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SF Subgenre Guides
Alternate History SF
What is Alternate History Science Fiction?
Alternate History is more Speculative Fiction than Science Fiction and is more often focused on the "What If?" question than on the science. Alternate History is a sub-genre that explores what the world would look like if a part of history happened differently.
Alternate History stories take place on a world where history takes a different course. Often, a single event is the trigger for the alternate timeline. Usually these are pivotal moments. These moments are often referred to as points of divergence, meaning creating two histories or replacing a future that once existed. While these reimaginings are sometimes mere conjecture, sometimes they are based on science. There are a few tropes of Science Fiction that have become widely used in Alternate History stories: cross-time travel between alternate histories, splitting of time lines, and an awareness of the existence of other timelines. Some common historical foci: WWI, WWII, American Civil War, Roman Empire, historical figures like Napoleon and Kennedy.
Make your you check out our dedicated Best Alternate History Science Fiction books list which gives a list of detailed recommendations, sorted by what we consider the best in the sub genre.
You can also view the crowd-ranked "Popular" Alternate History Science FIction book list and vote and/submit entries to it.
Other Features of Alternate History Science Fiction
- Level of Real Science
Low. Generally, Alternate History stories are not concerned with science and technology, or at least not the specifics. Science and technology may be a key point of difference in the alternate world, but with a few exceptions, science and technology is rarely the focus.
- Level of Grand Ideas/Social Implications
High. Alternate History stories postulate a world that has developed differently than our own, which necessitates a commentary on the alternate world and thus our own. Often social, political, environmental, or industrial implications are explored in great detail.
- Level of Characterization
Variable. There are many ways to tell an Alternate History story. Some are character centered, where the reader follows a specific character through alternate timelines or the story focuses on a character in an alternate timeline, rather than the events. However, characterization may be lost at the expense of plot development and exploration of social implications.
- Level of Plot Complexity
High. A strong plot is necessary to world-building in Alternate History stories because the reader must have a strong understanding of how the timeline has been altered.
- Level of Violence
Variable. The level of violence is really going to depend on the focus of the story and the point in history the changes. However, with various wars and political events serving as points of divergence, violence is not uncommon in Alternate History stories.
Related Science Fiction subgenres
Time Travel. In an Alternate History story time travel is often used as a means to alter a timeline.
Social Science Fiction. A significant component to Alternate History stories is an examination of the consequences to the world the result form the divergence in history. Frequently, this component is used by authors as a means for social commentary or exploration of society.
Speculative Fiction. Alternate History stories are focused around "What if?" questions and speculate different worlds and realities based on this question, which means Alternate History is a branch of the Speculative Fiction genre.
Alternate History isn't for you if...
If you are a strict history buff. Not all Alternate History stories are well thought-out and there can be holes that prevent the history-buffs from buying-in to the alternate world.
- 1 Men Like Gods
By H.G. Wells. Possibly the first Alternate History novel that posits cross-time travel in a physical sense.
- 2 Assignment in Eternity
By Robert A. Heinlein. A short novel where a professor and his students learn to move across timelines; several worlds are visited.
- 3 The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick. A novel where Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan win WWII.
- 4 Ada or Ardor
By Vladimir Nabokov. A Family Chronicle. History is altered as well as science--similar technology to ours, but water based rather than electricity based.
- 5 The Yiddish Policemen's Union
By Michael Chabon. What if the State of Israel was destroyed? They would live in Alaska.
- 6 The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth. What if Franklin D. Roosevelt wasn't elected in 1940, and instead Charles Lindberg won?.
- 7 Videssos
By Harry Turtledove This series is set in a world where the Byzantine Empire survives. Turtledove has been dubbed the Master of Alternate History.
- 8 Wake Up and Dream
By Ian R. McLeod. Clark Gable didn't turn into a famous film actor, rather he is a washed-up private investigator. This novel won the 2011 Sidewise Best Long-Form Alternate History.
- 9 For Want of a Nail
By Robert Sobel. f Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga. An example of a thorough Alternate History involving the confederation of North America.
- 1632 (Eric Flint)
- 11/22/63 (Stephen King)
- Videssos (Harry Turtledove)