What if history had been, well, different? What if decisions were made differently, or technology went in a different direction? With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:
I am very fond of the alternate history in Madeleine Robins’ Sarah Tolerence Mysteries. It’s a small change, but one that might have happened. In her world, George IV doesn’t become regent when his father goes mad. The Queen does instead. What I love about this world is all the subtle ways it enhances other the lives of other women. Having a queen ruling gives greater freedom and range of choices than a woman actually had at the time. For instance, the titular character is an Agent of Inquiry, the period term for a detective. Much as Queen Victoria’s realm led to the rise of the suffrage movement, it’s easy to imagine that if these books continue that women might get the vote in this alternate history much, much sooner.
I’m sure I read and adored many alternate history stories as a child (His Dark Materials for one, but most now vague memories), and I love both the Glamourist Histories and Temeraire, however I’m going to go with something else I enjoyed more recently.
My Real Children by Jo Walton is the story of one woman, with two lives, branching from one decision. It opens at the end of her life, when the dementia-confused Patricia Cowan looks back and remembers two distinct path, both leading her to a nursing home in 2015. Two families. Two alternate histories. And not just her own. In one life, JFK isn’t assassinated and the world launches forward into peace, while the other veers towards societal devastation without ever quite getting all the way there. There are no utopias or dystopias here. The alternate worlds created are recognisable, possible, and they are also often in the background, beyond the story. The differences are there, and they are scattered through the narrative like fruit through a cake — some small, some more like cherries (the very best thing about the awesomeness that is fruitcake). Just like the differences in Patricia’s life – some simple, like a nickname, some deeper, like who she ends up spending that life with. The worlds build up and build up, further away from our own but never too far. The result is a story primarily concerned with the effects of those changed worlds on a very small group of characters: Patricia’s family (or families). The characters exist in these worlds. They are trying to survive these worlds and their impositions while living ordinary lives. This is what makes the novel and its worlds so compelling.
The story could have worked with Patricia inhabiting just our world but it was this added depth that kept me reading. I read it in a day. In that day, I saw two lives lived and two complete, believable worlds created. And, I honestly have no idea which one I would choose. The one that’s better for the world, or the one that’s better for Patricia? Are they even that distinct? And we can’t pick and choose our own lives or the worlds we live in.
That is what fascinates me about alternate history. Fractured, gripping characters existing in a world so like the familiar, but constructing, step by step, a vast other world subtly different to the one I know.
For me, it has to be Gail Carriger’s alternative Victorian England that I met through the Parasol Protectorate series. Victorian etiquette with civilised (in the main) vampires and werewolves, I mean, what’s not to love? In all seriousness though, I adore the fusion of urban fantasy with a comedy of manners as it casts both into new light. I also love the idea of the Shadow Council, a group of supernatural advisors to the Queen, as it tickles my love for both the romantic idea of royalty and the politics of supernatural factions at the same time. Of course, it’s more than just the alternative history and world-building that made me fall in love with the series; the characters are great fun and the pacing is fantastic. It’s a gorgeous, sumptuous world that is fun and comforting to sink into, so if you haven’t tried it yet (and honestly, where have you been?) then please do.
Christian Klaver, an author of Science Fiction and Fantasy, lives in the suburbs just outside the sprawling decay of Detroit, Michigan. There he resides with his wife (Kimberly) his daughter (Kathryn) and a group of animals he refers to as ‘The Menagerie’. His first book, Shadows Over London, stars a young girl in Victorian England that finds that her life-long, forbidden desire to become a ship’s captain is central to saving England as she and her family battle an invasion from the Faerie. Christian is also the author of The Supernatural Case-Files of Sherlock Holmes.
