Search the FAQ Archives

3 - A - B - C - D - E - F - G - H - I - J - K - L - M
N - O - P - Q - R - S - T - U - V - W - X - Y - Z
faqs.org - Internet FAQ Archives

soc.history.what-if FAQ (April 2006)


[ Usenet FAQs | Web FAQs | Documents | RFC Index | Houses ]
Archive-name: history/what-if
Last updated: 28 February 2006
Version: 4.51
Posting-Frequency: Monthly
Copyright: (c) 2003-6 Anthony Mayer

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge
                      "Frequently" Asked Questions
                                   in
                           soc.history.what-if


This document is maintained (and copyright) by Anthony Mayer. Substantial
portions are drawn from earlier versions copyright 1994-1997 by Robert B.
Schmunk and 1997-2002 by Craig Neumeier, and are used with permission. It
may be freely  distributed electronically provided that this copyright
notice is attached.

If you wish to make a suggestion for corrections or additions, please
e-mail the maintainer directly at faq@anthonymayer.net
------------------------------------------------------------------------
 0. Recent Changes

None

------------------------------------------------------------------------

                            Table of Contents

    0. Recent Changes

    1. Introduction

    2. What is alternative history?

    3. Are there any rules about posting to soc.history.what-if?

    4. Are there any forbidden subjects?
       a. Ban on Politics
       b. Non-alternative-history Fiction
       c. Future History
       d. Secret History
       e. Historical "Revisionism"

    5. Are there any subjects which require special care?
       a. Clashing Patriotisms
       b. Recent Events
       c. WIs involving supernatural agencies
       d  Discussions on valid topics that have reached an impasse
       e. Responses to contentious or troll-like posts

    6. What is a "double-blind what-if" and how should I respond?

    7. What does "... in the Sea of Time" mean?

    8. What are the Alien Space Bats?

    9. What does <abbreviation> mean?

   10. What are the most common what-ifs?

   11. What are some common historical errors I should avoid?

     a. Could Operation Sealion have succeeded?

     b. Could the American Indians have repelled the Europeans?

     c. Did the Chinese just use gunpowder for fireworks?

     d. Did Christianity destroy Greek science and the Roman Empire?

     e. Did the US come within one vote of adopting German as its
          official language?

     f. Did Polish lancers charge German tanks in 1939?

   12. Are the posts to soc.history.what-if archived somewhere?

   13. Can anybody recommend a good book about alternative history?

   14. What alternative histories should I read?

   15. Is there an (on-line) alternative history book list?

   16. What are the Sidewise Awards?

   17. Are there other alternative history discussion areas?
 
   18. Are there any alternative history web sites?

   19. Is there any record of newsgroup traffic in soc.history.what-if?

   20. What does "PoD Flood" mean?

   21. How can I get started writing a timeline? Where can I get advice?


  + Minor modification to this entry
 ++ Significant modification to this entry
+++ New entry

------------------------------------------------------------------------

 1. Introduction

soc.history.what-if is a newsgroup for the discussion of history divergent
from that of our own. A very common example would be "What if the South
won the U.S. Civil War?"

The newsgroup was created in late May 1995, after the usual Usenet
discussion (RFD) and voting (CFV) periods. It assumes the role previously
filled by the newsgroup alt.history.what-if. The older newsgroup was not
correspondingly scheduled for removal and though it is still in use it 
remains less active than soc.history.what-if. 

Please post *only* to soc.history.what-if in order to reach the widest
possible audience while eliminating the confusion which usually results
from cross-posting.

The soc.history.what-if charter, as written by its proponent (Richard
Gadsden, now at richard@gadsden.name) after the discussion period ended,
is:

  The soc.history.what-if newsgroup will be open to discussion of
  alternate history. This is "what-ifs" regarding specific historical
  events.

  Specifically, but not exclusively:
  + Historical events - what could have happened if they had been
    different?
  + How could this have happened differently (i.e. discussion of how the
    divergence could have occurred, not of what its consequences would
    be.)

  Note: the following topics are not to be discussed:

  + Revisionism regarding the Holocaust or Turkish/Armenian massacres
    (post to alt.revisionism). "What if the Holocaust had not happened?"
    is a legitimate question.

  + Future history - "What if the President were assassinated tomorrow?"

  + Alternate history in fictional worlds - "What if Luke had failed to
    destroy the Death Star?"

Many Usenet FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions answer lists) usually begin
with several paragraphs on netiquette, i.e., proper behaviour on posting
to newsgroups. Rather than do that here, I will just recommend that if you
have not already done so, you should *immediately* go to the newsgroup
news.announce.newusers and read the posting entitled "A Primer on How to
Work With the Usenet Community". After that, please read it again.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 2. What is alternative history?

"Alternative history" essays/stories are the "what ifs" of history,
describing events that could have happened but did not. (The terms
"allohistory," "alternate history," "counterfactual" and "uchronia" all
have advocates and nuanced meanings, but "alternative history" is the
generally accepted name, in English, for what we do on SHWI.) A typical
example is the question, "What if had Napoleon won at Waterloo?" Most
alternatives concern human history, but there are some examples of
alternative natural history, making changes in geology or ecology.

You may find such questions asked in science fiction literature, wargaming
magazines, and history and economics journals. However, it can also be
occasionally found in such mainstream publications as Time magazine or
Entertainment Weekly, and an occasional alternative history novel will
crack the New York Times bestseller list and maybe even get made into a
movie (e.g., Robert Harris' FATHERLAND).

In science fiction, alternative histories are a subset of parallel worlds
and alternative universe stories, in which some emphasis has been put on
an historical element. If those terms are meaningless to you, note that a
parallel world may have no historical or physical similarity to our own. A
common example is for someone in our world to be mysteriously transported
to a "magical" world. Alternative history fiction, on the other hand,
requires that the world described be visibly the same as ours up to some
specific point in history, after which things begin to get different.

The boundaries are not firm: many alternative histories throw in magic --
or, to put it another way, many "historical fantasy" novels, especially
recently, use AH trappings. Similarly, alternative histories often have
slightly different physical laws than our universe -- most commonly to
allow time travel, since AH in science fiction began as an outgrowth of
time-travel stories.

