Alternate history

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Alternate history is a type of science fiction in which the basic premise is that some specific historical event never happened, or happened differently. Currently the most prolific practitioner of this type of fiction is Harry Turtledove, who has written a series in which the South did not lose the American Civil War. Other stories by this author include the premise that America had not been colonised from Asia during the last Ice Age; as a result, the continent still has living mammoths and prehuman species. See also steampunk.

The earliest example of alternate history appears to be Book IX, sections 17-19, of the Livy's History of Rome from Its Foundation. He contemplates the possibility of Alexander the Great expanding his father's empire westward instead of east, and attacking Rome in the 4th century BC. (Wikipedia contains spoilers: Livy was a patriotic Roman -- Alexander loses.)

Many people one would not consider sci-fi authors have written alternate history. In "The Forfeited Birthright of the Abortive Far Western Christian Civilization," Arnold Toynbee describes a world in which the Franks lost to the Muslims at the Battle of Tours in 732. Winston Churchill wrote an essay entitled "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg" that considers what sort of world would have resulted if the North had won the American Civil War -- from the point of view of a historian in a world where the Confederacy had won.

Historians also speculate in this manner; this type of speculation is known commonly as counterfactuality. There is considerable debate within the community of historians about the validity and purpose of this type of speculation.

For alternate histories which some assert to be factual rather than speculative, see conspiracy theory and alternative history.

Representative works

  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis is set in a world very similar to that of Pavane; the novel concerns the attempt to prevent a young boy with a perfect singing voice from being recruited to the Vatican's eunuch choir. There are a number of in-jokes, where famous works of fantasy and science fiction appear, under slightly different titles: `The Wind in the Cloisters' and `The Lord of the Chalices' for example.


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