THE PAST, CONDITIONALLY: ALTERNATIVE HISTORY IN SPECULATIVE FICTION

How did each side cope with the search for effective commanders? Did the South have the capacity to continue the war if the Army of Northern Virginia had found time to regroup?

Alternative histories fictionalize the counterfactuals that are embedded in historical thinking. In so doing, the genre can help both scholars and students to broaden their historical imaginations. Skilled practitioners not only set intellectual puzzles (“what if…?”) but fill their scenarios with interesting and compelling characters who provide a sense of everyday life in a different time and place. Dick did this very well in High Castle, published in 1962 and set in the same year. After half a generation, Americans are adjusting to defeat.

Interlocked stories include a San Francisco antiques dealer trying to please Japanese clients and a Colorado Springs waitress who fantasizes about a resistance movement. There is enough action to drive a TV series, but the author’s deeper interest is in how the characters adjust to the new circumstances he’s imagined for them (including yuppies flocking to the German-occupied eastern states, where opportunity beckons to ambitious non-Jews).

Alternative History and Historical Thinking

Alternative history fiction can look a lot like standard historical fiction, but with a twist. Frederic Jameson has argued that SF in the 20th century picked up the function of historical fiction in the 19th—to show readers the possibility and reality of historical change—and that alternative history is a special subgenre. Since Walter Scott, historical novelists have inserted fictional characters and stories into known events while leaving the overall contours of history (we might call it textbook history) unaltered. Alternative history writers also mix real and fictional people, but they spin the kaleidoscope to make new patterns, doubling down by coupling some of the tropes and the tone of historical fiction with the SF imagination.

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