What Happens When You Ask History, “What If?”


The label “alternative history” might sound something like “fake news” at first glance. And, in the hands of the wrong writer, I suppose it can be. But the alternative history fiction genre in general is a fascinating study of what has been… and what could have been.

Let’s consider this week’s writing Definition first, then take it from there:

Alternative History Fiction:

Also known as alternate history fiction, this genre is grouped with science-fiction and fantasy... even though it doesn’t really fit there.

Alternative history fiction switches up the known past so that the Axis powers won World War I, the British kept America in 1783, the Muslim Empire conquered the known world in the 8th century, or some such thing.

Essentially, it takes actual historical events and says, what if the other side had its way? Interesting, right?

Interesting, but not very sci-fi or fantastical except for one – apparently determining – aspect. It’s technically dealing with alternate universes that mirror our own except for one life-altering historical detail.

Maybe it’s that the Battle of Waterloo went Napoleon’s way, allowing him to take over the entire European continent like he wanted to.

Or what if the Russians had won the Cold War? Would we all be mini Moscows now?

Whatever it is, alternative history writing normally centers around a major historical event not going the way it actually did. Also typically, that major historical event is some kind of war, as all the possibilities given above indicate.

No doubt, there are examples that break that rule, but let’s face it: It’s much easier to transform the world with extreme events than subtle ones. Nothing against subtle, but subtle takes time. And you only have a novel – maybe a series – to work within.

As such, alternative history fiction writers pick an absolute catastrophe averted – and then un-avert it.

One more example that pops into my head is United Airline Flight 93, the fateful flight that crashed into a Pennsylvania field on September 11, 2001. Becky Toews briefly but poignantly mentions it in her book Between the Lamp Posts like this:

Did you know the plane was delayed twenty-five minutes in taking off due to weather? The hijackers attempted to control the passengers by telling them to remain seated – that there was a bomb on board and they were heading back to the airport to have their demands met. However, as the passengers began calling home on their cellphones, they soon learned the true story... Flight 93 was to be the next instrument of destruction against the United States if they did nothing to stop it. Their decision to take over the cockpit stands as one of the greatest acts of civilian bravery in American history.

I love that Toews put it that way: “one of the greatest acts of civilian bravery in American history.” That’s utterly beautiful, and who knows where we’d be today without their incredible sacrifice.

If the weather hadn’t delayed their flight.

If they hadn’t been allowed to reach their loved ones.

If they hadn’t been brave enough to set aside their innate desire to cling to each second they could.

The plane could have slammed into the White House or Congress, sending our nation into chaos of enormous magnitude.

It could have happened.

It didn’t; thank God. But what if it did?

The alternative history fiction genre answers that kind of question – all from the comforts of the world as it actually is.

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