Wolfian Press Publications

What Is Alternate History


Alternate History

Alternate History can be examined from two directions. You can take an end point and ask "How did one get here?" or can you take a start point and ask "If we change this, what happens in the long-run?".

In the general, the first approach is what is used by stories set within the genre, and the second is used in essays and scholarly studies utilising the genre.

In the majority of cases, an alternate history story will be set in a world which is already divergent from that we know today. It might be recognisable, and the point of divergence in general might be fairly obvious - for example, think Robert Harris' "Fatherland", where it is obviously a world where the Nazis won, and people are living in the aftermath. Or it might be a world many decades, or even centuries, removed from the point of divergence, where events have played out across a much longer timespan, resulting in a world whose antecedents we can only guess at.

In a story that is set within the alternate history genre, part of the enjoyment is the reader's quest to find out how this world came about. In that sense, many alternate history novels have two aspects - the main plot set within the world of the time it is set, and the journey the reader goes on to find out how this world came into being.

In contrast, essays or scholarly studies that utilise alternate history almost always start from the other perspective, that of asking "What happens if we change this?"

What "this" is can vary greatly in scope. It might be a tiny event which could have ever greater consequences, the so-called Butterfly Effect, where a small action that might seem insignificant in itself can have ramifications on an immense scale as each change impacts upon others and results in a world barely recognisable some decades later.

Or the question posed might be a more general one: "What if the Nazis had won the Second World War?" or "What if the Confederacy had seceded without a war?" The actual means by which these come about can be secondary to the question asked about consequences. A selection of possible means might be suggested, e.g. for the first: no halt at Dunkirk, or Moscow falls, or Rommel wins at El Alamein, and so on. But these arem literally, proposed as a means to an end - that end being a Nazi victory, the ramifications of which is the central point of the article.

Other scholarly works take a middle road, taking a larger event which could have swung a different way and looking at the macro effects of that. Examples of this might be: What if James Blaine had become president? What if the conspirators against Julius Caesar had been betrayed? What if Charlotte, daughter of George IV, had not died in childbirth? Each question revolves around a single major event, and the ramifications of this would then be discussed in detail.

Wolfian Press Publications take the major divide between fiction and scholarly enquiry to classify its published works in Alternate History, with different sections of the website for each of them.

Alternate History Fiction
Alternate History Essays

Also check out AHF Magazine, published by our sister marque, Wolfian Press