In one sense the alternate history tale is a very specific kind of story: a type of speculative fiction in which a certain, often key, moment of history has been changed.
In another sense, though, alternate history has a much broader appeal. We are all curious, we all think about what might have happened differently in our lives and in the wider world, we all feel relief and regret.
In this week’s episode I’m joined by Dr Glyn Morgan to chat about the history of history. We discuss some of the key novels in the alternate history genre, the difference between the “Geoffroyan” and the “Tolstoyan”, and how alternate history can radically alter our view of the present.
Dr Glyn Morgan is Exhibition Curator at Science Museum, London. He completed a PhD at the University of Liverpool and, among many other publications, he is author of Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust (Bloomsbury, 2020), and co-editor of Sideways in Time: Critical Essays on Alternate History Fiction (Liverpool University Press, 2019).
You can read his blog here and follow him on twitter here.
Works Mentioned and Referenced
Livy: History of Rome
J.C. Squire: If It Had Happened Otherwise
E.H. Carr: What Is History?
Robert Harris: Fatherland
Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château: Napoléon et la conquête du monde
L Sprague de Camp: Lest Darkness Fall
Philip K. Dick: The Man in the High Castle
Sliders (TV show)
Sliding Doors, dir Peter Howitt
Stephen Fry: Making History
Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt
Bernadine Evaristo: Blonde Roots
Mary Robinette Kowal: The Calculating Stars
Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Jo Walton: “Small Change” trilogy
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Looking for more alternate history? Lots of it overlaps with time travel, which you can learn more about in this episode
Or how about parallel worlds and 4-dimensional space? Listen here
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I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
Four years ago, I was listening to more and more podcasts and at a certain point thought, like many others, maybe I could do something like that.
In my case I had plenty of material, I’d just spent the last decade researching and teaching and writing about all sorts of things related to popular literature and culture. If I could work out how to record and edit, then maybe there might be an audience for some of it.
And so this podcast was born. And then I realised that I loved doing it even more than I thought I would – all the different parts, the research, the interviews, the editing, even making a website, learning how to market the show, all that stuff.
And so, the show grew, and I joined the HeadStuff Podcast Network. And then I started editing a new podcasts section on the HeadStuff site. I started freelancing and making podcasts for other people, writing for other podcast websites.
And then HeadStuff expanded and opened The Podcast Studios and there was a position for someone with all of the skills I’d picked up. And now I work in podcasting full time and I absolutely love it.
But it was such a random series of events. There was a jonbar point (I’ll explain that later) when I decided to start this podcast. What if I had decided not to?
one of the classic kind of examples that’s given like generically for what ifs around history and for ultimate history is the, for want of a nail
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost for want of a shoe, the horse was lost for want of a horse, the man was lost, for want of a man, the unit was lost for want of a unit, the army was lost. And for one of the army, the war was lost. So it basically lays out this scenario where because of one tiny thing, a loose nail in a horseshoe, the entire war was lost
This is Dr Glyn Morgan
My name is Glyn Morgan, I’m a curator at the Science Museum. And I’m also an academic I did a literature PhD at the University of Liverpool. And I’m mainly interested in science fiction, alternate history, and the interaction between SF and other disciplines
Dr Morgan has published two recent books on alternate history stories. In one sense alternate history is a very specific kind of story, as we’ll see, sometimes seen as a subgenre of science fiction, more often as a genre onto itself. But in a broader sense alternate history is something we are all interested in. We all think about the what ifs in our life and in the wider world, we all feel relief and regret.
Historians, in particular, have been writing what if tales – alternate or counterfactual histories – for a very long time
if you’re going for your long histories, it’s generally considered to be Livy, Livy, a Roman writer. And he wrote a series of histories of, of the Roman Republic. And he wrote one of them in 25 BC, in which he speculated about what would have happened if Alexander the Great had, after bringing all of Greece under his dominion, had decided to turn, literally turn left, and forge an empire in the west toward into Europe.
