The literary category of alternative histories is also known as alternate histories, uchronias, allohistories, or counterfactual histories. The last term is often used for serious studies from a historical perspective. Historians run experiments of a sort in complex areas such as economic history by imagining all events that shape an outcome are static except for one change. For example, consider a counterfactual study in which Calvin Coolidge and a conservatively controlled and business-favoring Congress did not lead the way to a huge difference in wealth between the very rich and the middle class during the 1920s. Economic historians believe this was one major factor that led to overspeculation and then a Depression. In this situation, would the Great Depression have occurred, and if it did not, what major changes would this cause? Would Roosevelt have been elected in 1932?
Besides historical counterfactuals, a good deal of alternative history falls into the fiction genre, and in particular, science fiction. These stories begin with the premise “What If” some single significant event in history either did not happen or happened differently and then go on to explore possible developments. This genre is found in many different languages besides English.
Examples of alternative history appeared in Western literature as early as 1836 with the publication of Louis-Napoleon Geoffroy-Chateau’s Napoleon et la conquete du monde, 1812—1832, Histoire de la monarchie universelle. This novel tells the story of Napoleon crushing all his enemies and ending as emperor of the whole world. Far earlier in time, Herodotus, in the 5th century BCE, looked at the consequences had the Persians defeated the Greeks at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita (history of Rome, c. 29 BCE) is considered to have some alternative history aspects.
There were sporadic additional writings now considered to be alternative history during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Examples include a story by Edward Everett Hale in the March 1881 Harpers titled “Hands Off.” This tale imagined Joseph was not sold into slavery in Egypt, leading to an eventual conquest of the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians.
In 1899, Edmund Lawrence published It May Happen Yet: A Tale of Bonaparte’s Invasion of England. H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905) falls into one of the subgenres of alternative history, the parallel or alternative Earth plot. In this work, the point of divergence from actual history is the complete skipping of the Dark Ages. In 1926 Charles Petrie published “If: A Jacobite Fantasy,” in the Weekly Westminster, exploring the idea the Hanoverians fled from Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 and the Stuarts were restored to the throne.
More stories and books appeared during the 1920s and mid-1930s. In December 1939, a short story by L. Sprague de Camp titled “Lest Darkness Fall” appeared in the magazine Unknown. This story, later published as a novel, is generally credited with the beginning of alternative history as a distinct part of science fiction. “Lest Darkness Fall” involves an archaeologist, Martin Padway, who, while visiting the Pantheon in Rome in 1938, is suddenly transported to the 6th century BCE. There Padway recreates some 20th-century inventions and eventually succeeds in averting the Dark Ages. Although the plot is similar to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), what distinguishes the two is Twain’s focus on social inequities and de Camp’s exacting historical accuracy in his details. An alternate candidate for this honor is the 1934 short story “Sidewise in Time” by Murray Leinster. However, Harry Turtledove, who has written a number of alternative history novels, as well as some other authors, credits de Camp with getting him interested in this genre.
In the past 20 years there has been a dramatic upsurge in alternative history, not only in novels and short stories but also in all forms of entertainment media. A brief list would include Timestalkers (1987), Sliding Doors (1998), the Quantum Leap television series (1989-1993), Time Cop (1994), and Fatherland (1994).
An idea that is at the heart of much of alternative history is the “butterfly effect.” This is a concept connected with chaos theory and was described by Edmund Lorenz in a 1972 talk titled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” A traveler into the past may alter one tiny thing, perhaps just by his or presence alone, which leads to significant changes in the future. This was the basis of one of the most popular classics of the genre, Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970), in which a present-day New Yorker joins a secret government project and travels back to 1880s New York. By preventing one chance meeting between two people in the past, the entire project in the future never happens.
One of the largest publishing areas of alternative history is Nazism, the Third Reich, and the Second World War. Gathering interest since the 1970s, this subarea has sparked more novels, short stories, films, television shows, plays, and even comic books than any other topic in alternative history. There have been at least 50 novels written with plots ranging from the Nazis winning World War II to something happening to prevent Hitler from ever coming to power. One of the best known is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) in which the Axis powers won World War II. More recently, Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America (2004) is based on the famous aviator and America-first isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election, leading to America’s neutrality in the war against Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
The increasing popularity of alternative history, particularly in the popular culture, may owe something to an increase in imagination on the part of filmmakers, disenchantment with the current social and political events in everyday life, and a wish for alternatives. The late-20th-century proliferation of alternative histories was made possible in part by developments in atomic physics. Quantum mechanics, and in particular the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, contradicts age- old beliefs in absolute determinism—the doctrine that all future developments in the whole universe, from the largest galaxy to the smallest particle, are predetermined. If true, this would mean history could never change.
Present-day physics, however, generally accepts a less deterministic view of the cosmos. In the past half-century or so, as physicists and mathematicians attempt to link classical and quantum physics with approaches such as string theory, the possible existence of parallel universes is being explored. Parallel or alternate universe concepts are explored in a number of science fiction novels that may or may not be linked to alternative histories. For example, novels in which the South won the Civil War may predicate an alternative universe in which this is true. Other alternate universe stories with no historical basis involve simple differences such as Jack Finney’s The Woodrow Wilson Dime, in which the simple slip between parallel universes of a dime with Wilson’s image on it causes the protagonist to move into a significantly different, but in some ways similar life.
Charles R. Anderson
See also Eternal Recurrence; Experiments, Thought;
Multiverses; Novels, Time in; Sin, Original; Progress; Time and Universes; Worlds, Possible;
Hellekson, K. (2001). The alternate history: Reconfiguring historical time. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.
Nedelkovich, A. B. (1994). British and American science fiction novels 1950-1980 with the theme of alternative history. Belgrade: University of Belgrade.
Rosenfeld, G. D. (2005). The world Hitler never made: Alternate history and the memory of Nazism. New York: Cambridge University Press.