Sci-fi and history

April 11, 1997

From Edward James

THE CASUAL reader of "The Virtual Past Master" (THES, April 4), about Niall Ferguson and his counterfactual history, might be forgiven for believing that the reporter thought he had invented it.

It has, of course, a long history of its own, with dabblers who include Edward Gibbon, Thomas Babington Macaulay and also Winston Churchill.

What the article did not even mention was that counterfactual history (or alternate history) is a major genre of fiction - normally treated as a sub-genre of science fiction - which is growing increasingly popular, and has become an object of academic study in itself.

Our new interdisciplinary MA on science fiction at the University of Reading has an option on counterfactual fiction.

But perhaps Mr Ferguson does not want to be reminded that most practitioners of counterfactual history these days are professional science fiction writers?

Edward James, Department of history, faculty of letters and social sciences, University of Reading

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