News Ticker

[GUEST POST] Louise Marley on Alternate History and Historical Fiction in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Louise Marley is a recovering opera singer who writes science fiction and fantasy. Her science fiction has twice won the Endeavour Award, and she’s been shortlisted for the Nebula, the Campbell, and the Tiptree Awards. Her publications include the three books of The Horsemistress Saga, an omnibus edition of The Singers of Nevya, and Mozart’s Blood, the story of a vampire opera singer, and her new time-travel novel, The Brahms Deception.

Playing with the Past: Alternate History and Historical Fiction in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Times are changing in the realms of science fiction and fantasy! Science and technology are advancing so quickly that it can be increasingly challenging for authors to speculate convincingly about the future. It’s not surprising, in the current climate, that writers of speculative fiction turn to the past for material, and there are some fine examples in the genre.

Connie Willis, the much-decorated mistress of science fiction, used time travel-a classic device of science fiction dating back to H.G. Wells and even beyond-to explore fourteenth-century Europe in The Doomsday Book, turn-of-the-century England in To Say Nothing of the Dog, and the London Blitz of World War II in Blackout and All Clear. Connie uses history the way I like to do it: not changing historical facts as we understand them, but weaving a fictional plot in and around them. In my recent time-travel novel The Brahms Deception, my intent was to speculate about what might have happened to my characters without changing what we understand actually did happen to them.

Alternate history takes a different approach. The website describes alternate history as a literary genre in which readers are mainly interested in the culture, politics, and strategies that define a historical period. Common themes are the Nazis winning World War II, or the Confederacy winning the Civil War in the United States, but there are many others. The excellent website Uchronia has an exhaustive list of alternate history authors and their work.

Fantasist Kate Elliott, in her alternate history series Spirit Walker Trilogy, speculates about a world in which one significant historical event is changed. Elliott posits a world in which the glaciers never fully retreated, and the Ice Age persists. Elliot creates a fantasy world, with magic as the device her characters use to cope with their environment.

Even in straightforward historical fiction, there is an element of speculation. Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl, treads a fine line in her novels. She takes a few liberties with actual fact, but essentially her readers can follow a fictional plot while still absorbing the essence of her historical period–events, culture, and politics. I always say that the further back the historical novelist reaches, the easier the job! We know less and less about the past as it recedes further and further away from us, so that some historical novels, like those written by the wonderful Judith Tarr, are almost pure speculation.

The readers’ site Good Reads features a long and helpful list of historical fiction novels, and in that bibliography there’s a lot of overlap between science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is dubbed historical fiction by Goodreads members, while most speculative fiction readers would consider it fantasy. The Historian, a literary vampire novel by Elisabeth Kostova, is also on the historical fiction list, as is my own vampire novel, Mozart’s Blood.

Genre definitions are useful mostly in marketing: matching the reader to the story they would most enjoy. In the early days of science fiction, such definitions didn’t exist; now they help to define subgenres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror, but they are becoming increasingly blurred. When a novel like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Mists of Avalon are read by the same people who love Sarah Dunant’s meticulously researched Renaissance novel Sacred Hearts, we may have a new trend in writing and publishing and marketing. As an author who has enjoyed working in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and historical fiction, this inclusivity seems to be a good sign. The day may come when speculative fiction moves out of its specialty niche and reaches a broader audience, and that will be a good thing for all of us.

2 Comments on [GUEST POST] Louise Marley on Alternate History and Historical Fiction in Science Fiction and Fantasy

  1. I don’t think, having read two of them, that the Spiritwalker books really are alternate history, although the author is playing in an overlapping playground.  If it is an AH, then its one where magic has always existed, and there are Troodons, and the ice age…so, really, its a fantasia of history.


    That said, they are most excellent books but I hope readers of SF Signal have seen my reviews of them both!

  2. Deborah J. Ross // December 6, 2011 at 12:57 pm //

    Both Louise Marley and Connie Willis explore — obliquely to the plot — the question of whether the past is immutable. Assuming the ability to go back in time, does the very presence of the observer create an alternate time line? Can you change a certain amount of “unimportant” events? Will the fixedness of history prevent you from changing any pivotal event? Or if if you do, will history “right itself” or will you return to a vastly different present time? Are events and experiences the same thing, or can you change the experience of a historical character without altering what he or she does? I’m having fun looking at these questions as I prepare a review of Marley’s The Brahms Deception. (By one of those amazing coincidences, when I read the book, I was learning my first Brahms piano piece, the Waltz in A Flat.)

    I don’t regard Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker books as alternate history so much as taking history-as-we-know-it, sending it in a different direction, and throwing in some very — excuse the pun — cool magic. it’s fun to spot what her world and our own have in common, where their histories diverged, but that isn’t enough to sustain several novels, which is why it works so much better as nifty background.

    Deborah J. Ross

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: