Alternate History is fantastic. Authors take an event that actually happened, and then go crazy with it. Steampunk, supernatural creatures and myths come to life, wars that ended differently or in some cases never even happened. Alternate history is where we explore what never was but could have been. With that in mind, I asked our panelists the following question:
Here are their responses…
I’ve been hooked on alternate history and historical fantasy ever since I encountered Robert McCammon’s The Wolf’s Hour back in 1989. His technique was to write the story as a spy novel, but for one very cool twist: the spy also happened to be a werewolf. What did he do to make that novel so memorable? It was his attention to historical details and folklore, and he wove the two together seamlessly.
So when I’m writing historical fantasy, my job is to know the details of the time period. I need to know what the clothes, cars, and houses looked like – a good use for Pinterest. All told, ninety percent of what I know will not be written into the story. However, all of that research can make one sentence ring true.
For example: when I wrote the scene, where Guillermo tells Diago of a dream I had originally used a very generic description of the war. My research eventually led me to the change the wording to: Guillermo “… saw a column of death marching up from the south …” With the phrase “column of death,” he is making a direct reference to Franco’s army.
A few tricks you might try if you’re writing alternate history or historical fantasy: know your time period, but also know the attitudes of the everyday people in the era you’re trying to represent. Read fiction or diaries by people who might have lived through, or already researched the time period you want to portray. This is how to pick up on linguistics, but also on social norms for that time period. Also be very sensitive to issues surrounding the conflict. In representing the Spanish Civil War in Los Nefilim, I am careful to keep twentieth and twenty-first century people and their opinions in the back of my mind, because I want them to focus on the story.
Once I’ve got the historical facts in place, then I am free to subvert them for my story. That’s when all becomes a great deal of fun.
Writing alternate history is akin trying to walk a straight line, while blindfolded, through a hurricane of butterfly wings. And there’s no safe path. Every decision the author makes is like the fateful misstep in “A Sound of Thunder.” Particularly so for authors like me, who, despite lacking a substantial background in history, tend to blunder into multi-volume fantasy alternate history scenarios. (Someday I’ll learn. Someday.)
The alternate histories I most admire succeed for a variety of reasons, and usually several in combination. The greatest burden of any alternate history is verisimilitude, in both the “true” details as well as in the historical extrapolations. In my own efforts, I typically end up collecting an entire bookshelf worth of research materials simply to spackle the novel with the thinnest veneer of historical plausibility. Where possible, I also find it helpful to read texts written by people who actually lived during or around the period in question. This can provide a window into crucial but intangible facets of world- and character building, such as mindset and diction. But even then, by the time I finish a draft, it feels like I’ve marked almost every single page of the manuscript with historical queries and second thoughts about the extrapolations.
The worldbuilding can become a bottomless rabbit hole. For example: in a world where the Netherlands became the ascendant world power in the late seventeenth century, what units should the modern-day French refugees inhabiting the New World use to measure the distances between their villages? It’s convenient to reach for kilometers, which are familiar to most readers. Yet the SI largely grew out of the French Revolution, which never took place…
That’s why I admire works that pull off feats of historical alteration with verve, panache, and authority. It takes just the right combination of finesse and audacity to step lightly past such countless pitfalls.
There is a sequence near the end of Robert Harris’s masterly fiction debut, Fatherland, in which the discovery of a small weather-worn object, long hidden and crumbling in tall grass, crystallizes the world-shaking epiphany toward which our protagonist has been hurtling. In this capstone moment, Detective March realizes that the history of his world – a world that is, itself, a powerful and stark alternative to our own twentieth century – is a skein of lies. He cuts through that tangle to uncover the secret history at the foundation of his world and his life.
For my money, the virtuosity of this meta-synthesis makes Fatherland a standout amid a very crowded field. The Second World War and its aftermath are popular targets for alternate-historical explorations. (I’m guilty of treading in those waters.) I admire Harris’s novel precisely because it carries that whiff of secret history, that funhouse-mirror-universe cousin to alternate history. The two fields blur and blend together; it can be difficult to draw a sharp and impenetrable boundary between them. (Too many edge cases!) But when I can get my fiction infusion with a dash of secret history, I’m always game.
(At this point I can’t resist pointing to my hands-down favorite work of fantasy secret history: Tim Powers’s Declare. A tour-de-force love letter to the stale-beer spy fiction in the mode of John le Carré, it also lays out a stunning occult backstory to the Cold War.)
