Alternate history fiction has been catching a lot of eyes lately, with The Man In The High Castle and SS-GB getting made into popular TV shows, but did you know that there’s more to it than different outcomes for World War 2?
Alternate timelines (ATL) about World War 2 are very common in the alternate history community to the point of being a trope and it is understandable why. It was a war with major societal and cultural changes that happened because of it and we still have many people alive who can remember it first hand.
Matt Mitrovich, the Alternate Historian, has this to say on the topic:
The second reason is the that the Nazis make great villains. Human history is complicated and rarely do you find anyone in it who is wholly good or wholly evil. Hitler and his minions are one of the rare exceptions. The horror they unleashed and what they planned to do if they were ultimately victorious has created a dark fascination of them in our society, especially in the English-speaking world where the most WWII alternate histories are produced The Nazi aesthetic’s influence on fiction, however, extends outside of alternate history. From Indiana Jones to Star Wars, jackbooted thugs are the most easily identifiable villains in fiction and it is because of the impact the Nazis’ crimes had on our collective conscience.
The editor of the Today in Alternate History blog has a different take on why WW2 points of divergence (PoD) are so popular:
It can of course be easily argued that some of these events — the end of Empire being an example — were changes in the wings waiting to happen that were simply accelerated by WW2, indeed were historical processes foreshadowed by WW1 which served as a continuation of the earlier conflict. It could perhaps also be argued that the secrets of the development of an atomic bomb were inevitably obtained by the Soviets and therefore the first detonation in anger was quickly negated by catch-up. Conversely, the American seizure of Nazi rocket technology, and leading scientists such as von Braun under “Operation Paperclip” could be viewed as a non-inevitable branch that lead to (and was intended to lead to) a US, rather than Soviet, moon-landing. Conspiracy or cock-up, some intended, some not, random, or causal, but all profound in nature.
These points of argument represent a number of branches for alternative history, and at the beginning of each one, a point of divergence. As a result of this a huge number of what-ifs scenarios have been conceived by alternative historians, from a failed invasion of France, retreat to North African colonies, neutrality of Fascist Italy, or Churchill’s near death auto accident in New York a decade earlier, X-Day with no bomb, no Enigma Device, Hitler’s (or Stalin’s or FDR’s or Churchill’s) assassination.
Many butterflies have been imagined based upon very deep understandings of military technology, strategy and even the personalities of the protagonists, but perhaps none greater in the imagination than the unreliable Channel Weather that the D-Day planners nervously monitored in the first week of 1944. For this reason, WW2 provides an endless opportunity for alternative history, even if alternate historians sometimes complain “Oh no, not another WW2 scenario”.
But there’s so much more to alternate history than World Ward 2, in spite of those endless opportunities.
Harry Turtledove, a popular author of the genre and recommended by Mitrovich, has his Southern Victory series where the Confederate States of America win the American Civil War. Kim Stanley Robinson, known best for his Greening of Mars series, wrote The Years of Rice and Salt which has its PoD in 1405 when the Black Death kills 99% of Europe’s population instead of a third and Timur turns his armies away. On the fantasy side there’s Randall Garrett’s Lord D’Arcy series which happens in the 1960s in an ATL where magic exists and Richard Lionheart survives the Siege of Châlus with his domains on the continent intact as the Angevin Empire.
“I’ve always enjoyed alternate histories focusing on World War III. The Cuban Missile Crisis going hot is a popular point of divergence (and I recommend reading Resurrection Day by Brendan DuBois), but I’ve always thought the nuclear war by accident is more plausible. Google ‘Stanislav Petrov’ if you ever want a great example of one man saving billions of lives,” says Mitrovich.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the phrase “Alien Space Bats” (ASB), which refers to a PoD that is unlikely. It is a comment stories so implausible or improbable the only way the story would make sense is through unmentioned meddling bats from outer space making things happen. The term started off an insult, a cachet which it still has in many cases, but has also become a valid literary device. On example is Eric Flint’s 1632 series where the fictional town of Grantville, West Virginia is transported to 17th century Central Europe by the actions of an alien civilisation mentioned in the prologue. “The best ones are always those that try to be as plausible as possible following the initial point of divergence”, says Mitrovich, who specifically pointed out 1632 as alternate history that he enjoys.
Steampunk stories, when they aren’t the equivalent of modern-day comic book plots set in the Victorian Era with fanciful technology, are often alternate history fiction by implication as it is not uncommon for them to mention in passing countries or major events that do not exist or turned out differently in our timeline (OTL). One steampunk novel that is explicitly alternate history is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. In it Charles Babbage’s difference engine is built and spawns a technological revolution in England where the Industrial Radical Party is in control.
But there’s so much more!
Alternate History also has a large and active fan community. On AlternateHistory.com, a well known web forum for the genre, you can find fan-favourite ATLs by forum participants like Look to the West by Thande or And They Shall Reap The Whirlwind by Sbiper, both winners in their respective categories for the 2016 Turtledove Awards. There are also people creating everything from in-depth timelines and stories to detailed maps to flags for alternate nation-states, and even Wikipedia infoboxes laying out everything you might want to know at a glance about people, places and events in an ATL.
DeviantArt also has an active community of people making alternate maps and flags and other works of art, and there are a number of subreddits and Facebook groups for maps, for “What If?” history questions and for general alternate history discussions. There are numerous blogs and vlogs like This Day in Alternate History and the above quoted Alternate Historian.
There’s so much in alternate history that I could never go into everything that is out there in an overview like this, but you might want to start off with Mitrovich’s “AH 101” mini-series to get your feet wet. Please share your favourite pieces of alternate history creativity in the comments.