These types of thought experiments have been around for as long as people have been writing about history really, but historians are divided as to their usefulness as a tool. Some, are very much in favour. Thinking how historical events might have played out differently allows us to think about causality, about the relative importance of certain events or historical figures, it allows us to approach the past from a new angle, to review and perhaps revalue or rethink aspects of the historical record. So, to use one of the most common alternate history setups, what if Hitler had never been born? Examining this might allow us to focus on the social or economic or political factors in 1930s Germany that may get overlooked or downplayed by a sole focus on Hitler’s rise to power.
So, JC Squire, he edited this collection of essays, ‘If it had happened otherwise’, which came out in 1931. And that was the first big collection in English that drew all of these essays together. And it had, it had some major historians of the day. But it also had, you know, people like GK Chesterton and Winston Churchill in and so it really blended the kind of literary and the historical, but they’re all like nonfiction essays, imagining what if historical events had gone differently
Other historians are not so enthusiastic about alternate history as a tool of historical research. To them there are simply too many variables for anything to be argued methodically or critically. Let’s return to another popular Hitler example:
Actually, it occurs to me, you know the way there’s Godwin’s law on the internet, the rule that as an online conversation grows longer the probability of a person invoking Hitler approaches 1? Well, it’s kind of like that with alternate history, the more stories you have, the probability of one or more of them being an alternate Hitler tale also rapidly approaches 1.
So anyway, if Germany had won the second world war, and the atom bomb hadn’t been developed then Japan would have invaded then and Britain would have surrendered then which means Russia which means the cold war which of course means etc etc. And for many historians this might be fun but it’s useless as a research tool, it’s chaos theory, we’re back to the nail in the horseshoe and everything is just speculation.
there are some historians such as E.H Carr, who, you know, wrote a very influential text called What is History?, which has been a core text in the study of history, you know, for much of the 20th century, or the late 20th century, and he referred to these thought experiments in that book, but he referred to them as parlor games, you know, quite dismissively, and saw no value in them
Luckily for me, and Dr Morgan, and maybe you too, I am not a historian, I like speculation – it makes for great speculative fiction – for science fiction and fantasy and horror and alternate history.
Because what we’re mostly talking about today is not counterfactual history, not alternate history as a research tool. I’m talking about alternate history as fiction where this newly imagined past is not the sole reason for the story – it’s a context and a setting in which a work of fiction plays out. So yes, maybe Hitler did win the war, but maybe, like in Robert Harris’ famous 1992 novel Fatherland it’s a detective story set two decades after World War II, in which a precise account of exactly how and when and why Germany won the war is simply not important.
So this type of alternate history novel also has a long tradition, going back nearly two centuries, or longer still, depending on who you ask:
the most common candidate is a French novel by Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château. And it’s called Napoléon et la conquête du monde , Napoleon and the conquering of the world. And yeah, that’s the first sustained novel, you know, in in a form that we recognize as being a novel. And that we could call point to, say, his alternate history. And that’s, that’s published in France in 1836
And right across the 19th and then accelerating in the 20th and 21st century, alternate history stories have sprung up in all shapes and forms. The genre commonly overlaps with science fiction, especially with time travel, or parallel worlds or other similar sf tropes.
But it’s certainly not just a sub-genre of science fiction, as it is sometimes viewed. There are alternate history detective stories, fantasy tales, romances; trashy pulp fiction and highbrow literary works.
one of the key texts that you could look at and potentially another candidate for where alternate history, you could say starts, if you’re going with the shortest history would be something like L Sprague de Camp’s, Lest Darkness Fall, which is from 1939. And it’s the first or at least it’s the first popular and successful time travel novel, where the time traveller goes backwards in time and changes the course of history. And time travel has obviously been around for a long time as a storytelling technique, but it’s normally people falling asleep and waking up in the future, or even when HG Wells invents the Time Machine, he travels to the future he has no interest in going into the past.
