Alternate History's 3 Alternatives
Genres: I’m drawn to the weird ones. Science fiction, horror, fantasy, and that weird stuff they call weird. But the common element in nearly all my work is what one agent called a “lovely dark sense of humor”.
Those two modes—weirdness and humor—get me in trouble when I venture into another favorite genre: alternate history.
Alternate history has two main approaches. The most common is what I call Move One Chess Piece. History is presented with just one critical fact changed. It's as if a chess game were replayed but with one piece out of place. (A horse’s nail is another metaphor that gets at the same thing.)
Sometimes the change to the historical timeline is wrought by time travelers. Nazis tend to win the war over and over and over. Sometimes famous authors from the literary set get in on the act. Usually there’s a sci-fi vibe but sometimes the outcome is more fantastic. It can involve alpine fortresses or other high castles. And always, always, there are lots of maps.
The second type of alternate history is the paranoid one. You can call it Secret History (not this Secret History) or call it Tim Powers’ “paranoid squint.” Tim Powers, a literary hero of mine, is a master of this approach and I’ve explained it in more detail elsewhere. Basically, this is alternate history by addition, not subtraction, with many details revealed that the history books “forgot” or that powerful people have suppressed.
The one thing these two approaches have in common is historical rigor. It is expected that historical fiction will generate arguments and authors are expected to defend their choices with documentation.
My characters are the same people they were in history but I place them in circumstances that are wildly, absurdly different.
I have a different approach. It lacks rigor although it still is dependent on lots of research. My characters are the same people they were in history but I place them in circumstances that are wildly, absurdly different. In my first novel, The Devil’s Dictum, for example, Richard Nixon attacks the U.S. capital while piloting a giant armored robot and J. Edgar Hoover is a high priest in the Church of Satan.
There is simply not way to get those results by (metaphor alert!) adjusting the knobs on the mixing board of history, as other alt hist authors do. I have to nuke the whole sound studio.
My approach looks a lot like satire. I do love humor in my writing, and the effect is unquestionably satirical. Believe it or not, satire is not my intent. What I really want to do with history is change it so it’s even more fun. If for some reason God had optimized history for its entertainment value, my stories are how events might have come out.
Sometimes my approach is discovered by fans of old-style, rigorous alternate history, and the reactions are not happy ones. (See some of the comments in this detailed review by Jon Mollison.) I’m not the only writer who has had to supply caveats to alternate history fans with highly specific expectations. But I'm finding my audience.