by Karen Hellekson

Kent State University Press


329pp/$13.95/March 2001

The Alternate History

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Karen Hellekson has produced a short examination of the alternate history, a genre which has been growing in popularity over the past few years due, in part, to the prolificacy of Harry Turtledove and the mainstream success of Robert Harris and similar non-genre authors.  Hellekson examines a series of mostly-novel length alternate history stories in a series of chapters, each of which focuses on a specific text.  Throughout her seven chapters, Hellekson works to support her thesis that alternate histories can be used to study historiography because they use much of the methodology of historiography, but do not have the presumed “truth” element of history.

Hellekson provides critical readings of several texts, frequently using historiographical techniques and theories.  However, she fails to tie her discussions into any reason how these texts might offer insight into actual historical events or thought.  Neither does she examine the rules which underlie the genre of alternate history.  Looking at the rules that authors have accepted when engaging in counterfactual speculation might have made the book more pertinent.

Hellekson is intent on categorizing the types of alternate history, basing her categorization on the moment of the break rather than the reader’s temporal location as William Joseph Collins did in his 1990 dissertation.  What becomes less clear is the reason for the need of such “taxonomy,” to use Collins’s term.  The only real hint Hellekson gives for needing such a system is to determine which are the “best” alternate histories, a suspect term which implies that there is a non-subjective means of rating quality of an artistic work.  Hellekson’s initial description of her categorization is multi-tiered in an attempt to keep the basic architecture simple.  This makes the lower levels a little more complex.  A simple graphical representation of the categorization would have gone a long way to making her taxonomy more comprehensible.

One frequent question concerning alternate history is whether or not it is a subcategory of the science fiction genre.  Hellekson attacks this question from the onset of her study and comes to the conclusion that alternate history firmly belongs in the category.  Unfortunately, Hellekson does not present any arguments which might refute this position.  Many hard science fiction authors may take exception to this, although it is interesting to note that in 1998, Hal Clement commented in amazement on the similarities between alternate history and hard science fiction.

Hellekson’s opening chapter outlines the use of counterfactual speculation as an historical tool and separates it from alternate history, pointing out that many alternate histories (but, by no means all) incorporate fantastic elements, whether magic (the Lord Darcy series by Randall Garrett), time travel (the Time Patrol series by Poul Anderson),  advanced technology (The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson), or some combination of these elements (the Hammer and the Cross trilogy by Harry Harrison).

Hellekson uses alternate history to examine the methodology and language of historiography as well as the role of chronology in narrative.  Each of her chapters focuses on a fictional text and uses it to explore the manner in which historians treat a specific aspect of their craft.  In the third chapter on parallel worlds, Hellekson uses H. Beam Piper’s Paratime stories as a basis for her discussion of the “Great Man” theory of history.  Obviously the stories themselves cannot prove or disprove this view of history, but it allows the historian or author to examine what such a theory means in the scope of history.

While The Alternate History:  Refiguring Historical Time is an interesting examination of specific alternate history texts, the book does not form a cohesive unit.  Instead, it appears to be a series of semi-related essays which show the promise of a unifying thesis without actually delivering one.  The text is most useful in studying those specific texts, but leaves a lot of room for more complete studies of the alternate history subgenre.

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