Somehow or another, I got into Age of Sail fiction, and tripped over Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. I’m not always a big military buff and fantasy, not military fiction, is my first love, but something about old-style sailing is just fantastically compelling. Forester fills the Hornblower books with an absolute metric ton of sailing neepery that makes you feel like you’re really on the ocean, battling the ocean in incredibly daring and dangerous maneuvers. His grasp of the history, the times, the entire feel of the British Navy really makes you feel like you’re there, and also like you could command a pirate vessel after reading all the stories. (Love for the Age of Sail is one of the things that drives my own fiction and one of my favorite protagonists from my own work is a young girl driven to become a sea captain.) I devoured all 11 Hornblower books and the short stories. I went looking for similar books in fantasy lands, but nothing really struck a chord for me.
Until Temeraire. The Age of Sail, the Napoleonic Wars, a young captain making his way in the ranks all the things I loved about Hornblower…but with freakin’ DRAGONS! Temeraire (the dragon that quickly becomes attached to our young captain, Lawrence) is fairly compelling right away, with a slightly skewed point-of-view that feels non-human, but still intelligent in a way that just makes him one of my favorite characters right off the bat. Naomi Novik is a historian herself, and it shows in her work. All the neepery you could ask for is there, except instead of crews riding a ship, they’re riding huge dragons. Crews for navigation, quarters, munitions and artillery crews, all riding a giant dragon with a small village strapped to it’s back, running through the rigging, it’s all there, but with dragons. Just lovely. Highly recommend.
Alternate Histories: The Thursday Next books.
Thursday Next: Threat or menace to the Goliath Corporation?
The Thursday Next series of books might be called alternate history, bureaucratic-punk*, world-hopping science fiction, satire, or book-nerd meta-something. The world is run by the Goliath Corporation, England (there is no U.K.) has been fighting the Crimean War against Imperial Russia for over a century, dodos have been re-engineered from their DNA, time travel exists, and the transistor was never invented.
And books are actually important.
So important that the cell walls between reality and fiction are sometimes permeable. Thursday Next, the main character, works as a literary detective, investigating crimes against the texts of books.
And then it gets weirder.
The alternate history comes about not because of a major change in history, like killing Hitler as a child or preventing the smallpox epidemic in the America. It’s just a little thing: the unchecked growth of a rather helpful corporation in the years after WWII.
What I find most compelling about the change is the way it allows the series to bring out the conflict between art and the people who have to enforce some kind of order on the world, whether it wants it or not**. Goliath has become an epidemic of bureaucracy, a disease that holds reality itself hostage. Goliath has become the government; it very nearly has become a god. The only thing left to resist it is BookWorld, home of texts.
It’s so wildly unrealistic that it’s entertaining–certainly not something we need to worry about at all.***
*Or maybe bureaupunk. The same genre as Terry Gilliam movies; more fun than Kafka, anyway.
**Incidentally, the Goliath Corporation is testing stories that delete themselves after a certain number of readings, ahem, just like the library ebook licensing conflicts that went down with Harper Collins in 2011.
***I’ve been trapped inside an Apple //e manual for the last seventy-two hours. Please help me before this article will have been deleted.
Science fiction and fantasy, by their very nature, are genres which invite authors to ask “What if?” It’s no surprise to me, then, that alternate histories are so popular and cover a wide range of possibilities — whether it’s Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels, in which dragons are used both as transport and weapons in the Napoleonic Wars; Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam stories of gaslamps and sorcery in the early 20th-century city of New Amsterdam (our Manhattan); or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus sequence, which sees djinni and ifrits stalking the cobblestone streets of an almost-modern London. I’ve read and enjoyed these works, marveled at the feats of imagination displayed by their authors, longed for a dragon or a summoning circle of my own… but my favorite alternate history world isn’t included among them.