Here I must I confess to idiosyncratic and perhaps inconsistent tastes. I’m usually shouted down as a heretic when I admit to finding Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle, an otherwise very fine and thoughtful novel, somewhat underwhelming as an exercise in alternate WWII history. Dick’s take on the field is wrapped in layers even more complex than Harris’s, containing as it does an alternate history inside an alternate history, nested together like matryoshka dolls. In a world where victorious Axis powers have divvied up the United States, characters contemplate a mysterious novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts an Allied victory to the war. It’s a delicious premise that I admire, and one heavily rooted in the “meta.” It should be in my reading sweet spot, but for unfathomable reasons aside from that slippery catch-all, “personal taste,” it misses the target for this reader. To me, its rendering of the details of daily life in the postwar world feels a bit bloodless.
The result pales in comparison to another masterpiece of the field, Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy: Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half A Crown. Walton’s excellent trilogy springs from an ingenious mashup of alternate history and “country house” murder. What begins as a charming cozy mystery widens into an exploration of a Fascist-leaning Britain that is chilling, riveting, and – most terrifying of all – plausible.
(Interestingly, both Walton’s trilogy and the Harris novel kick off with a murder, and feature the investigating detective as a central character. And, come to think of it, so does another highlight in recent genre alternate history: Michael Chabon’s superb The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.)
Alternate history is, of course, an extremely wide field, of which the Second World War is but one corner. A notable counterexample in the genre is Keith Roberts’s Pavane, which takes place in the twentieth century after a point of historical divergence set not in the 1930s or ’40s, but in the 1580s, after the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I. Though perhaps the most searingly brilliant exercise in mid-millennium historical re-imagination is John M. Ford’s The Dragon Waiting – a book I doubt I’ll ever fully comprehend, no matter how many times I reread it. And for the joy of sheer audacity few can match Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, which unleashes dragons upon the Napoleonic Wars, or Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, which plonks an alien invasion right in the middle of World War II.
Alas . . . Few alternate histories exhibit the unassailable narrative authority of Harris, or the eerie plausibility of Walton and Powers, or the craftsmanship of Chabon, or the intimidating intellectual heft of Ford and PKD. Those of us stumbling in their footsteps find ourselves striving to touch a very high bar.
What I like about alternate history is the same thing I like about fanfic and fairy tale retellings – they’re variations on a familiar theme. The best examples cast a new light on history, showing you fresh aspects of a story you thought you knew.
That said, I’m not overly invested in the rigorous working out of all the likely consequences of a variation in history. What I’m looking for is the feeling of a complete and convincing world that may be like ours, but is different in a significant way. I think the appeal of a “real” historical setting is much the same as that of a fully realised secondary world – it’s the chance for readers to immerse themselves in a society different from their own, with its own norms and history.
The alternate history I like tends to be a combination of two of my favourite things: period literature and fantasy. Sorcerer to the Crown falls into this genre as it’s set in a version of 19th century England that has magic. I did pretty much the same research you would do for writing a “straight” historical – I read nonfiction about the era and contemporary letters, both novels and (my particular weakness) diaries and letters of people living at the time.
Susanna Clarke’s magisterial Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my favourite books of all time. Other alternate history titles I’ve enjoyed are Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (Age of Sail with dragons!), Jo Walton’s Small Change books (cosy mystery in a Britain that made peace with Nazi Germany) and Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming (Hitler as a PI in post-WW2 London, dreamt up by a pulp fiction writer in a concentration camp – it shouldn’t really work, but it does).
Other than the most important thing that makes all stories good — complex, relateable, agency-driven characters — I believe effective worldbuilding that blends the minutae of both history and speculation into a cohesive, immersive whole is what really results in a stand-out novel. By that I mean to say, like your usual historical piece it should involve in-depth research to give the narrative a strong sense of the time period — and use these details to ground the more fantastical aspects.*
For example, if your alt-history piece takes place in, say, the American Civil War, one would find everything there is to know about the day-to-day life of an average person back then — and then adapt them slightly to accommodate the fantastical angle (“tilt them toward the crazy”) and incorporate them into your characters’ functions and habits.
Perhaps your story is about an American Civil War where the battle between the North and the South was interrupted by an alien invasion, forcing everybody to work together. Half the population are body-snatched alien pod-people, and the other half are normal humans. Ex-Northern captain Elijah Finley wears a wool Union coat and Dapper Dan hair pomade when he leaves his Virginia manor. He smokes a clay pipe and listens to records on his phonograph when he’s resting in the sitting room. When he goes into battle, he carries a lightning-gun blunderbuss he made by combining an empty musket with parts from a broken plasma rifle.
