The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time

By Karen Hellekson | Go to book overview

Introduction

In his introduction to Three Trips in Time and Space (1973), Robert Silverberg writes, “If all things are possible, if all gates stand open, what sort of world will we have?” (6). As a genre, the alternate history—the branch of literature that concerns itself with history's turning out differently than what we know to be true—attempts to answer this question. Refiguring Historical Time: The Alternate History is the result of my long-standing interest in both science fiction and history. Using primarily novel-length alternate histories by science fiction genre writers, I perform close readings of exemplar texts that explore the alternate history in terms of historiography and analyses of narrative for two reasons: to show how the classification system I have devised for organizing alternate histories works, and to show that the the best kind of alternate history is the one concerned most intimately with plausible causal relationships.

When I began reading the work of scholars concerned with time, I found that notions of narrative were intimately bound with expressions of time. I could not separate the two. Paul Ricoeur and Hayden White in particular allow me to discuss time and narrative meaningfully. Ricoeur argues that narrative is not reality but rather the way we organize our temporal experience. Ricoeur also puts together time as experienced by people with time as measured by devices such as calendars and clocks, arguing that narrated time links these two ways of structuring time. In Metahistory, White argues that historians write history not as disinterested outsiders but as interested parties who structure their narratives, perhaps

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