Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Dystopia in Alternate History

Guest post by Rvbomally.

This article is a response of sorts to the discussion between Mitro and SpanishSpy on the topic of Orwell's 1984 and its importance to the alternate history genre. I highly recommend watching the video, and this article will reference several points brought up during the discussion.

The popularity of dystopian settings and cynical storytelling in the fantasy and science fiction genres are a source of some controversy. Common criticisms leveled against dystopias include regret that the science fiction genre in particular is no longer as optimistic as it was in the past, and thus no longer serves as a source of inspiration; that dystopias have a negative effect on genre fiction and its readers; that they represent a juvenile understanding of realism, replacing meaningful conflict with meaningless contests over which character or side can do the most damage in the most heinous manner. I am not here to address these arguments, for I believe that their answers are ultimately up to the reader's personal taste. I am here to give my two cents on why the alternate history genre in particular has a love affair with dystopias.

Alternate History as a Reflection of Genre Fiction 

The first explanation, as brought up by Mitro and SpanishSpy in their discussion, is that alternate history is merely following the trend of genre fiction as a whole. We need not look far to see cynical entertainment gaining widespread popularity. Two of the most popular shows on television, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, feature morally dubious characters in a gritty, unforgiving universe. Even the traditionally optimistic genre of superhero comics have become "grimdark;" the recently-released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice comes to mind. The successful The Hunger Games films spawned an entire series of young adult dystopia film adaptations. Less outright bloody, but no less cynical, is the popular Netflix series House of Cards. This cursory observation leads us to two conclusions: 1) General audiences want dystopia, and 2) Media creators know that general audiences want dystopia. But why?
As with all media trends, causation is a tricky chicken and egg problem. Are audiences consuming what the media tells them to want, or are the media reacting to what audiences demand? I propose that it's a bit of both, but that general audiences are the ultimate arbiters of what media is created. After all, they do have the power of the purse, and the creators of mass media are ultimately after profit. This naturally leads to the question of why audiences want cynicism. I think that this is due to several reasons. First is that mass news media makes it easier to see the dark side of life. Human interest stories aside, the mantra among the news media seems to be that good news is no news. Riots, terrorism, massacres, threats of war, are all more interesting than the relative peace and security that most of us in the West enjoy. The second, related point is related to the first: disaster sells. People are just plain interested in the dark side of life. They may have their reasons, from schadenfreude to bile fascination, but the end result is the same.

The third reason is rather paradoxical, and rubs against the common wisdom that modern people are more cynical because the modern world is worse. While modern audiences are certainly more cynical, we in the West live in conditions that would be downright utopian to people just two centuries ago. We in the modern West enjoy such a peaceful and comfortable standard of living that we want our form of escapism to be different. What more can be different from our lives of relative paradise than a world where everything has gone wrong? The fourth reason is that cynicism does seem more real. Regardless of that assessment's veracity, modern audiences seem to have a low opinion of mankind and its situation in the universe. That naturally makes optimistic works more detached from audience emotions and, consequently, the audience's money.

Alternate history is ultimately a product of the greater culture. It will naturally reflect greater cultural trends, which are influenced heavily by mass media. Mass media, in turn, is influenced by audience demands, and right now, people want cynicism.

History is Depressing

Mitro and SpanishSpy bring up a brilliant point about human history: it is full of nastiness. War, famine, disease and tyranny have been humanity's constant companions since the beginning of recorded history, and assuredly for millennia before then. It is common to critique of those proclaiming that we live in the End Times by bringing up the fact that we do not live in exceptionally bad conditions. Any student of history understands well that, contrary to the predictions of doom of today, that we live in comparatively good times. We, at least those of us who live in the West, live in times where liberal democracy is the standard model of government, child mortality is a thing of the past, and we can communicate with people around the world for little cost and effort. To our sensibilities, the past is a terrible place to live. Thus, it is only natural for an alternate history scenario to continue the trend, rather than bucking it.

