Author tells tale of alternate history


What if the Yellowstone volcano had erupted in 2011? What if aliens had invaded during WWII? What if time travelers had supplied the Confederacy with AK-47s

These are the questions entertained by writers of alternate history, a subgenre of science fiction.

Harry Turtledove, an award-winning novelist often regarded as the “master of alternate history,” read a short story to an audience of around 150 students Tuesday night in the College of Education building’s TECO room.

“The Eighth Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging” centered on Anne Berkowitz, his revised history version of Anne Frank, who survived WWII and lived long enough to retire in an elderly home.

Berkowitz recounted harrowing wartime experiences to a middle school history class, experiences Turtledove borrowed directly from Anne Frank’s diary.

However in this reality, Berkowitz discarded the diary in an attempt to forget her past. The world loses a legend, but a girl gets to have a long life.

Rick Wilber, a USF mass communications professor and science fiction author, said even a small historical variation create vast changes to individual lives. 

“Alternate history is essentially the kind of story where you ask if one small thing happened differently in the past, what may that world be like?” he said. “It’s the classic science fiction ‘what if?'”

Turtledove, along with Wilber, will speak again today as part of a panel discussion on science fiction writing hosted by the USF Humanities Institute.

Wilber said an encompassing historical knowledge and a willingness to research further is useful for readers and essential for writers.

“What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Germans had done a little better and taken Cairo? The world would turn out differently,” he said. “The more you know about history, the more fun it is to read.”

After the reading, Turtledove gave advice to students interested in writing their own realities. Writing habitually and publishing persistently were two good talents for writers to have.

“You do what you do, and you do the best you can,” he said. “I don’t think I would not be able to not write.”

Turtledove said our history is a good way for any writer to draw inspiration.

“Fiction has to be plausible, history just has to happen,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been able to make up a story about some guy becoming king of Albania for five days. I wouldn’t have the imagination – but he did.”

The panel of science fiction writers will be held at 2 p.m. in MSC 3705.