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Did Steampunk Kill Alternate History?

Has the storied genre where Nazis triumph and the South beats the Yanks been consumed by the scourge of Steampunk?

by Abraham Riesman
Apr 2 2013, 1:00pm
Image: Wikimedia Commons, CC

Alternate-history fiction is in trouble. It might be time for fans of the genre to hop in a time machine and create their own alternate universe: one in which they murder all the creators of steampunk.

“In the past several years, alternate history has been fading, or perhaps I should say morphing, because there’s been a big increase in the publication of steampunk stories and novels,” said Robert Schmunk. He would know: Schmunk runs, an august online index of more than 3,100 pieces of alternate-history fiction. “Many steampunk works are legitimately alternate history, but a lot are not.”

Gone are the halcyon days of the early 1990s, when mainstream bestseller lists featured tomes about Hitler living to age 75 or Robert E. Lee getting access to AK-47s (which is what happened in Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South). Nowadays, sci-fi fans looking to toy around with history go gaga for steampunk meetupssteampunk Etsy retailers, megahit steampunk novels like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century saga, and tentpole video games like BioShock Infinite. Tales of divergent timelines are now strictly niche items, usually published inside jacket art comprised of garishly Photoshopped historical images. But it would take a lot to fully kill off alt-history. After all, it’s been around since at least 25 B.C., when Livy wrote about what might have happened if Alexander the Great had lived longer.

Why has alt-history lasted so long? Sci-fi critic and writer Evelyn C. Leeper thinks it’s because the very concept has a uniquely emotional appeal. “Most of us wish at some point or other that we had done something differently,” she said in an interview, “or we are really happy that we didn’t do something differently.”

Even within the world of alt-history, change is in the wind. Two decades ago, the genre was dominated by what Schmunk identified as “the big three” premises: the Confederates beating the Union, the Nazis winning World War II, or the Roman Empire never falling. (French authors were apparently big on “Napoleon wins” scenarios, but those never really caught on in the States.)

“Since then, I think the Roman Empire theme has faded, and perhaps the ‘Hitler wins’ theme just a bit, also,” Schmunk said. “‘The South wins the Civil War’ seems to be hanging in there, especially as this is often used as part of the background for alternate-history-steampunk works.” In place of these overdone setups, Schmunk has been seeing some far more unusual stuff make the rounds. For instance, lots of authors are getting into what he calls “alternate celebrity lives.”

“There’s a wide variety of these, such as James Dean surviving the wreck and later becoming a politician, the Beatles breaking up before they became popular, et cetera,” Schmunk said. “The worst are the ones that imagine a famous actor living the sort of life one a character he played in a movie: e.g., ‘What if Gregory Peck really was a bomber pilot?’ or ‘What if Bogart really became a private detective?’”

But those aren’t even close to the most bizarre alt-history works Schmunk and Leeper have seen. lists stories where Earth got two moons instead of one (and as a result, polytheism somehow ends up being way more popular than monotheism), the Aztecs survived and went on to build spaceships powered by human sacrifice (and battled a spacefaring Chinese empire), or America went Communist in the 1910s (leading to a world in which Ed Gein and Kurt Vonnegut both became upstanding Party leaders, for some reason).

“The most unusual one would have to be Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won at Saratoga, which was written as a straight history book with fake introductory material, bibliography, and all,” said Leeper. “If by weirdest, you mean weirdest world, that would probably be Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters: A Novel of Alternate Science, which asks, ‘What if Aristotelian science and Ptolemaic cosmology were an accurate description of the universe?’”

And yet, there’s one alternate-history scenario that Schmunk wishes authors would start writing about — one in which the past decade of terrorism, ecological nightmare, and financial collapse never happened. What point of divergence could be responsible for such a world? “According to my personal liberal leanings, this ought to mean there would be more stories in which Gore became president,” he said. “But there haven’t been. So go figure.”