This is a topic which leads into arguments about the progress of history and determinism. There is a school of thought which holds that history is a linear progression to some end, that normally being a paradise state; the archetypal "end of history." Thus, conditions will grow better for man as time goes on. There could be any number of reasons for this - technology, greater education, learning from past mistakes - but the end result is always the same. Our progress, particularly in recent centuries, lends credence to this idea. Of course, others believe that history occurs in cycles (the Chinese "dynastic cycle" comes to mind), or has no set course at all. Those subscribing to the theory of linear progress are the most likely to object to historical nastiness surviving into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Under such a worldview, the idea of a historical wrong not being "righted" by a certain stage in history is just, well, wrong.

Personally, I subscribe to the idea that history is a product of its past. Any progressions or cycles are a result of historical circumstances that precede them. If they are altered - which is the entire premise of this genre - then their results would be different. The alternate history community is generally good with calling out inappropriate parallelisms - such as the mirroring of the Third Reich's history with that of the OTL Soviet Union in Turtledove's In the Presence of Mine Enemies - but I caution them to avoid making the same mistake with a linear theory of history.

Worldbuilding Detaches Authors and Readers 

The old chestnut about one death being a tragedy, a million being a statistic, is doubtless true. The human brain has trouble comprehending such large numbers of people, so it thinks of them in inhuman abstractions. The larger the number, the more difficult it is to empathize with a person, because they become part of an amorphous group.

Mitro and SpanishSpy discuss the worldbuilding in 1984 as a feature which attracts alternate historians to the work. I agree, but I will take this thesis a step further: worldbuilding also allows alternate historians to write about dystopian settings with greater emotional ease. As nonsensical as it may be, the story of Winston Smith is far more tragic than the story of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. This is because Winston Smith is a man who we come to know, and who is mercilessly destroyed by the system, body and soul. While we know this is happening to countless people throughout the world of 1984, we are concerned with Winston because we know him. The others may as well be nonexistent, vaporized as the Party intends.

Alternate historians who go straight for the worldbuilding have a much easier time writing a dystopia. They do not have to agonize over the tragedy of the Last Man in Europe, as Orwell did. A paragraph describing nuclear annihilation, or the genocide of an ethnic group, can suffice to give the audience the necessary information without the emotional pathos. Indeed, a simple bullet point can suffice.

While detachment is of little consequence when writing fiction, it becomes a problem in the study of actual history. Good historians understand this, hence the popularity of using works such as Anne Frank's diary in education about historical atrocities. Six million Jews perishing in the Holocaust is just a number, while Anne Frank was a person.

Alternate Historians Love War

While I am sure many alternate historians are opposed to war as a vehicle of policy, it is impossible to deny that the genre has a love affair with historical wars. The reasons for this are simple. War is a competition, often with a winner and a loser, so it is easy to ask the question: What if the other guy won? Only elections rival wars for such what-ifs, and they are popular indeed. Wars are also well-documented parts of history, as they are exciting and need to be studied by future strategists. Thus, a plethora of points of divergence spring forth from war, making it convenient fodder for any alternate historian.

Wars often lead to dystopian stories because war is wedded to dystopia. Alternate historians want to write about wars, and what better way to start a war than by crafting a setting prone to violent conflict? A world dominated by ideologically fanatical states, dictatorships, or plagued with civil unrest is fertile ground for armed conflict. In some cases, the setting is just an excuse for writing about war. A famous non-alternate history example is Warhammer 40K. The real reason that there is only war in the grim darkness of the 41st millennium is that, first and foremost, the setting is a tabletop wargame. That there is considerable overlap between the wargamer, the armchair general and the alternate historian helps keep war front and center in the genre.
War also provides an undeniable "cool" factor that a genre such as history needs. History is often viewed as a dry topic of discussion, so many of those who become interested in history do so through the study of historical wars. I know that, as a teenager, I was totally disinterested in history until I started playing the WWII shooters that plagued the market in the early 2000s. My interest in history did not begin in the classroom, but rather as a natural curiosity growing out of my days playing war games.

