Isn’t All Science Fiction and Fantasy Alternate Reality?

Nestled in there with such subgenres as Dark Fantasy, Military Science Fiction and Steampunk is a really neat category for fiction I have always enjoyed: Alternate Realities. When I hear this term, Harry Turtledove immediately springs to mind, with his great series, Worldwar, about aliens invading earth at the height of World War II. But when you think about science fiction and fantasy as a whole, don’t you have to agree it’s all alternate reality?

Alternate Reality is supposed to mean a world where the rules are different, or that history took a different path. I proprose that at least 95% of all speculative/SFF fiction takes place in such a world.

Take Harry Potter. A fantasy series about a young boy living in our modern world who suddenly finds there’s a whole new world waiting for him. One with magic, where he’s not a bullied orphan but a powerful wizard-to be. At first it may seem firmly grounded in our reality, but as you progress through the stories, you learn that the real world and the wizarding world have co-existed for some time.

That doesn’t sound like our reality at all.

Oh, sure. Maybe there really are wizards and witches hiding out at a boarding school in England. Maybe JK Rowling is nothing more than a PR hack for Hogwart’s, working to prepare the world for the day the magic comes out of the closet. But I kind of doubt that.

Not convinced? Look to something less far out, like 2001 A Space Odyssey. When it was made, it was a look into the future, but that was a possible future, which surely the producers had to admit had a slim likelihood of happening. Oh, and then there’s the Obelisk on the moon–clearly a bit of what-if, alternate reality if ever there was one.

When you really look at SFF, you’ll see that pretty much every single story takes place in a world that isn’t ours. They seem to fall into two main categories: stories about a world much like our own (e.g., Harry Potter) or worlds that aren’t supposed to be anything like ours (e.g. Star Wars).

And while it’s true that some science fiction tales exist on a what-might-be principle, like Jurassic Park, at some point they all take that step into an alternate, unknown, guessed-at reality. For example, what color dinosaurs where and whether they had feathers (Jurassic Park 3) or not (Jurassic Park 1 & 2).

My guess then is that authors who choose to label their work “alternate reality” aren’t really implying a Mirror, Mirror kind of fiction, but are just slapping a marketing label on their work to make it stand out from other alternate, imaginary worlds created by others.

What do you think? Can you name something from Science Fiction or Fantasy that isn’t alternate reality?

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