Alternate History 101

Worldcon, 2001

Updated for Sidewise Awards

compiled by Evelyn C. Leeper

Will Shetterly's Rule: "There are no correct alternate histories; there are only plausible alternate histories."

"Plausibility, as the necessary brake and control element, has been our most essential guide." -Harold C. Deutsch, introduction to What If? Strategic Alternatives of WWII

"It is easy to agrue persuasively the truism that the lessons of history are best derived from what actually happened, rather than from what nearly happened. It should be added, however, that what happened becomes more fully comprehensible in the light of the contending forces that existed at moments of decision. Understanding of the total historical setting is bound to contribute to a clearer view of the actual course of affairs." -Harold C. Deutsch, introduction to What If? Strategic Alternatives of WWII

Why is alternate history science fiction?

It is important to distinguish among alternate histories, parallel worlds, alternate universes, and secret histories. Alternate history fiction requires that the world described be historically the same as ours up to some point prior to when the author wrote the story, after which things begin to get different. (*)

Other names for alternate history:

Common abbreviations:

ACW = American Civil War

AH = alternate history

ATL = alternate timeline

OTL = our timeline

POD, PoD = point of divergence

WI = what-if

Most common what-ifs in literature:

At the "Histories: The Way We Weren't" panel at Boskone 28. Mark Keller said that the most common change points were (in English-language science fiction, anyway) was "What if Germany (Japan) had won World War II?" (over a hundred that he found). The next most popular was "What if the South had won the Civil War?" (about eighty). Third was "What if the Spanish Armada had not been defeated?" The most popular in French was "What if Napoleon had not been defeated?" which Keller said usually resulted in a better world than we have, while most American alternate histories show things as being worse. When someone in the audience asked why, Mark Olson replied, "We look at this as the best of all possible worlds, but the French know it isn't, because most people speak English."

Looking at the Uchronia list, the most common PoDs (by story) seem to be:

World War II
1939-1945
131 (plus 19 in 1946)
Civil War
1860-1861
75
World War I/Russian Revolution
1914-1918
24
Death of Richard Coeur de Lion
1199
18
Kennedy Assassination
1963
14
Cuban Missile Crisis
1962
13
FDR
1932-1933
13
Waterloo
1815
12
Spanish Armada
1588
12
Jacobite Wars
1746
11
Fall of Moorish Spain/Columbus Discovers America
1492
11

Most common by author:

World War II
1939-1945
119 (plus 7 in 1946)
Civil War:
1860-1861
57
World War I/Russian Revolution
1914-1918
25
Kennedy Assassination
1963
13
Cuban Missile Crisis
1962
11
FDR
1932-1933
13
Waterloo
1815
12
Fall of Moorish Spain/Columbus Discovers America
1492
10
Vietnam War
1968
9
Watergate
1968
6
Spanish Armada
1588
6
American Revolution
1776
6
Jacobite Wars
1746
1
Death of Richard Coeur de Lion
1199
1

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Alternate history book list: http://www.uchronia.net

Recommended books about alternate history (*):

Recommended alternate histories (OP=out of print, UK=UK edition only in print):

Classics:

Recent (in addition to the Sidewise Award winners listed below):

Anthologies:

Sidewise Awards (http://www.uchronia.net/sidewise) (year listed is the year the works appeared):

(*) Some of this is excerpted from previous versions of "Frequently Asked Questions in soc.history.what-if" (copyright 1994-2001 by Craig Neumeier and Robert B. Schmunk).

Copyright 2001 Evelyn C. Leeper
evelyn.leeper@excite.com
http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper
August 13, 2001

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