L Sprague de Camp is not perhaps that well known any more but he was writer of science fiction and fantasy as well as all sorts of other fiction and non-fiction. He has a huge bibliography with hundreds and hundreds of novels, short stories, biography, history, science, and more. He is most remembered, generally, for Lest Darkness Fall
it’s about an archaeologist of Roman history, and who is struck by lightning, and ends up being transported back to the peak of the Roman Empire. And using his knowledge of the Roman Empire and of Roman history, he decides to try and avert what is commonly called the Dark Ages by making sure that Rome never falls. So it’s pretty key as like the first science fiction book that really brings in alternate history in a big way.
It’s also really influential because it’s the book that Harry Turtledove says, got him interested in history and subsequently alternate history.
I could probably amend the rule I mentioned earlier about alternate history tales, sooner or later always being about Hitler. The corollary would be that in a random selection of alternate history tales the chances of at least half of those novels being by Harry Turtledove are very high. He has written dozens and dozens of alternate history novels over a career now in its fifth decade
And they’re big whopping books. I mean, he did a PhD in Byzantine history. And you kind of can sense a little bit of that in his Byzantines approach to alternate history
But, you know, he’s this majorly influential figure who’s written across all different types of time periods
Then, if you are to name just one other hugely influential story, it would have to be Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, another Hitler-won-the-war story, set in a US ruled by Germany and Japan.
I think that’s the one that really made people sit up and pay attention to the to the genre of alternate history. And it definitely, that was in 1962. And I mean, it’s a key book for Dick as well, like it’s, it’s the first book in a in a run of really golden classics that he writes But, but it’s also the first book that kicks off quite a wave of really top science, science fiction alternate histories that come out in the in the 60s and 70s
Philip K Dick stories are a staple of science fiction cinema (Blade Runner, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau, and so on) and the adaptation of The Man in the High Castle was one of Amazon’s most high-profile shows of the last few years.
But the alternate history story is not a regular mainstay of film, and especially TV. You have your Dr Who episodes and shows here and there but not a huge amount really. Dr Morgan reminded me of the 90s TV show Sliders, which I had completely forgotten about until he mentioned it, and now I have so many memories of watching that as a teenager and I really want to go back and watch it again. It was a parallel universe show where the characters could slide between different universes and were trying to get home to their own universe – a bit like Quantum Leap, I guess. It was great.
But if there aren’t that many alternate history tv series, there are, kind of surprisingly, lots of one-off episodes, and not of science fiction shows, like you might imagine.
coming back to the idea that, in a way, it’s a really natural genre for us and storytelling This is something I’ve been kind of intrigued by. Sitcoms almost always have an alternate history episode, you know, Friends, famously, and does it but so does Seinfeld, Frasier
But obviously, it’s features more as a sci fi shows it’s a little bit different. But that kind of what if I hadn’t got together with the person that I’m famously together with in this show? Or what if we’d done this other thing differently like that, it’s, it’s played for laughs Of course, it’s in these sitcoms, and, but it, it’s the only trope associated with speculative fiction that gets into them, you know, there isn’t an episode where they time travel or visit an alien world or turn themselves invisible or you know, any of that stuff. But there are always these what if episodes where we see this kind of potential alternate reality for these characters
It’s that fascination with what if?, especially at a micro or personal level. It’s not about wars and era-defining events, it’s about personal history. The film Sliding Doors – more 1990s sliding – looks at exactly this. What if Gwyneth Paltrow’s character had got on tube just before the doors closed, and what if she hadn’t? How different would her life have been? Incredibly different as it turns out in the film. Much like how our own lives would have been irrevocably changed without 1990s Danish-Norwegian Europop sensations Aqua, [pause to start song] and their song Turn Back Time, featured on the soundtrack.
Ehem, right, enough of that.
So, I’m going to take a quick break, to tell you about another great show on the HeadStuff Podcast Network. It’s a brand new show called The World According to Wikipedia and I think there’s a strong likelihood that if you like Words To That Effect you’re the sort of person who’ll like this show too.