Alternate Historians Love Dictatorships

The alternate historian is, first and foremost, a storyteller. While some alternate historians prefer to let their timelines grow organically, some of us have an idea in mind, and want to push history in that direction. This is considerably more complicated when operating with democratic nation-states. Democracies take into account complex things like popular opinion and cultural trends. While a dictatorship cannot totally ignore these trends, they are less wedded to them. Want a country to invade another, but want to keep things simple? Have a dictatorship do it.

Dictatorships are also interesting because they present a greater variety of ideological forms. One of the messages I try to present in my work is that any ideology can be used as the basis for dictatorship, and I challenge myself to come up with new ways to corrupt various ideologies. I have an entire series of corrupted ideological worlds, and even one where I try to mash as many together as possible into one world. While these dictatorial states must be similar in some ways, such as a strict hierarchy and political repression, the rationales and practices of these states can be very different. Contrast that with a democracy, which will by default be ruled by a center-left or a center-right party, with extreme elements relegated to the sidelines. This isn't as alien to readers as a dictatorship.

Further, dictatorships also allow more interesting (read: crazy) people to take charge. Most democratic leaders will be as inoffensive and moderate as possible, to appeal to a broad base. A dictator with enough support among powerful elements can get away with much more. Hitlers, Pol Pots and Ungern-Sternbergs don't rise to the top of democratic societies and stay there long enough to make the sorts of interesting changes we alternate historians want.

Of course, this header is misleading. An entire subgenre of alternate history focuses entirely on democratic elections. These are often well-researched and detailed, but are at the same time myopic. As a consequence of their complexity, the author has little time to cover topics apart from the politicking of the characters. We get a more detailed, but narrower view of the world.

Alternate Historians (Still Kinda) Love the Nazis

While some in the alternate history community (myself included) think that the Nazis and World War II are vastly overplayed, we need to remember that the genre is deeply rooted in that classic question: What if the Nazis won? While most serious alternate historians dismiss the idea of an Axis victory, and World War II has been dissected more than any other conflict by contributors to the genre, it is still a core feature in alternate history fiction, and it continues to have a strong effect in alternate history fiction. Even if overplayed among the alternate history community, Nazi victories remain popular among the general public. The success of Amazon's The Man in the High Castle adaptation demonstrates that while the alternate history veteran may roll his eyes at swastikas over the East Coast, general audiences are still hungry for it.
It's only natural that the Nazis play such a central role in the genre. As Mitro and SpanishSpy point out, World War II was the last great conflict, the war between good and evil, with all sorts of cool weapons and soldiers and uniforms. And the Nazis are great villains; to someone outside of our timeline looking in, it would seem that they were designed to be the perfect bad guys. Totalitarian, remorseless, hateful, utterly bereft of humanity, yet effective and stylish, the Nazis present a credible, easily identifiable threat for any hero to punch in the face or blast to oblivion without guilt. Just about everybody has asked themselves the question of how Hitler could have been stopped. Many time travel stories feature characters at least discussing the possibility of stopping Hitler, although stories which have the protagonists succeeding often end in disaster (e.g. the Red Alert video game series).

Asking how Hitler could have been stopped naturally brings about the question of what would have happened if he had won. Many have tried to answer this question, from the serious Robert Harris story Fatherland, to the more fantastic Philip K. Dick novel The Man in the High Castle, to the utterly campy video game Wolfenstein: The New Order. The Nazis (and the other Axis powers) being what they were, worlds which depict their endsieg are hardly cheerful places. But they are, without a doubt, interesting places: a world governed by principles diametrically opposed to our own, and enforced ruthlessly. The division of the world by the victorious Axis powers has always interested me, and helped bring me into the alternate history genre as a whole.

The use of the Third Reich as a source of villainy is also a popular way to give an alternate history scenario flavor, and their impact goes beyond WWII timelines. If the Nazis themselves are not available, a counterpart will often appear. The Confederate States in Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series fills the role of the Nazis, and the Coalition of Western Republics in my own Ad Astra Per Aspera are effectively space Nazis descended from an American empire. "Nazifying" nation-states apart from Germany can be a fun exercise; I have seen a few threads on "Nazi" Frances and Russias on

Entertainment aside, what-if has important cultural value: it brings into focus the moral dimension of World War II. Showing the world as it would have been under a victorious Third Reich puts the sacrifice of the Allies to bring about our much better world in a much starker contrast. To paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower, even if the reader does not know what WWII was fought for, he will know what it was fought against.

