Alternate History

So, as promised in my post about Steampunk / Alternate History Week, I’m just going to talk about Alternate History.

Historical fiction is a genre that, especially for children’s and young adult literature, is viewed by some people as unpopular among the target audience. I’m not sure why; I stumbled upon A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg around fifth grade, fell in love with Eleanor and Henry and English history and historical fiction all at once.

I’m mentioning historical fiction because it’s loving historical fiction that led me to love alternate history. Take history — take a known — and tweak it. Tweak it a little, or tweak it a lot. The story can be about that change or the backdrop for a story, where the “what if” is less about the Changed World Event and more how that Changed World Event changed the world, people, culture and their points of view. It can also be great fun for the person who is familiar with the history, to see the almost Easter Egg references to famous people, places and things that are now just a wee bit different.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m going with definitions that work for me. I’m sure there will be people who disagree. So, if you do, just give me your definition in the comments along with some book recommendations.

A pretty classic example of “changed world event” is The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood. It’s 1777 and in 1776 the British crushed the Revolution and now the leaders such as George Washington are waiting to be executed — hence the title. Exploring how things may have worked out is interesting not just for the person familiar with a time period; it’s also a great launching pad to discover the real history, to find out more about how things actually worked out and to think about why history works the way it does.

I’ve read alternate history stories where my history of the time period being discussed is so shaky that I had no idea what the “gotcha” event was until I read the historical explanation. OK, I”ll name a particular story — Counting Potsherds by Harry Turtledove. Guess what? I read that story about 20 years ago. And it stuck with me all those years because it was that good. 

Steampunk is a particular type of alternate history; as explained in Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead in School Library Journal, “Steampunk is both speculative fiction that imagines technology evolved from steam-powered cogs and gears–instead of from electricity and computers–and a movement that fosters a do-it-yourself attitude and a love of beautifully crafted, yet functional, objects. Although K.W. Jeter coined the term in the late 1980s, the concept is much older: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and other 19th-century authors are primary influences. These writers inspired a dark, melancholy genre typically set in Victorian England.” So it’s kind of alternate history because it’s usually set in a Victorian type England, but it’s also alternate science fiction because the speculative element includes technology. If you want even more information, the Locus September 2011 issue is all about steampunk.

There are some books that aren’t quite historical fiction — not in the sense of being able to pinpoint the exact tweak. Instead, different aspects of history and culture are taken and used in a different way. Take Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce. (From the cover and sub-title, it was presented as a fantasy and it is. Their is plenty of magic. Read the excellent review at the New York Times to get a sense of the incredible fantasy world-building. Personally, though, I think Leila at Bookshelves of Doom conveys a better flavor of the book itself. 

Flora Segunda is set in an alternate world, where Flora’s mother is the commanding general of the army of Califa and that’s perfectly normal. Califa — California. And the enemies? The Aztec Empire. So on the one hand, this is fantasy, no doubt. But on the other, it also has a bunch of things in it that people who like their history can go “oh’ about. Wilce explained in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith: “I’ve got a degree in history and was working as historian, but as much as I loved researching and writing factual pieces, it was hard sometimes not to drift into “what if…” But historians must (for the most part) shun such thoughts. So I decided to look at history through the prism of my imagination, and Califa was born. So far all my fiction has taken place in this tiny country. Califa is not supposed to be an alternative history of any one place, but I’ve drawn from a lot of historical detail, as least as far as material culture goes. Once I decided to try to write professionally, I was very lucky how quickly I was able to proceed.”

So, alternate history — love it? hate it? don’t understand it? And if you love it, what titles would you recommend?


Tamora Pierce’s list of recommended Alternate History books

Edited to add: A round up of posts for Steampunk / Alternate History Week, over at Chasing Ray


8 thoughts on “Alternate History

  1. Kenneth Oppel’s imaginative series beginning with Airborne would fit right in here. This is high adventure, not on the open seas but through the open skies,where airships are in danger from pirates and prehistoric animals are found at high altitudes. The setting is predominately Victorian with the ethos and mannerisms of the time but mixed in with this is technology of a much later period.


  2. Thanks so much for talking about a subject that has been near and dear to my heart since I was 10. I love alternate history and I am sad it has taken almost 20 years to get the recognition it was due outside of academia, Robert Cowley’s “What if?” being a prime example.


  3. I love alternate history (and was one of those kids who actually did love historical fiction, too)! I don’t have anything new to add, just chiming in with the love! I just read (and loved) Behemoth this weekend, so I’ll chime in with those even though it’s not like they’re little-known or anything. Oh well. My senior synthesis course in college dealt in part with the roots of WWI, so I know my background in the real history definitely adds to my enjoyment of the books.


  4. And if you want to wander around a Steampunk city… come into Second Life and find New Babbage! OR.. search YouTube for Machinima shorts on Christmas in New Babbage, a tour of New Babbage, the Burning Barrel Race all by Loki – We live Steampunk…virtually!
    ~Gwyneth Jones


  5. “It can also be great fun for the person who is familiar with the history, to see the almost Easter Egg references to famous people, places and things that are now just a wee bit different.” – Absolutely! That’s one of my favorite parts of alternate history. I love the “what if” scenarios–because that’s the question almost all fiction asks, really.

    And, strange bit of trivia–my mother went to high school with Harry Turtledove! He was a year or two ahead, though. They didn’t know each other. 🙂


  6. Pat, I think I am one or two behind in the AIRBORN series. It is a terrific book & setting.

    Rob, it seems that genre books in general have gotten more respect in the last several years. Which is a great thing. And I hope to see more alternate history books for teens.

    rockinlibrarian, i’m looking forward to reading Behemoth. And yes, knowing the history helps one appreciate the changes that are made while still being true to characters and time and place.

    Gwyneth, thanks!

    Sarah, how funny! and yes, when I was reading IRON DUKE and the alt-version of the puritans just cracked me up.


  7. For many years I did an online alternate history newsletter–mostly scenarios sort of like the ones in What-if. I moved on to writing novels and haven’t updated lately, but the newsletters are still online–35 of them. The newsletters were labors of love, and I wish I still had time to do them. In any case they’re at

    That sounds kind of self-promoting, so I’ll hasten to add a couple of other good alternate history resources that I’m not associated with: the Uchronia database and the Sidewise Awards. Uchronia tries to list every alternate history book in existence, though they’re running several months to a year behind. It’s a nice looking site, and pretty well organized. They’re at The Sidewise Awards (not Sideways) are given each year to the best short form and the best long form alternate history story published that year. You can find it on the Uchronia site. There is also a huge forum devoted to alternate history at

    I hope that first part doesn’t sound too self-promoting. If you’re into alternate history you’ll probably like the newsletters though. The other three sites are the best ones I’ve found on alternate history.


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