You use Wikipedia, we all do, we’ve all been down those Wikipedia rabbit holes and lost hours of our life, right? Personally, though, maybe like you, I have never edited a Wikipedia article in my life and know nothing really about how it works.
So this show explores the inner workings of Wikipedia with someone who knows an awful lot about it, Rebecca, and her friend Fionnuala, who knows nothing about Wikipedia but asks all the right questions. Have a listen
The other thing I’m going to take this opportunity to say is hello, if you are a new listener. There have been lots of new listeners since the new season launched which is amazing, but I want more! So, if you like this show, you probably know someone else who would. So, can you, maybe even right now, pause this episode, and share the link with someone. Text a friend, shout at a stranger from 2 metres away, whatever works, but I’d really love to keep growing the show and reaching more listeners. There is an alternate world where you told all your friends about this show and they loved you for it. Make that this world.
The discussion around the macro and micro levels of alternate history, the personal what ifs and the grand narratives of history, brings up another point about history, alternate or otherwise. What drives history, how do we shape the stories of history, because the past is always a story told by someone from a particular point of view. Alternate history scholars sometimes talk about the Geoffroyan and the Tolstoyan view of history
to put it in another way for people who maybe don’t know, Geoffrey, as in the Napoleon, Et La Conquet du Monde book that we talked about before, or who maybe aren’t as familiar with Tolstoy, because who has time to read one piece. And you might think of it instead as being a debate between the great men of history theory, which is, you know, that popularized by the historian, philosopher and racist, Thomas Carlyle, versus that kind of more Marxist or historical materialist view of history. So, basically, it’s the key drivers of history are one or two important individuals who shaped the epoch around in in which they exist. And you know, if you look at our history books, you find yourself drawn to these key figures whether they’re your Winston Churchill’s your Hitler’s your Napoleon’s. Or is it actually about systems and processes that exist, that are really driving these things, and the people are just the most obvious manifestation of those.
In our Hitler example, it’s the difference between saying well, if Hitler is never born then this profoundly alters Nazi Germany, the second world war and so on (the Geoffroyan view). Or you take the Tolstoyan view and say no, there were so many different factors that went into the rise to power of fascism across the world, so many other factors in play in the rest of Europe, the US, Japan and so on, Hitler is just not that important.
So a surprisingly good example, I say surprising, because you just might not pick him as a writer who would write this sort of novel is actually Stephen Fry’s Making History. And basically, in that, he sterilizes Adolf Hitler’s father, and by poisoning the well in, in their hometown, and he arrives back in the present is expecting it to be some sort of utopia where the Holocaust didn’t happen, and, and there was no war and thus no Cold War either. And it’s like a much more peaceful era. But actually, it’s worse because someone else just rose to power in Hitler’s place like that was always going to happen as far as the structuralist model, or the Tolstoyan model says, because it, fascism was always going to kind of capture Germany in that way. And that who is at the helm is just a is almost irrelevant. It’s a detail
The other thing about this debate is that to call the Geoffroyan view one about the “Great Men of History” is particularly accurate. It is about the great men of history, generally the great white, European and American men of history – the men whose statues surround us, who our streets and grand buildings are named for, whose names are firmly embedded in school history curriculums. When you write about history, you have to consider whose history it really is, and the same goes for alternate history.
There isn’t a lot of alternate history coming from other countries, I can think of some German examples, a couple of Russian examples, there’s some Japanese examples, but the vast, vast majority is by British and American writers. And they never and, you know, there’s a strong white male bias there. I mean, there’s some great alternate histories by people who don’t fit that demographic. But there isn’t a lot of it. And there’s also a tendency, I think, partly because alternate history, like if you have to pick your turning point for where you want your history to diverge – what some people call the jonbar point, or the divergence point. And battles and military events are really easy pickings for that
you know, there’s a lot of very dry alternate histories that are very obsessed with kit, and strategy and troop movements. And, you know, those people demographically are often white, and male. Not exclusively, of course, but nonetheless.