The distinction between alternative histories that are explorations of
"what might have been", and those that utilise devices from science
fiction and fantasy is one that has caused tension on SHWI in the past.
Opinion is divided as to whether essays and fiction that involve magic and
time-travel are really alternative history, or simply fantasies with a
historical setting. A large proportion of SHWI users prefer to discuss
only the stricter, purely historical forms of AH, and this should be borne
in mind when posting an article with a more fantastic setting. See
Question 5 for more on this discussion.

The stricter form of AH, in which divergences are the result of entirely
plausible minor changes or individuals making different decisions,
reflects the use of AH in an academic sense.  Academic historians have
tended to treat alternative histories, or "counter- factuals" with little
respect, although this has changed somewhat in recent years, (see Question
13).

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 3. Are there any rules about posting to soc.history.what-if?

Since soc.history.what-if is an unmoderated newsgroup, there are no
enforceable rules. There is no official style guide. On the other hand, we
aspire to, and have often achieved, a high level of netiquette.

Please do not post binary files (images and the like). General Usenet
rules restrict them to newsgroups with "binaries" in their title, to
conserve bandwidth on slower servers. Commercial advertisements are
strictly forbidden.

The level of historical knowledge possessed by posters to this newsgroup
varies, and many new subscribers can feel intimidated by the level of
detail in some postings. Please don't let that prevent you from posting;
often, that detail is put in specifically to help people who don't know as
much about a specific subject join the discussion.

Some hints to keep in mind:

a) When you ask a what-if question, it is a good idea to attempt to
   provide some (partial) answer of your own. Some posters consider it
   rude to post a question alone, and all of us are *much* more likely to
   respond to suggested results than just bare points of divergence.

b) In advancing a timeline that might result from a historical
   divergence, don't be afraid to explain why you think certain things
   would happen. It often helps to provide some historical background
   rather than just stating that such-and-such would happen, followed by
   a-later-event and then something-even-later.

c) If a major change is made to history, almost everything from that
   point on will be different. So before you ask what difference your
   change would make to the outcome of WWII, make sure that you could
   reasonably expect there to *be* a WWII in the new timeline. (If you
   change the American Civil War, you can make a case for it. If you get
   rid of Jesus Christ, forget it.)

d) Be prepared to defend your assertions; i.e., don't state something is
   true without being able to provide evidence. Some "common knowledge"
   about the past is actually untrue (whether it be because of television,
   the blandness of grade school textbooks, or myth-makers such as Parson
   Weems), and posters to this newsgroup are more than willing to tell you
   so. (See also Question 11.)

e) On the other hand, it is not considered necessary to cite sources
   unless/until someone challenges you.  Preferred newsgroup practice is
   to ask for the source of an interpretation you don't agree with rather
   than immediately blasting it as wrong. (Errors of fact may be corrected
   more directly.) Attacking someone else's level of knowledge is rude,
   even if true, and will win you no friends.

f) Don't forget to say *why* something happens differently. For
   instance, someone might ask "What if World War I never happened?",
   perhaps seeking out opinions on how that might result in the non-rise
   of fascism and presumably no World War II. But an honest answer means
   also considering such important factors as the European arms race
   during the decades prior to World War I and imperial Germany's search
   for colonial territories, and how they would have to be altered so that
   the war doesn't occur.

   It is perfectly acceptable to ask for help in getting the result you
   want, e.g. if you know you want to keep Bismarck and still avoid WWI.

g) Really huge WI's, such as changes to human nature ("What if people
   had no aggressive instincts?") generally do not produce any useful
   comments. They are too big to handle; there's not really much to say
   apart from "everything would be different."

h) Please be aware of those subjects that are likely to cause offence
   if not handled with care, and those subjects which are strictly
   forbidden  - see Question 5 for more on these points.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 4. Are there any forbidden subjects?

Yes. The newsgroup charter (see question 1) rules some subjects out of
bounds explicitly. These are really just special cases of the general
restriction of the newsgroup to its proper topic, specified only because
they had previously caused problems in alt.history.what-if or other
history newsgroups. In all cases, there is a more appropriate Usenet group
for these subjects: this is a newsgroup for the discussion of alternative
history.

 4.a. Ban on Politics

   Since real-life contemporary politics is neither historical nor
   alternative, arguments about it are off-topic here. This does not mean
   that all political discussion is forbidden -- your beliefs on politics
   naturally affect what you see as reasonable in an AH. It can also be
   argued that all historical discussion will involve political discussion
   at some level. But once a discussion becomes an argument about which
   beliefs about politics are correct, it usually skirts, and often falls
   under, the Ban. In effect, the BoP is a call for posters to attempt to
   refrain from making extreme value judgements in the discussion, and to
   try and retain some measure of objectivity.

   Since blatantly off-topic political flamewars have frequently
   disfigured the newsgroup in the past, a large set of posters will serve
   notice if you violate the BoP. Please try not to be offended if this
   happens to you: take it to e-mail (or, theoretically, to talk.politics)
   if you wish to continue the discussion.

 4.b. Non-alternative-history Fiction

   The word "history" appears in the newsgroup name. Thus, questions like
   "What if Luke Skywalker had not destroyed the Death Star?" which
   involve entirely fictional (non-alternative history) universes are not
   appropriate. There is certainly a better newsgroup for such questions
   (e.g. rec.arts.sf.starwars.misc, in the case of Luke and the Death
   Star).

 4.c. Future History

   The newsgroup is for discussing history that has already happened.
   Questions such as "What if George W. Bush were assassinated tomorrow?"
   have been asked and argued, and will probably continue to arise. But,
   again, there are more appropriate newsgroups for such discussion, most
   probably alt.history.future (or, in some cases, a specialist group such
   as talk.politics.assassination), although propagation of a.h.f seems to
   be limited. You may need to specifically request it be carried at your
   site; contact your newsmaster or newsadmin.

