Alternate History: Science Fiction or Something Else?

8 Comments’s recent post got me thinking about the problem that is alternate history. As highlighted by Tor, the opinions on alternate history seem to be relatively split down the middle: some believe it is science fiction and others do not, except in certain scenarios. I think I’ve voiced my opinions on this before, but never in a post dedicated to the topic.

I have issues with considering alternate history as science fiction. I probably fit into that second camp that considers the genre largely something else, except in those occasions when someone from a future point is actively participating in the altering of history (Back to the Future, for example). The problem seems to be one of definition. I consider science fiction to largely be future oriented, in some capacity, with a heavy focus on some aspect of scientific discourse, whether accurate or otherwise. Thus, works like 1984 and Star Wars can be held within the science fiction genre (where they are then split into different subgenres for the purposes of differentiation). Science fiction, for me, must always consider the impacts of the present (or even the past) on a future point, even if that future point is tomorrow, rather than one hundred years from now.

With that in mind, how can one possibly fit alternate history into the science fiction genre? It’s not about the future, it does not at all reflect upon the present, and it is not, as a genre, concerned with scientific subjects (from sociology to politics to physics)–though such subjects may play a part in certain tales. Alternate history tends to ask “What if this did or didn’t happen?” while science fiction tends to ask “What if this happened?” There is a disconnect there between what I consider to be the under-riding question. Science fiction never asks us to think about what didn’t happen; it is an active, progress-based genre (whether for good or for bad).

But what do we do with alternate history if we can’t place it in science fiction? Wouldn’t it be fare to give it its own category? The generally accepted genre classification takes speculative fiction as the main genre, with science fiction and fantasy underneath as subcategories–sometimes horror gets put in there too. Why must we stick everything within those two subcategories? It seems somewhat absurd that everyone must either be fantasy or science fiction, and not something else–except where legitimate crossover is concerned, such as a science fiction horror, or a science fantasy, etc. Couldn’t we take the easy road and introduce a category specific to alternate history? As a genre, alternate history is neither science fiction, nor fantasy, but it is speculative. Perhaps that’s the best thing to do with it.

What do you think? Do you consider alternate history as science fiction? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments!

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.

8 thoughts on “Alternate History: Science Fiction or Something Else?

  1. This is like answering "to be or not to be?"

    For me, I think Alternate History is its own genre. So the taxonomy would be something like:

    Fiction > Speculative Fiction > Alternate History

    But that's not to say that Alternate History can't fall under the Science Fiction genre like this:

    Fiction > Speculative Fiction > Science Fiction > Alternate History

    See the difference? And it works the other way too:

    Fiction > Speculative Fiction > Alternate History > Science Fiction

    Don't worry if you're confused, it makes sense to me. Take a novel about aliens landing on earth in 1985. Would that be Alternate History > Science Fiction or Science Fiction > Alternate History?

    There's your Deep Thought for today.

  2. I would see something going back in time to an alien encounter in 1985 as alternate history, because the people of the future are not active in the adjustment of history, there, unlike, say, in Back to the Future.

    Alternate history to me cannot be science fiction unless someone from a science fiction future are actively participating in the adjustment of history.

  3. I’ve always considered it closer to fantasy than to science fiction, but I’m not sure I can give you a clear and succinct answer as to why. Part of it ties into what you said: science fiction generally looks forward, while fantasy generally looks back. Unless, of course, we’re talking about something like steampunk, where we’re examining the effect of current and/or advanced technology on an historical period where that technology was not actually present. But that’s another subgenre all by itself, and steampunk doesn’t necessarily have to take place in our history. Alternate history pretty well does, or it’s just straight fantasy. Hmmm.

  4. I don’t know if it qualifies as fantasy either, though, because alternate history tends to not contain the staples of the fantasy genre. Usually we’re dealing with an alternate history set in a time still familiar (WW2, for example), and that I wouldn’t see as fantasy…

  5. Its a bit like “Crime” vs “Mystery” isn’t it? For years publishers and book stores didn’t know where to put a “crime” book so it was saddled with “mystery”.

    In fact, at my local library all of the crime books have the SKULL sticker which signifies mystery.

    I think the fun with an alternate history book is the “alternate” elements.

    At the end of Star Trek First Contact, when Picard sets the Enterprise on self destruct he orders everyone to find a quiet place in North America and “Stay out of Histories way”.

    If the movie would have continued that way, I feel like the science fiction elements would have begun to fizzle quite quickly as the crew settled into a life.

    Conclusion: It should have its own genre [and sticker at the library].

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