Toward a Taxonomy of the Alternate History Genre

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Date: Fall 2000
From: Extrapolation(Vol. 41, Issue 3)
Publisher: Kent State University Press
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,357 words

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* In his introduction to Three Trips in Time and Space (1973), Robert Silverberg writes, "If all things are possible, if all gates stand open, what sort of world will we have?" (6). As a genre, the alternate history--the branch of literature that concerns itself with history's turning out differently than what we know to be true--attempts to answer this question. The alternate history concerns itself with plausible causal relationships, and as such, it concerns itself with narrative and time.

Alternate histories revolve around the basic premise that some event in the past did not occur as we know it did, and thus the present has changed. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (1962), perhaps the best known of all alternate histories, creates a world in which the Axis powers won World War II. Dick explores what the West Coast would be like if occupied by the Japanese, from changing speech patterns to pedicabs to slavery. Sometimes alternate histories rely on time travel, as do Poul Anderson's Time Patrol stories. Anderson has invented policemen who can make sure history happens as it ought to: they have the ability to travel back and forth in time, righting wrongs and battling evildoers who want to change the future by altering the past. The parallel worlds story is also a kind of alternate history, but one in which a number of alternate histories exist simultaneously. Characters, by means of sophisticated machines or bizarre accidents, can move from one alternate history to another. The best -known texts of this kind are H. Beam Piper's Paratime short stories and his Paratime novel, Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (1965), itself made up of several previously published novelettes and novellas.

Science fiction critics are quick to point out that science fiction is a genre intimately concerned with history. Darko Suvin notes that "the understanding of SF--constituted by history and evaluated in history--is doubly impossible without a sense of history and its possibilities, a sense that this genre is a system which changes in the process of social history" (45). Robert H. Canary notes, "Science fiction's implicit claim to operate by the same rules as historical reality means that it is inevitably speculating about the nature of those rules" (166). Here, I argue that a historical sensibility can be usefully brought to bear on a particular branch of science fiction.

The alternate history's use of a changed historical point to bring about a different reality is, I think, a case parallel to science fiction using an extrapolation of current events to bring about a fictive future. Dominick LaCapra, speaking of fantasy, notes, "These fonns of 'otherness' or alterity may prove to have unexpected transformative implications" (5). In fact, the alternate history rewrites history and reality, thus transforming the world and our understanding of reality. These texts change the present by transforming the past.

Alternate histories are also known as alternative histories, alternate universes, allohistories, or uchronias. One scholar, Joerg Helbig, prefers the term "parahistory." Historians use the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A66121849