But wait — what if alien brood-slime makes a better hair pomade than Dapper Dan? He could scoop some of it up and keep it in a jar for later.
As have many of the invasion’s survivors, he’s made his ancestral manse into a stronghold, a plantation-fort with boarded windows and watchtowers in the pines, surrounded by sharpened stakes. To help protect the property, he’s enlisted the help of a local Powhatan boy nicknamed Macha, whose wounded mother is being tended by Elijah’s wife Arlene.
During a battle, Elijah’s spectacles get knocked off. As he’s crawling around the battlefield blind and panicking, he stumbles across a pair of alien goggles with a translator chip that scans a billboard advertisement for context and starts running its heads-up display in vintage calligraphy.
The devil is in the details, and details are one huge part of maintaining immersion. They ground the action.
— I digress. Like I said at the beginning, what really makes a great story are compelling characters, and none of the above is worth a sow’s ear in a hurricane (as Elijah might say) if your characters don’t leap off the page.
As for my favorite alt-history novels, I would have to say first place goes to Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The worldbuilding was second to none in that one, combining the intricate mythology of urban-fantasy with the framework of Jane Austen’s political-romanticism to tell an authentic Victorian yarn about very deep magic. Esoterica such as the fae and John Uskglass the Raven King were introduced so organically that Strange and Norrell nearly felt like an account of real historical figures and events that actually happened. As I read the book, I tried to find out more about the real Uskglass only to discover that he wasn’t an actual historical figure.
My second favorite would be Stephen King’s 11/22/63, although the alt-history part of it isn’t as integral as some of the genre mainstays. In most alt-history novels, the timeline-altering incident occurs before, or at the beginning, of the story; in 11/22/63 it happens closer to the end.
But the same thing that makes the best alt-hist stories work is still in full effect here: protagonist Jake Epping adapts to life in the 1960s, changing his lifestyle to accommodate the culture, and his personal habits ground the idea of having time-traveled five decades into the past, making it if not plausible then at least immersive.
And no matter the genre, immersion is key.
*My tastes in alt-history tend to run more toward spec-fic, so those are the examples I’m giving here.
I’ve been a history geek ever since I was a kid – and in fact, my brother Ben recently reminded me of how I used to bribe him into doing my chores by telling him bloodthirsty stories from history in exchange! So I’ve always loved telling stories set in the past – and as I’m also a lifelong fantasy fan, it was only natural that I would gravitate toward alternate history in my own books.
My upcoming historical fantasy novel, Masks and Shadows, was inspired directly by my PhD research into opera and politics in eighteenth century Vienna and Eszterháza. That era was loaded with so much potential for any fantasy writer, it was impossible to resist! Vienna itself was a hub for alchemists of all descriptions, and not just the kind we’d now term scientists but also clever showmen who claimed to be doing what we would now describe as magic in their salons, with spiritual guides, elementals, and more. Meanwhile, Emperor Joseph II, the “Enlightened Emperor,” was determined to institute sweeping, hardcore political changes that infuriated his nobles across the empire, the Freemasons (along with other secret fraternities/brotherhoods) functioned as a major force among the upper classes, and many theories that we would now dismiss as superstitious or irrational were still being seriously considered as scientific possibilities.
With alternate history, you really have two choices as a writer: Do you re-imagine society with a magical twist? Or do you write about the same society we know from our history books, and write what Tim Powers calls “secret history” – exposing the magic that was secretly going on behind the scenes? Both choices can be fun to read, and in my first trilogy, I chose option A . . . but in my new books, I’m choosing to play the game of secret history instead, working out exactly how magic could have influenced what really happened (and how it could have been covered up afterwards). After all, when you have a setting so rich with personal and political drama and potential, there’s very little that needs to be changed to make good fiction – except to ask one question: What if the more magical branches of “alchemy” really worked? What would have happened then?