 4.d. Secret History

   "Secret history" involves the revelation that something that we think
   we know about the past is untrue. It is not alternative history: it
   leaves history unchanged, and the present is certainly still the
   present. (Why what we know is untrue may vary, but in most secret
   history stories there's some sort of a conspiracy at work to hide the
   truth from the masses.) A related side-issue is whether a purportedly
   non-fiction book (e.g., Baigent et al.'s HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL, or one
   of the Von Daniken books) can also be secret history. In any case, for
   purposes of the soc.history.what-if newsgroup, secret history is
   off-topic -- whether admittedly invented or supposedly non-fictional.
   There are many newsgroups which might be the appropriate venue, such as
   rec.arts.books or rec.arts.sf.written, another soc.history group,
   alt.conspiracy, or some specialized alt. group.

 4.e. Historical "Revisionism"

   Genuine revisionist history is a respectable intellectual undertaking,
   but arguments *exclusively* concerned with real history belong on
   soc.history.moderated or some other group in the soc.history hierarchy.
   Denial of the facts of the Nazi Holocaust or the Turkish massacres of
   Armenians (or any other examples of 20th- century genocide) is neither
   intellectually respectable nor on-topic for this group. The newsgroup
   created specifically to argue the point is alt.revisionism; such
   arguments are out of place here.

   Holocaust deniers have turned up on the newsgroup before, and no doubt
   will again. Please do not get drawn into an argument which will just
   raise tempers and waste time and bandwidth: if you just can't bear not
   to respond, post *once* and then stop. (Do not be fooled by their habit
   of posting under many fake usernames, either.) Take the argument to
   private e-mail if you must continue it further, rather than continuing
   to post to the newsgroup. Experience shows that ostracism is a more
   effective tactic than argument for getting these people to leave. And,
   as far as anyone can tell, they have never converted any of our
   readers, so it is not necessary to be concerned about leaving them
   unanswered when deciding who should go in your killfile.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 5. Are there any subjects which require special care?

Almost any topic can unexpectedly rouse tempers; the Ban on Politics
exists because of sad experience. However, even perfectly on-topic
discussions of alternative history can be inflammatory when contrary
beliefs, political or otherwise, are involved. The record in SHWI
indicates that the following subjects are particularly prone to cause
problems:

5.a Conflicting Patriotisms

 SHWI is an international newsgroup. Please bear this in mind when posting
 on subjects that may easily arouse strong opinions. Courtesy towards
 other nationalities when touching on matters that may reflect deep seated
 values and patriotisms should be a matter of course. This is as true for
 historical issues as more contemporary concerns. For example, arguments
 about who "really" won the War of 1812 will produce nothing but wasted
 bandwidth and bruised feelings. SHWI has also suffered from the Europe vs
 US argument on more than one occasion, and no one would like to see it
 repeated. (Prodding touchy patriots on purpose is a type of troll.
 Don't.)

5.b WIs concerning very recent events

  Current affairs are not historical. Extremely recent events are often
  too fresh for genuine historical analysis, and posts discussing "what-if
  so-and-so (which occurred yesterday) had not happened?" are rarely
  valuable. While most posters will no doubt be interested in recent and
  current affairs, there is often little that can be said on such a
  subject that does not involve contemporary politics or speculation about
  the future. Thus posts on a very recent WI tend to stray off topic,
  violating points 4.a and 4.c. above. While WIs concerning recent events
  are certainly on-topic, they should be handled with great care and with
  an eye to not offending other posters.

5.c WIs involving supernatural agencies

   WIs that involve supernatural agencies or devices, such as time travel
   and magic, are on the borders of the topic for this newsgroup. If using
   such devices, be aware that many posters do not appreciate AH in such a
   form, and that the purpose of the group is discussion of the
   alternative history, not the discussion of the magical agency used to
   aid in the creation of the alternative history.

   As a matter of courtesy it is preferable to make it clear in the title
   of the post that the timeline involves such deus ex machina devices.
   There is no agreed method of labelling or convention with respect to
   the titles of posts that feature supernatural events, though [ISOT] is
   regularly used to refer to a particular literary device (see Question
   7). The critical issue is clarity and courtesy.  Many of the more
   interesting magical scenarios can be reformulated to remove the magical
   element. For example, "You wake up in the body of historical figure X,
   what do you do?" could perhaps be worded as "What decisions could
   historical figure X have made, that would have lead to changes Y?".
   Such reformulations will make the post more attractive to a number of
   readers, and often take little effort to do.


5.d Discussions on valid topics that have reached an impasse

  One should also be willing to accept that arguments can reach an impasse
  beyond which nothing can be gained by pursuing them. A few specific
  topics have long since reached the impasse stage on the newsgroup as a
  whole. Besides the War of 1812, these include: who should properly be
  considered Chinese (especially when the Mongols or Tibetans are brought
  up), the possibility of European (meaning chiefly British) intervention
  in the American Civil War, and especially the related subject of
  American vs. British ironclads during that era.

5.e Responses to contentious or troll-like posts

   Certain posts on sensitive subjects, even when framed as valid WIs, can
   easily rouse strong passions. When reading highly contentious or
   deliberately argumentative posts it's worth taking a moment to consider
   whether an immediate follow-up is the best action. An outraged response
   to a post that has caused offense, or seems deliberately argumentative,
   will not solve the problem. In many cases the resulting argument is
   often what the original poster intends. If it doesn't look like a poster
   is going to engage in constructive discussion, responses will only add
   to the noise on the newsgroup. In short, "Please don't feed the trolls".

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 6. What is a "double-blind what-if" and how should I respond?

A "double-blind" WI is one that pretends to be posted from an alternative
history. Frequently, but not always, this takes the form of asking "what
if" about something from real history, treating it as if it hadn't
happened, e.g. "What if England had resisted Napoleon successfully?"
Sometimes it will be clear what the author wants to pretend happened
instead, sometimes not.

Preferred style for responses is to pretend to be from the same
alternative history as the initial post. Feel free to add details to the
fictitious history in your response, but try not to contradict anything
someone has already said, unless you can do it in character ("The idea
that the Empire nearly fell apart under Napoleon VI is a vicious lie
spread by Francophobe neo-radicals!").