That honor, rather, goes to Harry Turtledove’s short story, “The Eighth-Grade History Class Visits the Hebrew Home for the Aging.” If you’re unfamiliar with Turtledove, it’s worth knowing that he makes his bread-and-butter with alternate history. The story itself was published in 2014 and is available for free courtesy of Tor.com, and it’s a tale which explores the ramifications of a single change in a lovely, moving way. As one can guess from the title, a group of eighth-graders spends a morning at the visitor’s center of a nursing home in California. The story’s focal point is one of the residents, Anne, an 84-year-old woman who describes the three years her family spent hiding in the attic of a spice plant in Amsterdam, the diary she kept during that awful time, and her emigration to America after World War II ended. She also talks about her husband, her contented life with him and their children, and how the echoes of that war haunt her still.
I’m sure you’ve guessed who “Anne” is, but I strongly recommend that you read the story anyhow. It’s very well-written, and I can’t get to the end without tears in my eyes. The reason why it’s my favorite is the same reason that I find it to be the most compelling: Turtledove presents a vision of a world in which a young woman was able to experience a rich, full life, rather than dying horribly and becoming posthumously famous. On its surface, such a small change might seem mundane – especially in comparison with boundless magical power and freedom – but it’s a world in which I would very much like to live.
Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series was my introduction to alternate history, and it will always be one of my favourites for getting me interested in the genre. I absolutely love the series for many reasons, but I found the alternate Christian theology particularly fascinating – Carey’s version of France, Terre d’Ange, worships Elua, the progeny of Jesus’ blood and Mary Magdalene’s tears, and this religion’s main precept is “love as thou wilt”. Terre d’Ange is a very different society than we’ve ever seen in history – incredibly sex-positive, and very egalitarian – but still displays many of the excesses that we associate with French nobility. The world around Terre d’Ange is much more like our own medieval world, and it is fascinating to see how these dissimilar societies interact.
Watchmen by Alan Moore was the first alternate history I read that was set in a more familiar modern world, and my first graphic novel, and I found it a revelation. The idea of “realistic superheroes” has been done to death now, but when I read it, I had never thought of the real world consequences of superheroes – an accelerated arms race, the U.S. government using superheroes for military purposes and winning the war in Vietnam, and the world’s animosity towards the U.S. for having the world’s only superpowered hero on their payroll. Watchmen remains one of the most compelling explorations of an alternate history that I’ve read.
Alternate histories don’t have to change major events to be powerful, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series proves that. The only change to history is the addition of magic (called “glamour”) to the world, and in the beginning of the series, it’s mainly used for art. But as the series progresses, we start to explore the implications of the military taking an interest, and we learn more about non-European schools of glamour. Throughout the series, Kowal skillfully weaves in real historical events, altered subtly through glamour – the political intrigue surrounding the Napoleonic Wars, the unseasonably cold weather in England in 1816, the revitalization of the Murano glassmaking industry after Venice’s political troubles, and slave revolts on the plantations of the Caribbean.
Jo Walton’s My Real Children was the first novel I thought of when I read the question, and it’s not because the alternate histories themselves are that fascinating. There’s the one where the world lives in terror of nuclear strikes, and the other where the world is peaceful and we’re colonizing the moon. But it’s experiencing these two very different worlds from the perspective of one woman that’s having two very different lives that I found incredibly captivating. Is it the world that’s different, or is it her minor actions and decisions that make the world different? And if it is her actions, are the kinds of decisions that can change the whole world really so small?
I’m not sure if this last series is technically alternate history, but I enjoyed it so much that I’m going to include it anyway – Lady Trent’s Memoirs by Marie Brennan. All the place names are different (England is “Scirland”, Africa is “Eriga”), but it’s basically our world in the Victorian era, except with dragons! And ancient ruins of a mysterious dragon-loving people! Except it’s not magical dragons, it’s dragons that are just another species of animal, which need to be cataloged and studied scientifically. Of course having dragons changes history a bit, and themes of egalitarianism, colonialism, and politics are a major part of the series.
Alternate history fascinates me. My own trilogy is set on a twenty-eight century Earth, so I’ve extended existing history into the future, inventing possible events and building on them. Alternate history turns this approach on its head, taking existing history and throwing in a wild card. If one major factor in the past had been different, a victory changed to defeat, a life to a death, what would be the consequences? If the White Ship hadn’t sunk in 1120, if Napoleon had won instead of lost, how would the changes echo forwards through history?
