The most recent issue of the British Science Fiction Association's "critical journal" Vector (a mixture of reviews and articles) focuses on "reimagining history", with several items considering the field of alternate (or alternative) history. These are stories in which the world is different from the one which we know because of a significant event which happened - or didn't happen - at some point in the past. This key element of all alternate histories is known as the POD (Point Of Departure) or, by some fans, as the Jonbar point, named after John Barr in Jack Williamson's The Legion of Time (1938). An example might be the historical claim by a British infantryman that he had Hitler in his rifle sights at the end of the Great War, but decided not to fire as Hitler was wounded and posed no threat. If he had squeezed that trigger, how might history have changed?
Alternate histories may concern themselves with just the one Earth which results from the change, or may adopt the idea of branching universes in which each POD creates a new world which runs in parallel with the others (with the possibility of communication or travel between these parallel worlds). In either case, the actual POD might not even be specified, leaving the reader to consider what it might have been.
The first of the items in Vector is, literally, exemplary: an account of the development of a form of fiction called "plausible-fabulism", written by Daud al-Musafir al-Khilafahi bin Ammar ibn al-Afrangi, a critic living in a world in which the Muslim Caliphate includes Britain and America.
The editorial by Niall Harrison comments on the recent popularity of alternate histories, pointing out that they tend to be categorised as either science fiction (e.g. McAuley's Cowboy Angels) or fantasy (Stross' Merchant Princes series), depending on the author's treatment of the story or the publisher's whim, and that there is even a sub-category of "fantastic alternate histories", such as Novik's Temeraire books. Jo Walton and Guy Gavriel Kay are interviewed for this piece, giving their own perspectives. Kay argues the benefits of the "universalising" effect of setting a story in a world detached from our reality, which thereby bypasses the preconceptions and prejudices of readers, although Walton points out that any imagined world which is close to reality has an obligation to actual history. One controversial issue with such close worlds is whether to include, and if so how to treat, historical people. Does "anything go", or should they be left alone, or included but treated as accurately as our understanding of them permits? Harrison concludes by quoting from The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction: "At its best, the alternate history reminds us that we all change the world".
This is followed by Edward James' very well-referenced and thoughtful article, The Limits of Alternate History. He also draws distinctions between different kinds of alternate history, but is more concerned with the rules of the genre. He argues that the most elegant form is the most realistic type, with a credible POD (such as Hitler being shot) and a well-informed attempt to extrapolate what could plausibly have happened next. He observes that such an approach is not restricted to novelists, having attracted serious historians as well. This goes back to the 1st century BC when Livy speculated about what might have happened if Alexander the Great had not died young, through to the present fad for "counterfactual histories" led by Niall Ferguson, with an interesting example en route being Winston S. Churchill's If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg, which appeared in If; Or, History Rewritten in 1931. James presents an interesting summary of the arguments concerning why historians should, or should not, get involved in such speculations.
Various sub-types of alternate history are discussed by James, as well as the interesting issue of how much the author should assume the reader will know. If a story includes, without comment, lots of consequential changes to the detail of history, readers unfamiliar with the period will miss a lot of the pleasure: but if the author spells out what the changes are, those who do know the period are likely to be irritated.
James has less enthusiasm for the "impure" variations of alternate history, including those popular ones which merge with other SF themes such as time travel (with the time-travellers changing history, or trying to prevent others from changing it), or "time-slip" stories in which an entire town, fleet or army might suddenly find themselves back in the past. Multiverse stories, in which characters can travel between parallel worlds, are also categorised as "impure". He concludes by arguing that alternate history is best kept separate from the themes and tropes of SF, and would thereby form a genre of its own.
Next come two authors writing about their approaches to writing; Juliet E. McKenna and Chris Roberson. McKenna is the author of the Aldabreshin Compass series and her article, History Around the Margins, explores the female viewpoint, both in fiction and in reality, and describes the wealth of historical resources now available to authors which enable them to enrich their historical fantasies with period detail. Not specifically about alternate histories, but the references she cites would be very useful to AH authors setting their stories in an alternate but realistic past. Roberson's History Repurposed - The Celestial Empire Stories describes his approach to creating his alternate world, which is the background to stories stretching from the past into the future. In all of these, Imperial China rules the world (with the exception of the Aztecs in some stories) as a result of an obscure POD concerning a 15th century murder investigation which leads to a different emperor taking the throne.
Graham Sleight's The New X concludes this issue (apart from no less than 27 SFF book reviews), by putting a case for why we should regard alternate history as SF. He argues that the common themes are the use of extrapolation, in which the author works forwards from a known point (whether in the past, the present or the future) to develop a world different from our own; and in the effect of the stories, in that the author has to develop a realistic invented world as well as presenting the characters.
Altogether an excellent issue dealing thoughtfully with an increasingly popular genre. For anyone interested in this, the articles (especially Edward James') are packed with references to novels (and "counterfactuals") which embody different aspects of alternate history.
I have only one complaint: the contributors incomprehensibly neglected to mention a couple of novels which incorporate alternate history themes, albeit in entirely different ways: The Foresight War and Scales! Perhaps it's just as well, though, as I fear that James would categorise both of them as "impure". TFW's POD is entirely implausible, concerning as it does present-day British and German historians waking up in 1934, although in my defence I did do my best to make the resulting developments as plausible as I could (and did a lot of research to that end). In contrast, Scales is set in the present day and mostly on our Earth, but includes some very different parallel Earths with PODs (not always specified) ranging from a few centuries to a hundred million years ago.