Note that the existence of double-blinds means you should hesitate before
correcting a post which seems to be making a really flagrant error about
history -- while theoretically possible that an author really doesn't know
that Napoleon never invaded Britain, it is much more likely to be a
double-blind what-if, in which case "correcting the error" will just make
you look silly.

One regular appearance on SHWI is the "West Wing", a thread discussing
contemporary events as if they were from the television drama of the same
name. This is not an invitation to discuss contemporary political issues,
but rather a running joke regarding the dramatic implausibilites of real
history.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 7. What does "... in the Sea of Time" mean?

It's a reference to S.M. Stirling's ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME (book one of
the Nantucket Trilogy), which sends 1998 Nantucket back to 1250 B.C.
through some unexplained mechanism and follows its inhabitants' subsequent
careers.

The book's publication sparked a large set of threads asking about the
impact of sending various areas or groups back in time.  It is now a
newsgroup practice to give any such time-travel question a subject heading
"[whatever] in the Sea of Time", or just "ISOT."

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 8. What are the Alien Space Bats?

Newsgroup shorthand for complete disbelief in some suggested historical
reasoning: "alien space bats would be a more believable explanation."

For a while, they were being pressed into service for questions about the
effects of impossible events actually happening, but their primary use
remains for attacks on unrealism in timelines (Alison Brooks' page, see
Question 19, gives the canonical example). They are still occasionally
invoked as a quirky deus ex machina for impossible AHs, because no one has
come up with anything better. It should be noted that the ASBs' creator,
Alison Brooks (now sadly deceased), regretted the use of the ASBs as a
supernatural agency, preferring to restrict them to rhetoric.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 9. What does <abbreviation> mean?

There are several abbreviations common to much of Usenet which are not
described here. There are also a few that seem to be rare outside this
newsgroup, however:

 ACW = American Civil War
 AH = alternative history (not to be confused with A-H, Austria-Hungary)
 ASB = alien space bats; see Question 8 
 ATL = alternative timeline 
 BoP = Ban on Politics; see Question 4.a. It is also used as a verb; to
       BoP someone is to invoke the Ban
 DBWI = double-blind what-if; see Question 6 
 ISOT = "In the Sea Of Time";
      see Question 7 
 ObWI = "Obligatory What-If", a throwaway AH idea included
 in an otherwise off-topic post
 OTL = our timeline; a synonym for real history POD, 
 PoD = point of divergence; the moment when an AH starts to differ
            from real history
 WI = what-if; used as a synonym for a particular alternative history *or*
      for a particular question
 YWUA = "You Wake Up As," or, what would the reader do if s/he replaced
        a given historical figure with all current knowledge intact -
        usually used as short hand for "given hindsight, what decisions
        would historical figure X make?"

Additionally there are two prefixes that appear relatively frequently,
both of which are specific to the newsgroup. *{text here} and alt.{text
here} both signify "the alternative timeline version" of whatever text
they are applied to. For example, when discussing an alternative history
in which Napoleon is a physically large man, one might write about the
differences in behaviour and career of the real Napoleon, and *Napoleon.
This construction can also be used to refer to analogues of characters in
an alternative history. For example, an alternative history that featured
a British instead of a French revolution in the 18th century might well
feature an alt.Napoleon, or *Napoleon, who fulfils a similar role (but is
obviously not named Napoleon).

------------------------------------------------------------------------
10. What are the most common what-ifs?

Evelyn Leeper's 1999 count using the Uchronia database (see Question 16)
found that World War II was about twice as popular as the American Civil
War, which was about twice as popular as World War I/Russian Revolution.
The last was significantly ahead in a group that also included Waterloo,
the Armada, Kennedy's assassination and the Cuban Missile Crisis. This
roughly matches findings by the late AH buff Mark Keller.

Soc.history.what-if duplicates the literature in the popularity of WWII
and the American Civil War. Certain specific aspects of both conflicts
have been argued into the ground on the newsgroup without reaching
consensus (see Question 5). Some of the most famous points of divergence
are probably not such good choices to change the wars' outcomes as is
frequently believed, and in any case have been debated so often that many
participants will show more interest in exploring other possibilities.

For WWII these include Operation Sealion, the use of chemical weapons (by
either side), Japan not striking at Pearl Harbor (but still attacking in
the East Indies and Philippines) and Japan attacking the USSR rather than
the USA. A similar list could be drawn up for the American Civil War.
While further discussion of such timelines is welcomed, newcomers are
advised to examine the archives to examine some of the oft repeated
arguments surrounding the subjects.

Beyond that, it is hard to say what topics come up most often, or (what is
not the same thing) which sorts of questions are likely to spark a good
discussion. For some reason, several of the newsgroup's most long- lived
and productive threads have concerned alternative versions of the
discovery and settlement of the American continents, and the probability
of a scientific or industrial revolution occurring in a different culture,
country or time. As the commercial, scientific and industrial revolutions
are still much debated topics within real history, it is extremely
difficult to draw conclusions about alternative versions. Nevertheless
these subjects have produced a wealth of interesting debate on SHWI.
Again, newcomers are advised to search the archives.

Despite these points, it is not possible to predict what idea will produce
a good thread. Well worn themes may produced gems as easily as novel
ideas.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
11. What are some common historical errors I should avoid?

There are a number of historical issues that are still hotly debated, on
the newsgroup and in the historical profession. (Question 5 mentions some
that have been debated enough for the newsgroup to tire of them.) However,
a few ideas which are simply mistaken show up frequently in the
alternative history literature and on the newsgroup. Note that particular
outcomes desired can often be obtained by using a different, usually
earlier, point of divergence. Good results can also come from challenging
the group to come up with a plausible justification for some specific
event.

11.a. Could Operation Sealion have succeeded?

   Not with the existing situation in 1940: Germany lacked the necessary
   resources to force the English Channel, and even transporting and
   supplying ground forces of the necessary size would have been
   difficult, probably impossible. Alison Brooks and Ian Montgomerie have
   posted extended arguments to this effect; see their webpages (Question
   19). A plausible Nazi defeat of Great Britain requires changing
   something other than just going ahead with Sealion.

