Tor.com’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!