “world as we know it” is dependent to some extent on how far back the POD occurred, and how far ahead in the ensuing timeline the story events take place. For instance, if Rome did not fall from power and instead imposed rule more thoroughly upon the Germanic tribes, Germany as we know it may never have come to exist. Stories set in those 1940s, if that same calendar reckoning were even used, might well lack a Hitler or a World War II. But however such hypothetical timelines unfold, these events will be logical outgrowths of the POD, however it is defined. Alternate histories generally look to the root cause of the divergence, and/or to the subsequent events and actors (historical figures cast as fictional characters) to explore story questions in the new setting.

These elements described here are not the only ones used in telling alternate histories, but for the sake of later discussion, I am using them as a reference point for what is arguably the most common and popular type of alt-history tale: stories rooted in a world very close to our own, differing in important yet limited ways.

This “historical” alt-history standard leaves particular hallmarks on the tales that result. Briefly stated, those characteristics are:

  • A singular, significant point of divergence, or a cluster of events, either of which constitutes a major “turning point” in history. The more the actual historical events of our timeline remain resonant with great trauma, meaning, or other emotional charge, the more likely they are to be the focal point of alternate history inquiries.

  • Incorporation of historical figures as major characters in the story. They are not merely bit parts, but usually central to the tale. Readers like to “meet” these figures from the past in the pages of the book or short story.

  • A surrounding world that in most other respects remains the same as “the world as we know it.” That is to say, the alien-ness of an alternate timeline is usually focused on the POD and its consequences. This stands out all the more because other aspects of the world remain identical or closely akin to what we know and recognize as familiar.

The result of this formulation is a world that is strange in certain striking respects, yet familiar in others. It allows us enough familiarity to imagine ourselves in that setting, perhaps even to be thoroughly at home in it, because in certain respects it is a place that we “know.” Then, in the areas where the author has created divergence, “otherness” emerges. This strangeness is striking precisely because of the contrast with the known; it may even be unsettling because we are asked to play “what if” and challenge the safety and security of the “world that we know.” This is part of the power of alternate history: it gets us where we live, by challenging the premises of how we think the world works.

In the next post in this series I'll look at another approach to creating divergence, and question why it so often ends up being called “science fiction” when, technically speaking, it is as historical in orientation as the “historical standard” I've just described.

Deborah Teramis Christian is a science fiction and fantasy novelist with an alternate history work in progress. You can read more blog posts about this and related subjects at her website, Notes From the Lizard Lair.


  1. Presumably, alternate history ends up in sf/f because there is no genre called alternate historical fiction and this is, after all, a fantasy. Unless, of course, it's a romance. Include a romance and the book might actually end up in the hands of readers who enjoy history, which is where alternate history belongs. Marketing lacks imagination.

  2. This was really interesting as I've been pondering the difference between a parallel history and an alternate history, although that might be a distinction only in my own mind.

  3. Pat - I'm thinking it gets lumped in with sf because it's "speculating about a what-if". I agree with you about the lack of a proper category for it. Alt history would probably have a stronger following if it were seen as more distinctly historical. Too true about the marketing. Always a boggle when books get classifed X but would do better as Y.

  4. Pooks - that's an interesting distinction. My take on it would be, if the parallel one is actually fairly analogous in most major features and events, then it is indeed parallel. But where event X happened and things took a turn for the Distinctively Different after that, that is where it tilts into "alternate" terrain.

    It is a squishy grey area, though. I may be touching on that in the last post in this series of four.

  5. My local library shelves Alturnative History with Science Fiction. Is this a Dewey Decimal System problem?

  6. No, alternate history is technically a sub-genre of science fiction, even if it sometimes has more in common with historical fiction.


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