Our Timeline: The Best of All Possible Worlds?

In high school, I had to read Candide, the famous satire by Voltaire. It remains one of my favorite stories, but one line stuck out to me and has remained influential in my alternate history work to this day. In the book, the philosopher Dr. Pangloss mentions time and again the Leibnizian assertion that ours is the "best of all possible worlds." This is intended to be a comforting thought, demonstrating that all of the hardships suffered by mankind happen for the purpose of a greater good, and that there is no better option than what we have now. Voltaire, through the character Candide, points out a flaw in this reasoning by asking one simple question: If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?

I sought to answer that question, first with Ad Astra Per Aspera, and then with my later timelines and scenarios. It is possible that other alternate history authors are seeking the answer to the same question, but not in such a direct fashion. Humans have a tendency to ask "what if?" whenever something goes poorly, and it is only natural to comfort ourselves with the thought that a situation would have turned out for the worst if they had gone in a way we wanted. People want to believe that the universe is ordered in a just manner, so even events that have negative consequences in the short term have positive consequences down the road. If someone is late for a meeting because he slept through his alarm, he may rationalize this by thinking that he would have perished in a car accident had he woken up on time. Those of us interested in history may expand that to disastrous historical events. The popular plot of Hitler being killed before his rise to power, only to be replaced by a greater threat, speaks directly to this. The idea that other timelines are better than our own may even inspire envy; why do they get to live in a world without this evil, and suffer no consequences for it? It just seems unfair.


Alternate history is a diverse and quickly growing genre, and the dystopia subgenre will remain a strong part of it. There are myriad reasons for the genre's popularity, all but ensuring its enduring legacy. While dystopia is not everybody's cup of tea, I urge alternate historians to understand why it exists, and the possible lessons that can be learned from it.

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Rvbomally is some guy on the Internet who likes history and science fiction. You can find his all of work on deviantArt. You can support him on Patreon.


  1. In a just society, virtuous people can only do boring things. Conformity is objectively the right path, because non-comformity would of necessity create injustice.

    But in a dystopia, virtuous people must must rebel and take risks because non-cofonrmity is the path to justice.

    The literary dilemas and possibilities are obvious, but less remarked upon is the appeal to the sort middles class tweens and teens who fuel the genre: the bad kids ARE the good kids! Rebellion IS just and is the path to justice. They can have their cake and eat it too ...

  2. Great post, though I should add that Nazis don't necessarily hold a monopoly on evilness given that other organizations like the CPSU, ISIS, and the Taisei Yokusankai have the power to match that but since the Nazis had visual style and were ultimately defeated they don't have the same grip on the popular imagination (though ISIS is coming very close to that might I add).

    But other than that I do appreciate this post of yours.

    1. rvbomally here (I don't have an account on Blogspot, sorry).

      I agree, the Nazis don't have a monopoly on evil. However, I bring them up because the alternate history genre owes a lot to WWII what-ifs. While the first alternate history was made in Roman times, and doubtless people have been asking themselves "what if" since time immemorial, the modern alternate history genre was fueled primarily by WWII PoDs. The Nazis, as you rightfully point out, have a distinct visual style that is easily emulated to evoke evil (look at the Galactic Empire, for example). Also consider the Mitchell and Webb sketch which points out that the SS had skulls on their caps, as if they were trying to be the bad guys. Their openly supremacist ideology is also anathema to a world which abides by liberal (in the classical, not modern political, sense) values. And they have been go-to villains for decades, even after their defeat. Many a Cold War drama had the "Fourth Reich" as the bad guys, if only to appease the Soviets during detente.

  3. Excellent article - thank you. A similar question is asked in the crime and thriller genres. Why are we fascinated by terrorists, psychopaths, world collapse and dripping body parts?
    Alt hist and especially its fiction gives us the opportunity to explore from the safety of our armchairs the dark side of the human psyche as well as events/timelines we are so grateful to have avoided.