11.b. Could the American Indians have repelled the Europeans?

   No, nor any other people from the Old World who might have discovered
   the New. Even apart from a considerable technical edge (guns, but also
   metal working, shipbuilding, etc.), the Europeans had a decisive
   advantage because of their diseases. Due to their late settlement of
   the continents and lack of domesticated animals, the native Americans
   lacked any immunity to most Old World diseases, which meant a
   catastrophic population collapse (definitely higher than 50%, and
   perhaps more than 90%) in the first generations following contact.
   Deaths on a similar scale will necessarily follow *any* extensive
   contact between the hemispheres.

11.c. Did the Chinese just use gunpowder for fireworks?

   Despite persistent stories to the contrary, the Chinese did use
   gunpowder for weapons. They used bombs from the tenth century AD,
   rockets from the tenth and eleventh, and even cannon from the
   thirteenth. Cannon seem to have diffused to Europe by the 1320s, and
   China lost its lead in gunpowder weaponry probably in the 1400s.

11.d. Did Christianity destroy Greek science and the Roman Empire?

   Opinions differ about whether Christianity was a contributing factor to
   the decline of the Roman Empire, but it is agreed that there were, at
   least, many other factors of greater importance -- after all, the
   Christian Roman Empire (Byzantium) lasted longer than the pagan Empire
   and Republic put together. Christianity definitely did not destroy the
   classical scientific tradition, which was moribund by the 1st century
   BC and long dead by the time Christianity was significant enough for
   anyone important to notice it.

11.e. Did the US come within one vote of adopting German as its
      official language?

   No. This urban legend seems to be based on a 1795 petition to print
   some laws in German as well as (not instead of) English. During the
   debate, a motion to adjourn and consider the matter later failed by one
   vote. No vote was taken on the actual proposal. Later that year,
   Congress voted to issue federal laws in English only; the vote tally
   does not seem to have been recorded.

11.f. Did Polish lancers charge German tanks in 1939? 

   No. This appears to be a myth originally started by Italian
   correspondants following the German army. The Polish army did have
   substantial cavalry units, often well equipped and trained, and had
   some successes against German infantry. It may be that following
   such successes the cavalry then subsequently encountered armoured
   forces and were defeated, but whether it's taken as praise of
   desperate Polish bravery or condemnation of Polish warmaking
   capability, the story should be considered with a pinch of salt.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
12. Are the posts to soc.history.what-if archived somewhere?

There is no soc.history.what-if archive site, although there are a number
of threads saved on Ian Montgomerie's website (see Question 19), thanks to
Randy McDonald. Most of them are from late 2000 forward, but some are
older.

The web search engine Google has a nearly-complete Usenet archive,
including every post made to soc.history.what-if and its predecessor
alt.history.what-if. Use their advanced search page:

  http://groups.google.com/advanced_group_search

------------------------------------------------------------------------
13. Can anybody recommend a good book about alternative history?

About alternative history itself? There are a number of anthologies, but
only one also includes non-fiction material about the genre, to wit an
essay and a bibliography (by Gordon B. Chamberlain). It is:

  Waugh, Charles, G., & Martin H. Greenberg (eds), ALTERNATIVE
    HISTORIES: ELEVEN STORIES OF THE WORLD AS IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN (Garland
    1986)

Unhappily, the book was only published in hardback and can be difficult to
find. The most likely place for you to locate it is at a reasonably
well-stocked public or university library.

Another recommendation is the following:

  Geoffrey Hawthorn, PLAUSIBLE WORLDS: POSSIBILITY AND UNDERSTANDING IN
  HISTORY AND THE SOCIAL SCIENCES (Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Several dissertations have been written about alternative history as a
literary sub-genre. Some examples are:

  Collins, William Joseph, PATHS NOT TAKEN: THE DEVELOPMENT, STRUCTURE,
    AND AESTHETICS OF THE ALTERNATIVE HISTORY (University of California,
    Davis 1990).

  Gevers, Nicholas, MIRRORS OF THE PAST: VERSIONS OF HISTORY IN SCIENCE
    FICTION AND FANTASY (University of Cape Town 1997).

  McKnight, Ed, ALTERNATIVE HISTORY: THE DEVELOPMENT OF A LITERARY GENRE
    (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill 1994) available from UMI
    Dissertation Services as order number 9508228.

The proceedings of a 1995 Berkeley conference have been published as
COUNTERFACTUAL THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS IN WORLD POLITICS: LOGICAL, METHODO-
LOGICAL, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES, eds. Philip E. Tetlock and Aaron
Belkin (Princeton 1996). The papers focused on how counterfactual
arguments should be generated, used, and judged by students of world
politics.

A British historian, Niall Ferguson, edited VIRTUAL HISTORY: ALTERNATIVES
AND COUNTERFACTUALS (Picador 1997, etc) a collection of articles on
"counterfactuals" written by and for academic historians. This book
discusses and defends alternative history as a tool for understanding real
history; it is not interested in alternative history as a genre of
fiction. It includes a lengthy introduction in which Ferguson tries to
justify alternative history as a tool for historical studies.

A better recent book of the same type (though without a general
introduction) is WHAT IF? THE WORLD'S FOREMOST MILITARY HISTORIANS IMAGINE
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN (Putnam 1999), edited by Robert Cowley. Expanded from
a special issue of MHQ: THE JOURNAL OF MILITARY HISTORY, the book almost
deserves its subtitle, assembling by far the most formidable array of
historians ever to consider alternative histories.

WHAT IF? is only the most prominent of a number of recent academic AH
books or collections based on military history; see the next Question. It
was successful enough for a sequel, WHAT IF? 2: EMINENT HISTORIANS IMAGINE
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN (Putnam, 2001), which concentrates on non-military
alternatives.

Finally, arguments for and against "counterfactual" history as a tool for
historians and (especially) history teachers may be found in Alexander
Demandt's HISTORY THAT NEVER HAPPENED: A TREATISE ON THE QUESTION, WHAT
WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF--? (MacFarland 1993), translated by Colin D.
Thompson from the third edition of the original German (Vandenhoek &
Ruprecht 1984, etc).