You also get a pretty like, we’re really getting into the dark, deep, murky end, but you know, history is a political action and alternate history is as well. And you can find some pretty disturbing alternate histories by people who were who were basically using it as an opportunity to have a do over.
You would be perhaps unsurprised to learn that, after the second world war, the second most popular setting for alternate history novels is the US civil war
And, and, again, there’s a lot of different reasons for why that is. But there is a very strong contingent of reasons that it’s just a chance to kind of have a do over and kind of glorify the South, the Confederacy. And, you know, obviously, I find that quite uncomfortable and, and difficult. But it’s worth, you know, I think you have to acknowledge that it’s there
The flip side of this, though, is that you can use alternate history to give a voice to the voiceless, to work through an aspect of history that gets swept away in the dominant retelling of past events, or to look at our reality, by exploring an inverted or upended version of it
Things like Kim Stanley Robinson’s the years of rice and salt, it imagines hundreds of years of history from the point of the Black Death onwards, except that the Black Death is like twice as lethal as it was. And so the population of Europe is completely decimated. I mean, it was pretty heavily decimated anyway. But it’s, it’s decimated to the extent that civilization collapses in, in Europe and a nation states fail. And so that leaves Europe completely exposed to, you know, the quite scientifically and culturally developed Arab world that exists at that time, it leaves them exposed to the approach of the Golden Horde, the Mongolian Empire, which was encroaching to the east at that time. And so Europe never becomes a colonial force. In fact, it becomes the place that is colonized by China and by the Arab world. So it’s a really effective book for kind of undermining that kind of Western centric model of history
Another example is Bernadine Evaristo, best known now as last year’s winner of the Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other. She has also written alternate history, in the form of her 2008 novel Blonde Roots:
it’s an alternate history that imagines a very different map for the world. And basically, it allows black people from Africa, to enslave white people from Europe and run a slave empire in in, in the, quote, New World, unquote. And so it just in that, that kind of power dynamic, and, you know, that is the kind of move that could be very risky and quite untasteful in, in a different writers hands, but she really pulls it off in a different way and it. Again, it kind of really foregrounds those kind of last black voices from the historical chronicle. It’s a very clever use of alternate history, I think
Then there’s Mary Robinette Kowal’s multi-award winning The Calculating Stars, whichreworks the US space programme and focuses on female astronauts
And it just, you know, it uses a, a quite unlikely event and a major asteroid collision. And as it’s kind of divergence point, but it uses that to allow her to kind of recast the space program in the United States to be open to more diverse faces, so that you know, mainly female astronauts, but also astronauts of color and of other diversity backgrounds and other ethnicities. And that allows her to kind of, you know, put racism in science and in the space race under a microscope
So alternate history is, in the end, a very varied genre. It’s often associated with science fiction, and there are some great science fiction alternate histories, but then it attracts authors who would never write sf. It attracts the military historians as well as readers of romance and, particularly, detective novels. There are lots of alternate history detective stories – check out Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union or Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy – or read Dr Morgan’s latest book looking at these texts and many others.
And all of these texts allow us not just to reimagine the past but to interrogate it, to question and reinterpret the stories we are told. And, of course, to speculate, to feel regret or relief, to wonder:
So that’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
Special thanks to my guest this week Dr Glyn Morgan. I’ll put links to his work and blog, as well as his co-edited collected on Alternate History, Sideways in Time, and his most recent book Imagining the Unimaginable: Speculative Fiction and the Holocaust
All of that, and lots more – full transcripts, a list of every work mentioned, all previous episodes – is at wttepodcast.com
You can follow the show on Instagram and facebook @Wordstothateffect or follow me on twitter @cedreid.
And, as I say, don’t live in that alternate reality where you don’t tell all your friends about this show.
And thanks to those who got in touch about ideas for episode 50, I already have one very strong contender I’m trying to explore how best to do but I’m still mulling over ideas. So send me an email, say hi on twitter, I love hearing from listeners.
For now, that’s it, I’ll see you in two weeks.