And then you let the fun begin. 🙂
To me, as writer, setting is always a rabid beast. I dabble in a variety of alternate settings. Aliens settling in Detroit, The Faerie invading and taking over Victorian England, Vampires roaming through Sherlock Holmes’ precious London (again with the England). . . and while the setting starts out as a backdrop, it quickly takes over as both the most difficult element to construct to my satisfaction, and the most compelling. This is the most ambitious sci-fi and fantasy around. It’s one thing to write or read about tripping over werewolves in your breakfast cereal, it’s quite another scope entirely to imagine werewolves being the driving force behind creating the Secret Service back in 1865 and, say, using it as a way of investigating, policing, and propagating their secret society. Even a step more ambitious if it’s not secret at all. The mind boggles. At least mine does. It’s a rabbit hole, because the deeper you dig, the more pervasive and interesting the whole setup gets. (Reference my somewhat gushing bit on Naomi Novik’s Temeraire in an earlier SF Signal post to see how excited I get about this kind of thing.) How would things be in my city of Detroit if dragons were trapped in Detroit’s salt mines, leaking magic into the very bedrock? What if there was an evil, bearded Spock? The list goes on and on, and the juxtapositioning of the weird with the familiar has always been one of the most fascinating bits in sci-fi for me.
Of all methods of research, my favorite is a method touted by Tim Powers. (Another writer to check out, if you have not.) Take an idea like ‘what if Bugsy Siegel was the Fisher King?’ and assume it’s true. (Powers’ Last Call.) Internet is a great start, but good books on the topic are far more immersive. (Warning: this is another rabbit hole.) Anything that fits your theory gets slotted into your world, anything that contradicts, discard. It’s amazing what you’ll trip over reading about the history of Newgate Prison and thinking about what new uses the Faerie might have for such a place. (My own Shadows Over London.) It’s a long process for me, as a writer, extrapolating out all the stuff, and it’s a bit of a pain in the butt, because scenes, plot-points, characters, all get skewed in ways I never anticipate, but it’s pure gold when you’re done.
On the extreme end of this, we have settings which are obviously meant to be our planet, but which diverted from the history we know so far in the past that the result is very nearly a secondary world. Anathem is a particularly ambitious example of this, in which Neal Stephenson has constructed a parallel timeline encompassing all of recorded history, compete with an alternate scientific vocabulary and an elaborate tradition of learned monks to utilize and preserve that knowledge. And recent episodes have made it clear that the show Steven Universe is another alternate history in this vein, wherein millennia of influence by inhuman Gems have altered the political and topological geography of the entire planet. Steven and the Crystal Gems live in the equivalent of a present-day mid-Atlantic beach town, but the particulars are both immediately recognizable and inescapably alien.
But when we talk about alternate histories, we more often mean the “What if someone killed Hitler!” variety. And honestly, I feel like those are trickier to get right.
In my own work, alternate history comes into play as a function of time travel, and in that context I’m of the school which imagines history as largely self-correcting. If you kick a stone off the sidewalk, or even if you kill a single woman in her sleep, it’s unlikely to have effects that reach beyond a small sphere — the “present day” you return to will be almost indistinguishable from the one you left. In order to really screw up history — and in the case of a time travel book, possibly jeopardize your own ability to get back home again — you’ll have to make a much larger change.
That same thinking applies to what I’m looking for when I check out an alternate history novel or comic or television show — how deeply have the creators thought through their replacement chain of cause and effect?
The temptation is to construct an alternate timeline using the same tools with which we’re so often taught our own actual history — the lives and fortunes of a few key figures, mostly men and always powerful, or perhaps a military campaign. The problem with this being that even very important, very powerful people are the product of their times, and the fate of one individual rarely has much of an impact on the scale of decades or centuries. (If Hitler had died as an infant, surely some other politician would have taken advantage of widespread anti-semitism and Germany’s discontent in the wake of World War I.) In order to build a compelling, believable alternate history, one has to think in terms of systems — not just of government but of culture, of economics, of influence and power. And the thing is, systems are extremely difficult to understand comprehensively, let alone tweak in smart and interesting ways!
When I sit down to read a book with an intriguing “what if,” my hope is to find myself dumped into a world that feels complete and genuine, if strange and unsettling as well. In that sense, the process of writing a good alternate history is really like any other kind of secondary world-building, only with all the research pressures of more straightforward historical fiction piled up on top of it.
Arguably, the most important decision you’ll make when writing this kind of story is choosing the nature of its divergence. “What if this one important person died?” is a pretty common one, although as I said, not my personal favorite. “What if a WHOLE BUNCH of important people died?” is something I’ve used in my own fiction so I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to go after that one. Then you have large but singular events (“What if a meteor struck Philadelphia during the first Continental Congress?”) Or my personal favorite, large and ongoing events (“What if the native peoples of the Americas had been immune to smallpox?”)
