A type of science fiction story which asks "How would our past have been different if certain events occurred which did not occur in our world?". A good example is Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South, which depicts the American Civil War as it might have happened if the Confederacy had been armed with AK-47s.

This technique, pioneered by Philip K. Dick in The Man in the High Castle, a book I personally recommend, deals with an event in history that happened in a manner different from its actual course. Dick's novel deals with the theme of Nazis winning World War II and the hilarious consequences thereof. Not to be confused with steam punk, a style pioneered by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling in their joint work The Difference Engine. In steam punk novels, an invention or technological breakthrough occurs dramatically before its time in real history. In The Difference Engine, for instance, Charles Babbage succeeds in developing computers at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. These computers, for which the novel is named, are run by steam, hence the name 'steam punk'.

Alternate history novels, if well written, can teach you a lot about real history, too. The idea is to change one event, and examine the repercussions. That provides a means to examine the social and political issues of the time in a fresh light. In the American Civil War you can discuss slavery and the South's class system, in early America you can discuss the problems of Native Americans . Reading an alternate history novel often prompts me to research the real events and issues, and once I've done so, the novel becomes much more rich and realistic.

L. Sprague De Camp's seminal Lest Darkness Fall1 is an excellent example of the AH novel. It is a very entertaining read, buttressed by solid research and painstaking attention to historical accuracy. Lest Darkness Fall is filled with minutiae about the life of the common man in sixth century Rome (aka the Byzantine Empire). The Byzantine Empire is also a favo(u)rite stomping grounds for prolific AH author Harry Turtledove.

According to the Ancient History section of about.com, Harry Turtledove himself tells us that the first alternate history was written by Livy, who asked what would have happened if Alexander the Great had turned west to attack Rome, instead of east to Persia.

  1. It should be noted that the plot of "Lest Darkness Fall" closely parallels Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", but De Camp's keen attention to historical accuracy while maintaining a great yarn made the book a prototype for all that would come after.
Quizro uses Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South as an example of alternate history. While there is no doubt that providing the Confederacy with AK-47s has a pretty dramatic impact on the war, the fact that AK-47s aren't 19th century weapons and the fact that the introduction of the AK-47s requires the use of a time machine would seem to me to make the book more of a pseudo-historical story or possibly a science fiction story rather than an alternate history story.

Strictly speaking, an alternate history story explores the consequences which follow from one or more (typically) quite minor changes to historical events. For example, Harry Turtledove's How Few Remain novel hinges around the consequences of an event involving Confederate General Lee's Special Order 191.

Prepared by Lee in September of 1864, Special Order 191 describes Lee's plan to invade Maryland as part of an advance northwards. In real life, a copy of this order was found by the North's General McClellan which allowed him to inflict a series of key defeats on General Lee and his army.

In the book, the first four pages describe how a soldier picks up and returns an envelope which a Confederate courier has dropped. The envelope, of course, contains a copy of Special Order 191. The rest of the book is an exploration of the consequences of this relatively minor incident (i.e. something doesn't get lost).

Without giving too much of the story away, some of the consequences are:

All in all, it's an interesting story and, unlike Guns of the South, the story doesn't rely on 20th century firearms or time travel or any other external interference with history.

I'm sorry but I don't like handing out spoilers so you're going to have to read the book if you want to know what else happens (this is also not intended to be a review of the book).

How Few Remain; by Harry Turtledove; copyright © 1977 by Harry Turtledove; a Del Rey book published by The Ballantine Publishing Group; ISBN 0-345-40614-1 (paperback edition)

If you're interested in alternate history, you might also want to read the books that follow How Few Remain:

The Great War: American Front
The Great War: Walk in Hell
The Great War: Breakthrough
American Empire: Blood and Iron
American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold
P.S. I quite enjoyed Guns of the South. I just don't think that it's an example of alternate history.
History is the lie commonly agreed upon - Voltaire Alternative (or alternate) history is a genre of literature that seeks to illustrate and explain a counterfactual: what the world would look like based on circumstances relating to the real world remaining constant except for a few vital differences.

Alternate history does not include stories set in the future (i.e. in an era subsequent to the writer's own period), like Buck Rogers or Neville Shute's On the Beach. Instead, it works in within an existing historical narrative that both the reader and writer are familiar with. In most cases a character in an alternate history novel might describe a critical set point in history where previously the read world and the alternative world were essentially identical, and subsequently everything went pear-shaped. However in other novels the absence of an explanation can actually make the world seem more harrowing.

In my opinion, the best alternative history novels (and the most pure examples of this genre) are those that present the most plausible storylines, in a world that readers can almost relate to. However, several alternate history books involve science fiction to some extent, in particular the novels by Harry Turtledove. In some cases the nature of parallel universes is explored with characters moving between the two (such as the Back to the Future trilogy), while in others (particularly those not involving fantasy), the alternative universe is presented as the only timeline. Alternative histories which are easy to relate to actually can assist readers in understanding the significance of real history, or the societies they live in (consider White Man's Burden). Several are written as mystery novels, where both the reader and the main character slowly fit the pieces of an unverifiable history together.

An Alternate History of the World

528 - Two aliens arrive on Earth. One coaxes an African warlord to dominate the world, while the other seeks to stop them by recruiting the Byzantium and the Holy Roman Empires (An Oblique Approach ).

600 - The Roman Empire still exists, and is poised to enter into a final battle with the Persians (The Shadow of Ararat )

1588 - England is ruled by the Spanish, whose armada sunk the Royal Navy (Ruled Britannia)

1681 - Sir Isaac Newton ditches science and discovers sorcery (Newton's Cannon )

1855 - Charles Babbage's first attempt at a computer does a lot more than simple arithmetric, and thus changes the entire character of the Victorian era ( The Difference Engine )

1884 - Native Americans form their own country Apacheria and bring to a crashing halt the westwards destiny of the American colonialists (Apacheria)

1776 - King George III and George Washington amicably settle their differences, and for the next two hundred years the United States remains a kindler, gentler colony of England (The Two Georges)

1881 - The Confederates win the American Civil War, forcing Abraham Lincoln from office, where he becomes an itinerant socialist rabble rouser (How Few Remain)

1937 - Oswald Mosely comes to power in England (The Leader)

1941 - Britain is ruled by Germany (SSGB, and heaps of other novels)

1942 - Adolf Hitler is temporarily put out of action after a plane crash, allowing for some smarter heads in the Wehrmacht to take control and wage a better outcome on the African and Eastern fronts (The Moscow Option)
Germany and Japan defeat and occupy the United States (The Man in the High Castle)

1946 - The United States, which has crushed Japan, and Nazi Germany, which rules Europe, confront each other with nuclear weapons (1945 co-authored by Newt Gingrich)

1964 - Germany is still fighting the Soviet Union half way to Vladivostok while seeking a peace treaty with President Joseph Kennedy of the United States. Meanwhile a Nazi police officer undercovers secret documents that might help explain why Jews seem to be thin on the ground in Europe (Fatherland).

1972 - Neither Khrushchev nor Kennedy blinked ten years earlier, and in the radioactive, post-Cuban War ruins of the United States life somehow goes on. (Resurrection Day)

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