------------------------------------------------------------------------
14. What alternative histories should I read?

Everyone has different tastes; asking for suggestions on the newsgroup
will usually get several quite different responses. Some of the most
widely acknowledged classics of the field are listed below. It should be
emphasised that many of these "histories" are in fact science fiction,
utilising supernatural or non-historical effects as a literary device:

  Benford, Gregory, & Martin H. Greenberg (eds), HITLER VICTORIOUS:
    ELEVEN STORIES OF THE GERMAN VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II (Garland 1986,
    etc) [an anthology including several classic stories]

  de Camp, L. Sprague, LEST DARKNESS FALL (Ballantine 1949, etc)

  Dick, Philip K., THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE (Putnam's 1962, etc)

  Dixon, Dougal, THE NEW DINOSAURS, AN ALTERNATE EVOLUTION (Grafton
    1988, etc)

  Garrett, Randall, LORD DARCY (SFBC 1983, etc); omnibus of MURDER AND
    MAGIC (Ace 1979); TOO MANY MAGICIANS (Doubleday 1967, etc); and LORD
    DARCY INVESTIGATES (Ace 1981)

  Kantor, Mackinlay, IF THE SOUTH HAD WON THE CIVIL WAR (Bantam 1961)

  Moore, Ward, BRING THE JUBILEE (Farrar, Straus & Young 1953, etc)

  Piper, H. Beam, LORD KALVAN OF OTHERWHEN (Ace 1965, etc; vt GUNPOWDER
    GOD, Sphere 1978; available in THE COMPLETE PARATIME Ace 2001)

  Roberts, Keith, PAVANE (Hart-Davis 1968, etc)

  Sobel, Robert, FOR WANT OF A NAIL: IF BURGOYNE HAD WON AT SARATOGA
    (Macmillan 1973; Greenhill 1997)

  Spinrad, Norman, THE IRON DREAM (Avon 1972, etc)

  Squire, J.C. (ed), IF IT HAD HAPPENED OTHERWISE: LAPSES INTO IMAGINARY
    HISTORY (Longmans, Green 1931; exp Sidgwick & Jackson 1972; St.
    Martin's 1974); rev as IF: OR, HISTORY REWRITTEN (Viking 1931;
    Kennikat 1964)

  Stirling, S.M., THE DOMINATION (Baen 1999); omnibus of MARCHING
    THROUGH GEORGIA (Baen 1988); UNDER THE YOKE (Baen 1989); and THE STONE
    DOGS (Baen 1990)

  Turtledove, Harry, AGENT OF BYZANTIUM (Congdon & Weed/Contemporary
    1987, etc; exp Baen 1994)

  Turtledove, Harry, and L. Sprague de Camp, DOWN IN THE BOTTOMLANDS
   (AND OTHER PLACES) (Baen 1999) [includes Turtledove's title story, plus
   the classic "Wheels of If" by de Camp & Turtledove's sequel]

  Turtledove, Harry, THE GUNS OF THE SOUTH: A NOVEL OF THE CIVIL WAR
    (Ballantine 1992, etc)

The science fiction goes in and out of print, and they can be difficult to
find unless you have a friend with a personal library of SF classics. Note
that Kantor, Sobel, and the Squire anthology are not SF or even fiction;
they are essays in "imaginary history." Such books are more likely to be
found in libraries which view SF as beneath their dignity. Special mention
should be made of Robert Sobel's FOR WANT OF A NAIL.

FOR WANT OF A NAIL: IF BURGOYNE HAD WON AT SARATOGA is probably the most
detailed alternative history of all time, written by a real historian with
a number of publications in American business history. Taking the form of
a lengthy (400+ pages) academic history of the two sister nations which
result, it has a full scholarly apparatus including hundreds of
references, all of them completely invented. Long out of print, FOR WANT
OF A NAIL was republished by Greenhill in late 1997.

The alternative timeline of FOR WANT OF A NAIL has been unofficially
developed beyond the date where Sobel ended his history, through the
collective effort of a number of SHWI contributors. The FOR ALL NAILS
timeline explores in depth many of the issues raised in Sobel's work, as
well as being extremely entertaining. An archive of FOR ALL NAILS posts
and information regarding the project and the FOR ALL NAILS "cabal" can be
found at:

 http://www.kebe.com/for-all-nails/

The following books were published recently enough to be easily findable,
and have all received at least some favorable attention. As with the
classics above, some are "pure" alternative history, but others involve
time travel, magic, or some other implausible deus ex machina device.

  Barnes, John, FINITY (Tor 1999)

  Baxter, Stephen, VOYAGE (HarperCollins UK 1996, etc)

  Bear, Greg, DINOSAUR SUMMER (Warner 1998)

  Blom, Suzanne Alles, INCA: THE SCARLET FRINGE (Tor/Forge 2001)

  Dreyfuss, Richard and Harry Turtledove, THE TWO GEORGES (Tor 1996,
    etc)

  DuBois, Brendan, RESURRECTION DAY (Putnam 1999, etc)

  Flint, Eric, 1632 (Baen 2000)

  Fry, Stephen, MAKING HISTORY (Hutchinson 1996, etc)

  Garfinkle, Richard, CELESTIAL MATTERS: A NOVEL OF ALTERNATE SCIENCE
    (Tor 1996, etc)

  Gentle, Mary. ASH: A SECRET HISTORY Series (Avon/Eos 1999-2000, etc)

  Harris, Robert, FATHERLAND (Hutchinson 1992, etc)

  Keyes, J. Gregory, AGE OF UNREASON Series (Ballantine 1998-2001, etc)

  McAuley, Paul J., PASQUALE'S ANGEL (Morrow 1995, etc)

  Newman, Kim, ANNO DRACULA Series (Simon & Schuster 1992-1998, etc)

  Niles, Douglas and Michael Dobson, FOX ON THE RHINE (Tor/Forge 2000)

  Sargent, Pamela, CLIMB THE WIND (Harper Prism 1998, etc)

