Imagining what could have been: the world of alternate history

Alternate history or uchronic fiction is a genre that has blossomed in recent years, and allows readers to combine their love of history and science fiction. In these novels, the characters exist in a world where history as we know it has unfolded differently, allowing us to explore how it might have affected the world.

Wars are often used as a divergent point in alternate history fiction as they offer an obvious event that, depending on the circumstances, could have unfolded in a different way. Two of the most written about alternate war scenarios involve the American Civil War and World War II.

Harry Turtledove, one of the most prolific authors of the genre combined both themes with a series starting with a Confederate victory in 1862, and then telling how it changed the course of North America (including Winnipeg!) up to the end of an alternate World War II fought between the USA and the CSA along with their respective allies.

In Jo Walton’s “Small Change” detective series, the United Kingdom is forced to make peace with Germany in 1941, before the United States become involved in World War II, and gradually turns to fascism.

Fans of  the political angle might enjoy Robin Gerber’s Eleanor vs Ike, a book that imagines what could have happened had Dwight Eisenhower run against Eleanor Roosevelt in 1952, instead of Adlai Stevenson.

Sometimes the point of divergence can be natural causes as in the Atlantis series by Harry Turtledove, where a segment of North America breaks off the main land mass in prehistoric times and comes to be known as Atlantis. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt explores how the world could have evolved if the 14th century black death had all but exterminated Europe, leaving Islam and Buddhism to become the dominant forces of the present day.

Some uchronic fiction uses supernatural elements to influence history, like the universe of the graphic novel series Rex Mundi, where magic and feudalism co-exists in 1930’s Europe still dominated by the Catholic Church.

Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam detective series also takes place in magic-filled 19th century North America, still under British rule.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon is set in an alternative present day where a Jewish settlement was established in Alaska after the destruction of Israel in 1948.

For fans of the genre, uchronia.net is the authoritative bibliographic list of alternate history fiction with over 3,100 titles and counting.

What is your favourite uchronic fiction title or sub-genre?

Louis-Philippe

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