When I’m reading alternate history, I want all the standard things I’d look for in any book, like a plot that engages me and characters that drag me into their lives. On top of that, I’m looking for three key things to make alternate history a success for me. A gripping concept. A convincing depiction of the genuine historical background. Logical consequences to the chosen change in history.
Most important of these is the concept, because that’s what decides whether I start reading the book or not. Does the wild card that the author has thrown into history interest me or not? The main reason I’m choosing to talk about The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle is because I couldn’t resist its totally outrageous concept. An Elizabethan setting, but with one key change. Explorers have discovered the New World, but it’s inhabited by strange beings. The man-like skrayling, with silver streaked hair and not-quite-human features, have seemingly magical powers.
That concept grabbed me partly because I wasn’t sure if this was fantasy or science fiction. Were these magical beings or aliens with technology that the Elizabethans wouldn’t understand? I felt the story could play out either way, and that intrigued me.
Once I started reading The Alchemist of Souls, I was looking for my second key thing. Was the historical background convincing? This book is set in Elizabethan London. In the first chapter we’re introduced to a London of taverns and brothels, where the streets stink and the mattresses are infested with fleas. It’s a brutal place where a man can be casually arrested and tossed in the Tower. Our hero, Mal, has a brother confined in chains in Bethlem Hospital, where visitors pay to spend an entertaining hour laughing at the inmates. For extra value, there’s a whole plotline centred about the Elizabethan theatre, which plays some games with the standard tropes of Shakespeare’s plays.
My third key thing is a logical handling of the consequences of the changed history. In The Alchemist of Souls, the Elizabethans aren’t sure what the skrayling are, they could be demons or faery folk, but they’re certainly powerful. Elizabeth’s England needs allies, so the skrayling ambassador has come to London. Do I believe that Elizabeth would ally with demons against Spain? Oh yes, definitely!
For me, the high-water mark in alternate history is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt—not only because of its stunningly imaginative exploration of a second history of religion and science, but because the novel also struggles with the big questions of historiography: Why do we tell history? How do we remember our past? What does it mean?
In The Years of Rice and Salt, the Black Death not only devastates Europe but exterminates it completely; only Ireland survives. The dominant forces in the world become the Muslim Near East and Buddhist China. The story of our world unfolds with remarkable drama. We meet:
- A feminist sultana attempting to teach a madrassa in a France settled entirely by Arabs and Moors;
- The last Ottoman sultan leaping and yelling on the walls in his sheer joy at the wonders of new technology, while a king from India (where the industrial revolution has occurred) is invading him with a steamship fleet, pummeling Istanbul from the Black Sea;
- A lone samurai crossing the North American content to contact the Iroquois; at one point, captured by the Sioux, he endures his torture and instructs his torturers that they are doing it wrong and he has seen it done better;
- A sixty-years trench war between Dar al-Islam and China; at one point, in an extreme nationalism, the forces from the west bomb the top of Mt. Everest until the tallest mountain of the world is no longer in China but in a Muslim nation;
- A Chinese naval admiral facing off against the Incan empire…
And so much more, so many extravagant scenes and ideas. But the real heart of the story – poignant and deep – is its exploration of history’s violence from a Buddhist or Muslim viewpoint. At the splitting of the atom, a young student in Muslim France mourns, “There is violence even at the heart of things; the rocks themselves are mortal.”
The book is a series of ten novellas from the 1300s to the present (by our calendar), each viewing a different century and place through the perspectives of three characters reincarnated again and again in different lives—each time trying (and often failing) to live more ethically and effectively in a frequently unethical and ineffective world. Besides the great storytelling, The Years of Rice and Salt is not to be missed because Robinson does such a great job of using an alternate history to hold up a mirror to our own.