  Stirling, S.M., NANTUCKET Trilogy (ROC 1998-2000)

  Stirling, S.M., THE PESHAWAR LANCERS (ROC 2002)

  Stroyar, J.N., THE CHILDREN'S WAR (Pocket 2001)

  Turtledove, Harry, HOW FEW REMAIN: A NOVEL OF THE SECOND WAR BETWEEN
    THE STATES (Ballantine 1997, etc)

  Turtledove, Harry, THE GREAT WAR/AMERICAN EMPIRE Series (Ballantine
    1998-)

  Turtledove, Harry, WORLDWAR Series (Ballantine 1994-2001)

  Wilson, Robert Charles, DARWINIA (Tor 1998, etc)

Some decent alternative history anthologies which are currently available
are:

  Dozois, Gardner & Stanley Schmidt (eds), ROADS NOT TAKEN: TALES OF
    ALTERNATE HISTORY (Del Rey 1998)

  Greenberg, Martin H. (ed), THE WAY IT WASN'T: GREAT STORIES OF
    ALTERNATE HISTORY (Carol 1996)

  Shainblum, Marc and John Dupuis (eds), ARROWDREAMS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF
    ALTERNATE CANADAS (Nuage 1998)

  Stirling, S.M., DRAKAS! (Baen, 2000)

  Turtledove, Harry and Roland J. Green (eds), ALTERNATE GENERALS (Baen
    1998)

  Turtledove, Harry and Martin H. Greenberg, THE BEST ALTERNATE
    HISTORY STORIES OF THE 20TH CENTURY (Ballantine/Del Rey 2001)

Some non-English language alternative histories include: 

   Rasmus Dahlberg (editor), EN ANDEN HISTORIE. NI ALTERNATIVE
 DANMARKSHISTORIER, Aschehoug et egmont forlag, Viborg, 2001

   Christian von Ditfurth, DIE MAUER STEHT AM RHEIN. DEUTSCHLAND NACH DEM
 SIEG DER SOZIALISMUS, Verlag Kiepenhauer & Witsch, Kln, 1999

   Ralph Giordano, WENN HITLER DEN KRIEG GEWONNEN HŸTTE. DIE PLŸNE DER
 NAZIS NACH DEM ENDSIEG, Verlag Kiepenhauer & Witsch, Kln, 2000 (has
 some allohistorical content)
 
   Eric B. Henriet, L'HISTOIRE REVISITŠE. PANORAMA DE L'UCHRONIE SOUS
 TOUTES SES FORMES, Encrage, Amiens, 1999

   Nicolas Saudray, LES ORANGES DE YALTA, Ballard Edition, 1992

Thanks to the recent mini-boom in "non-fiction" alternative
history centering on military AH, it needs its own section of recently
published or republished books. Greenhill/Stackpole apparently intends to
publish at least one such volume every year. See also Question 13.

  Deutsch, Harold and Dennis Showalter, WHAT IF? STRATEGIC ALTERNATIVES
    OF WWII (The Emperor's Press, 1997)


  Macksey, Kenneth, INVASION: THE GERMAN INVASION OF ENGLAND, JULY
    1940 (Macmillan 1980, etc)

  Macksey, Kenneth (ed), THE HITLER OPTIONS (Greenhill 1994, etc)

  North, Jonathan (ed), THE NAPOLEON OPTIONS (Greenhill 2000)

  Talley, Steve, ALMOST AMERICA: FROM THE COLONISTS TO CLINTON: A
    "WHAT IF" HISTORY OF THE U.S. (HarperCollins 2000)

  Tsouras, Peter G., DISASTER AT D-DAY: THE GERMANS DEFEAT THE ALLIES,
     JUNE 1944 (Greenhill 1994)

  Tsouras, Peter G., GETTYSBURG: AN ALTERNATE HISTORY (Greenhill 1997)

  Tsouras, Peter G., ed., RISING SUN VICTORIOUS: THE ALTERNATE HISTORY
     OF HOW JAPAN WON THE PACIFIC WAR (Greenhill 2001)


Alternative history is also used as the basis for role-playing games. An
example which deserves special mention is:

   Hite, Kenneth, Craig Neumeier and Michael S. Schiffer, GURPS
    ALTERNATE EARTHS (Steve Jackson Games 1996) and GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS
    2 (Steve Jackson Games 1999)

This is a collection of six alternative histories written for Steve
Jackson Games' role-playing game GURPS. Three of the timelines are
relatively "standard" choices (CSA, Nazis, Roman Empire); three are
unusual (Aztecs, Christian Japan, 1920s pulp science). It has a page at
the SJ Games website

  http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/AltEarths/

There is a sequel GURPS ALTERNATE EARTHS 2, six more worlds tending to
more unusual choices in its scenarios (American Revolution, Ming China,
Vikings, scientific Muslims, Revolution of 1688 and a paratime empire)

  http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/altearths2/

There are currently no plans for additional volumes, however a new
book which will effectively be a compilation of the previous volumes
with some additional material and updates will be available from
December 2004.

  http://www.sjgames.com/gurps/books/infiniteworlds/

The histories are worth examining in their own right as a good
introduction to alternative history -- one does not need to be
interested in GURPS or role playing to find value in them.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
15. Is there an (on-line) alternative history book list?

There sure is, maintained by Robert B. Schmunk (rbs@uchronia.net). He used
to maintain this FAQ, too, so he couldn't praise it as it deserves: it is
*very* impressive, one of the best specialist bibliographies on the Net
and far superior to any printed AH resource. The URL is

  http://www.uchronia.net/

------------------------------------------------------------------------
16. What are the Sidewise Awards?

The Sidewise Awards were created in 1995 to honor the best alternative
histories published each year. There are a "long form" (a novel or series)
and "short form" award. Nominees (the finalists from all published AH) are
selected during the calendar year subsequent to complete publication, and
the winners from that short list announced at Worldcon (the World Science
Fiction Convention). The Sidewise Awards have a web page at

  http://www.uchronia.net/sidewise/

which lists previous winners & nominees, and the works that have been
suggested to the judges for the current year. It also gives contact
information for the judges if you want to make a nomination.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
17. Are there other alternative history discussion areas?

