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Alternate history

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Alternate history


Why it’s daunting: British essayist William Hazlitt once observed that only mankind is capable of noticing the difference between how things are and how they might have been. It’s both our good fortune and our tragedy that humanity has been asking “What if?” since it developed language. Here in the 21st century, there are entire genres of both literature and history dedicated to imagining what the world might be like if specific historical events had gone one way instead of another; in fiction, this is known as “AH” or “alternate history,” while in academics, it’s called “counterfactual history.” Both have a long, complex history going back centuries, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two; even when you’re sure of the author’s intentions, the quality can vary wildly from elegantly styled fictions about historical divergence to deeply nerdy variations of the old “What if Hitler had photon torpedoes?” game. While alternate history has become one of the most popular subgenres of speculative fiction, its very popularity has ensured that a lot of what’s produced isn’t worth reading.

Possible gateway: Robert Sobel’s clever Pulitzer Prize-nominated 1972 novel For Want Of A Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won At Saratoga.


Why: Sobel’s novel is something of a founding document in the world of alternate histories; although the concept goes back thousands of years in literature, his book became an unexpected cult hit and set off a wave of interest in the genre among fiction writers and academics alike. Sobel was both—a business historian with training in academia. And although For Want Of A Nail is a novel, part of its appeal is the way it apes the format of a legitimate history. In fact, it not only appears to be a straightforward undergraduate history text (complete with critiques, references, and dozens of footnotes referring to nonexistent studies), only the cover reveals that it isn’t really what it appears to be.

This effective blending of the fanciful and the banal is what makes For Want Of A Nail such a good place to start. The writing style, by its very dryness, achieves a wonderful balance between the counterfactual history—which goes into tremendous depth, with endless variations springing forth from the most minor historical divergences—and the fictional wonders, to the point that when a huge corporation, the invented Kramer Associates, ends up as a nuclear power near the end of the book, it seems like the most reasonable thing in the world. For those interested in the “history” part of “alternate history,” the book is incredibly well-researched and meticulous in its presentation of real-world historical figures; for those who like the “alternate” part, it’s fascinating for how those figures play a completely different role in this always plausible, yet entirely unpredictable, divergent path of American history.


Best of all, For Want Of A Nail isn’t interested in just being an alternate history; it’s occasionally funny (especially in its deliberately absurd reliance on impenetrable footnotes) and works as a satire of academic publishing. It even includes a vicious review of itself from a fictional historian outraged at the book’s alleged historical bias. All of which makes it a great starting point for readers looking for an easy entry point, from either the historical or the fantastic elements of the genre.

Next steps: Readers who want more exposure to the academic side of alternate history may want to check out Plausible Worlds: Possibility And Understanding In History And The Social Sciences. Author Geoffrey Hawthorn, a Cambridge sociologist, helped legitimize the field with investigations into possible divergences in the Korean War and Europe’s plague years. Two excellent books of essays by various historians are also good next steps: Virtual History: Alternatives And Counterfactuals, edited by Niall Ferguson, the leading academic advocate of counterfactual history, and the highly entertaining What If?: The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, edited by Robert Cowley.


The science-fiction side of alternate history has far deeper, wider-ranging choices. Just in terms of quality, one of the best places to start is Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, which tells the familiar story of a world where the Axis wins World War II, but in a highly unexpected way. Its mystical elements and moody storytelling set it apart from most such novels, but its sustained feel and often brilliant prose make it a must-read. Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years Of Rice And Salt is also a terrific next step; ambitious and well-written, it speculates a world where the Chinese and Muslim civilizations came to dominate the world instead of European Christianity. And for a particularly bizarre take on the genre, try to hunt down a copy of Norman Spinrad’s hysterical The Iron Dream. Like Sobel’s novel, it uses historical tropes and invented critics in service of the outlandish notion that Adolf Hitler emigrates to America after WWI and becomes a science-fiction novelist, whose work contains certain, shall we say, familiar themes.

Where not to start: Harry Turtledove is probably the best-known name in alternate-history science fiction, but his body of work is intimidatingly vast, and not very good. Turtledove has endless ideas, but most of them revolve around fairly trite Civil War or WWII divergences, and his prose style leaves a lot to be desired. Alternative history has appealed to many well-known authors (even Mark Twain and Winston Churchill have tried their hands at it), but the results are mixed; Newt Gingrich’s divergent WWII novel 1945 is pretty lousy, while Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America—where a Nazi-sympathetic Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States—works best as literature, with its historical aspects often coming across as flat or not entirely credible. Harry Harrison’s Stars And Stripes trilogy is entertaining enough, but riddled with lazy errors, and S.M. Stirling’s excellent Emberverse stories are really more post-apocalyptic novels of an alternate future, and don’t quite count as histories. Those looking for more of speculative fiction’s take on alternate history will find no shortage, though; for each of the books above, there are probably half a dozen that will work better.


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