Tuesday, December 2, 2008

What If? Part One

A friend of mine is writing an introduction to Philip Jose Farmer’s Two Hawks from Earth, Farmer’s classic alternate history tale. My friend was somewhat familiar with the genre but hasn’t read it extensively. While I do not consider myself an expert I have read many books in the genre so he asked me to share some of my knowledge..

For those of you who are not familiar with the genre, it is a genre of speculative fiction deriving from the question what if? Common examples are; what if the South had won the Civil War? or What if the Nazis had won WWII?

Having posed the question the author task is to answer the question in an entertaining and plausible fashion. Whether or not the writer succeeds is often subjective.

Alternate history is often confused with alternate universes or parallel universe, all of which are considered subsets of the science fiction genre. While an alternate history make indeed take place in an alternate universe it does not necessarily do so. What makes an alternate history an alternate history is that some event has to have taken place that altered the course of historical development.

For example Laurell K Hamilton's Anita Blake series, which is set in modern St. Louis. This takes place in a universe where magic works and vampires and werewolves are legal citizens and Cahokia Mounds are actually Fairy hills. Even though there are differences between our world and this one, this series should be considered an alternate universe rather than an alternate history.

On the other hand, Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series could be considered an alternate history even though it also takes place in a universe where magic works. The Lord Darcy series does indeed have a historical point of difference that centering on Richard I Plantagenet. Instead of dying without heirs in a stupid punitive expedition Richard I lived to perpetuate and expand the Anjou empire. Some AH purists might reject the notion that the Lord Darcy series is a true AH because it does have magic etc. but I tend to include it.

Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters can also be disputed as to whether it is alternate history. Although it takes place in a universe where Athens rose to prominence and took over half of the world, in this universe Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelian physics are true. In other words the fundamental physical laws are far different than say just the addition of magic or supernatural creatures that it should be considered a parallel universe story rather than an alternate history.

Another type of story that is not generally considered alternate history are stories written in the past but set a future which has already become the past. Prime examples of these are 1984 or The Red Napoleon although I do put them in my AH bookcase.

One more type of story that is not considered to be an AH is one where a historical difference does not make a significant historical change. For example it is discovered that the atomic bomb was invented during Queen Victoria
time as in Queen Victoria's Bomb, or that Nazis had landed on the moon but these events were unknown and had no real affect on historical development. These are secret histories rather than alternate histories.

Off the top of my head there are three main categories. of Alternate History. There are straight alternate histories, time travel derived alternate history and crosstime fiction. I will go into more details about these three categories in my next blog.

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