Yes. The other Usenet newsgroups with some level of official interest in
alternative history are alt.tv.sliders (about the alternative-worlds TV
show), rec.arts.sf.written (the correct venue for discussion of the plot,
characters, or literary merit of most published alternative histories),
and the specialty group alt.books.harry-turtledove.

As of April 2000, there is a freeform online role-playing game, "SHWI In
the Sea Of Time," a mailing list in which a number of SHWI participants
are constructing an ATL based on their actions after being sent back to
1800 with personal computers but no other equipment:

  http://www.yahoogroups.com/group/SHWI-ISOT

SHWI has also spawned a online reading group, "SWHI Books". Unfortunately
this group has now closed, nevertheless the archive of posts may be of
interest to the shwi community:

 http://groups.yahoo.com/group/shwibooks/

There are at least two general electronic mailing lists. One is a Yahoo!
group; send an e-mail to Alternatehistory-subscribe@ yahoogroups.com. The
other, "Time in Fictions," is a bilingual French- English mailing list for
discussion of time travel and related themes in all media. TiF is linked
to the non-professional French magazine LA CLEPSYDRE. Further information
and registration is available at

  http://clepsydre.free.fr/

There are also e-lists devoted to two authors best known for their
alternative histories. To subscribe to Videssos, the Harry Turtledove
Discussion List, send a blank e-mail to videssos-subscribe@
yahoogroups.com. To subscribe to the S.M. Stirling Discussion List, send a
blank e-mail to stirling-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

There are web-based alternative history forums at Del Rey's alternate
history site and Ian Montgomerie's personal site (see Question
18). There are a number of forums for alternative history discussion,
and especially alternative history themed amateur fiction on the
EZBoard at:

http://p209.ezboard.com/balternatehistoryfictory

On other networks, there is an alternate history category of the Science
Fiction Round Table (SFRT1) on GEnie -- ask some other user how to go
about signing up.

The BBC Online discussion boards also host a what-if list as a spin-off
from an alternative history radio programme:

  http://www.bbc.co.uk/cgi-perl/h2/h2.cgi?state=view&board=history.whatif

Off the Net completely, there is a paper APA "Point of Divergence": Jim
Rittenhouse's page (see question 18) has a description and contact
information.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
18. Are there any alternative history Web sites?

Several; too many, in fact, to conveniently list them all. Fortunately,
most of the better pages have links to other sites. The most obvious place
to begin is the Uchronia site, which has an extensive links page as well
as the definitive AH bibliography (see Question 15) and information on the
Sidewise Awards (see Question 16):

  http://www.uchronia.net/

There is a (small) alternate history web ring at

  http://www.webring.org/cgi-bin/webring?ring=althistory&list

The Alternate History Travel Guides grew out of an old newsgroup thread:

  http://www.ahtg.net

A French language site which includes articles and reviews of science
fiction and in particular alternative history can be found at:

  http://www.noosfere.com/heberg/mota/

The other sites listed here are all alternative history pages which belong
to current or past contributors to soc.history.what-if. The contents tend
toward original material rather than information on published alternative
histories.

Alison Brooks & David Flin:

  http://www.flin.demon.co.uk/

"Gnome", author of the timeline "What if Gordon Banks had played?"

 http://www.btinternet.com/~chief.gnome/

Doug Hoff:

  http://www.althist.com/

Anthony Mayer [also hosts material by Jonathan Edelstein and Sydney Webb]:

  http://www.anthonymayer.net/ah/history.html

Ian Montgomerie [also hosts material by a number of other authors]:

  http://www.alternatehistory.com/entry.html

Bucky Rea:

  http://www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/alternative_history

Jim Rittenhouse [includes information on the alternate history
  APA "Point of Divergence"]:

  http://www.marmotgraphics.com/althistory/index.html

Marcus Rowland ["Forgotten Futures" shareware RPG based on 19th- and
  early 20th-century scientific romances, some explicitly AH]:

  http://homepage.ntlworld.com/forgottenfutures/

Erwin Wodarczak:

  http://www.wodarczak.net/althist/

------------------------------------------------------------------------
19. Is there any record of newsgroup traffic in soc.history.what-if?

There certainly is. The website
 
  http://www.ex-parrot.com/~chris/ngml/soc.history.what-if.html

provides a weekly breakdown of posting statistics to soc.history.what-if.
This tool is provided by Chris Lightfoot
(http://www.ex-parrot.com/~chris/), a regular contributor to the group,
and questions regarding the script or site should be addressed to him.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

20.  What does "PoD Flood" mean?

In an effort to improve the signal to noise ratio on
soc.history.what-if, posters are encouraged to post PoDs (points of
divergence, see question 9) or ideas for discussion, even if those PoDs
or discussion points have not been completely polished or researched
beforehand. As long as the post concerns alternative history, it is
welcome on s.h.w.i. The idea can always be revisited later, and
interesting discussions often spring from even throwaway what-ifs. PoD
flood thus "reclaims" s.h.w.i. from off-topic posts. Don't get it right,
get it written.  

The "PoD Flood" marker is now largely unused, however large numbers of 
archived posts are labelled as PoD Flood, and the success of the strategy
suggests that future attempts to spam the newsgroup may be met with PoD 
flood posts.


------------------------------------------------------------------------


21. How can I get started writing a timeline? Where can I get advice?

A number of long time posters to soc.history.what-if have compiled a 
short guide to writing timelines ("So, you want to write a timeline?"),
which is hosted at Anthony Mayer's website:

http://www.anthonymayer.net/ah/writingGuide.html

It provides some hints and tips on getting started, how to keep going, 
some advice on research and styles of timelines, together with anecdotes
and comments from veteran timeline authors. This is a living document which
is expected to grow with contributions from posters.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

CAPTCHA


[ Usenet FAQs | Web FAQs | Documents | RFC Index ]

Send corrections/additions to the FAQ Maintainer:
anthonyemayer@yahoo.co.uk





Last Update March 27 2014 @ 02:11 PM