A brief history of alternate history fictionS

This week we take a break from examining alternate timelines and recap the real-life origins of the alternate history genre. Did you know such historical luminaries as Benjamin Disraeli, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and H.G. Wells were alternate history aficionados?


A brief history of alternate history fiction

The first writing that looks anything like modern alternate history dates back to the first century. In Ab Urbe condita, Titus Livius went off on a digression about what would have happened had Alexander the Great decided to attack Rome. However, Livius's work was embedded in an otherwise ordinary history text and was closer to a historical what-if than any alternate history fiction. Alternate history would skate along as historical what-if for almost 1800 years before the genre's next major development.

A brief history of alternate history fiction

What would eventually become alternate history rose to some prominence in the 19th century as historical notables gave the genre a healthy dose of publicity. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote the first novel-length alternate history tale in 1833. Although some consider Disraeli's The Wondrous History of Alroy a secret history rather than a true alternate history tale, the book envisions a world in which a minor 12th-century figure named Alroy (who claimed to be the Messiah) went on to found a global empire rather than toiling in historical obscurity.


Nathaniel Hawthorne of The Scarlet Letter fame wrote the first alternate history short story in 1845. Hawthorne wrote his short story — P.'s Correspondence — as if it was penned by a madman who claimed he also existed in another 1845 where many famous historical figures such as Byron and Shelley were still alive.

For the rest of the 19th and early 20th century, the alternate history story was primarily a literary curiosity. Alternate timeline works of this period are mostly notable for introducing now-stalwart A.H. tropes. For instance, Louis Geoffroy's 1836 book Napoleon and the Conquest of the World is the earliest recursive alternate history story — in Geoffroy's tale, a character from an alternate universe proposes their own alternate timeline (which tends to be ours).

Finally, there's the modern alternate history era beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Tales like Sidewise in Time and Lest Darkness Fall began merging alternate history with pulp and science fiction. This is also the era when scifi authors begin writing alternate history in earnest such as Robert Heinlein's Elsewhen (in which a philosophy professor learns to navigate alternate histories with his mind) or the slightly earlier H.G. Wells tale Men Like Gods. In Wells' novel, various characters are transported to an advanced utopian alternate earth and are confused by the world's cultural practices, eventually attempting (and quickly failing) to take over the alternate world.

Incidentally, one of Wells' characters was a satirical buffoon version of Winston Churchill, who wrote his own alternate history tale in the 1930s called If Lee had not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.