A work that has done a particularly fantastic job of that last type of story is Ooku: The Inner Chambers, an ongoing manga series by Fumi Yoshinaga. Her chosen divergence is simple: what if, in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s rule of 17th century Japan, a terrible plague killed most of the country’s boys and young men? What if that plague, rather than burning bright and deadly before retreating into memory, persisted for generations? What if the sitting Shogun was one of its early victims, leaving only an illegitimate daughter as his heir? How would all of this transform Japanese society? How would a patriarchal farming economy look after several generations with only one man for every four women?
Yoshinaga builds her alternate history through a chain of personal stories which span decades of time, connecting the frantic early years of the plague to an 18th century Shogun who wonders why her women retainers must adopt male names for official documents. As the title suggests, a great deal of time is spent on the interpersonal politics of the inner chambers of the Shogun’s residence, where a household of hundreds of healthy young men evidence her power and privilege. Ooku is fascinated by what it would do to young men in a stratified warrior culture to suddenly find themselves cut off from the outside world, too precious and fragile to practice a trade or participate in government. But what I particularly enjoy about this series is the attention it pays to normal people, and to women in particular — women farmers, women fishmongers, women palanquin bearers and women merchants, women desperate for children who are too impoverished to attract a husband, women thrilled to set aside embroidery and housekeeping and take up swords and politics instead.
Honestly, I’m looking forward to seeing this particular Mind Meld go up — having burned through my Ooku reread, I’m hungry for more divergent histories to devour.
I wrote a tongue-in-cheek “manifesto” for writing alternate history a while back, called Yellow Wood – which seems to sum up most of what I think about it. The truth is, I am not a huge fan of straight alternate history stories. I remember years ago reading an essay by a hard science fiction writer (I forget who), and he explained how, before starting the story, he sets up a spreadsheet to calculate important elements of his planet – gravity, size, journey around the sun and so on – and those numbers inform how he creates his alien races. Which even then seemed kind of pointless to me – you could put in Earth’s numbers into a spreadsheet, but they won’t predict humans, or dinosaurs, or fungus. No one can predict fungus.
It’s the same for alternate history. It has to serve a purpose beyond being an exercise in a sort of pseudoscientific thought experiment. You can take your divergence point, your “Jonbar point”, as the SF Encyclopedia calls it (annoyingly!), but you can’t really work out from it what would have happened otherwise – and I think it would be dishonest to, as well. You can only make it up, and you can either get bogged down in trifles, or try and tell an actual story that has some relevance.
I use, obviously, the tools of alternative history in my novels. A Man Lies Dreaming partly takes place in a 1939 where Hitler never rose to power. Osama is partly in a world where there has been no global terrorism. The Violent Century is less an alternate history and more of a parallel history, in that it doesn’t fundamentally change the 20th century it takes place in. Things mostly turn out the same. In the case of my Hitler book, I worked out the divergence point, I think, and then forgot it. Who cares? None of this actually happened. To me – to my characters, I suppose – these things are more like mental spaces, places for them to escape to. They’re fantasy. But it’s fantasy that hopefully has something to say about the present, and about how the past shapes the present.
I love The Man In The High Castle because its focus isn’t the number game, it’s not really the what if, it’s about the lives of ordinary people against vast historical processes. Sometimes I find alternate history novels adhere too close to their period. If I think of two interesting books, on the one hand The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, as enjoyable as it is, is a little too faithful to the shtetl, to its 19th century Jewish origins – its characters haven’t really changed by their un-history; while Yoav Avni’s Herzl Said, a recent-ish Hebrew-language novel that imagines a history where the Jews settled in British East Africa, does the opposite to Chabon – its characters are pure modern Israelis transported. I like both those books, though, which I have mostly been contemplating as I work my own take on the theme – which may or may not be successful! What I find useful though is to play around with the small details that differentiate the timeline, rather than the big stuff. The wrong coin, the wrong word in the right place makes a difference. But my ambition is always to tie it in to the present, to reality, to offer a funhouse mirror on our own lives rather than engage in an intellectual exercise for its own sake.
I appreciate the writer knowing their history. I’m no historian but my reading casts a broad enough net that I appreciate verisimilitude. A solid grasp of the history the setting is deviating from is hugely important in producing a credible and immersive alt history. Writers who really love the study of the time and place they’re writing about add a whole extra layer of immersion to the reading experience. The same goes for the logic of the deviation from history – I will go a long way for a writer who really thinks through the implications. Otherwise it can end up like those old SF stories where one SF element is introduced into a 50s America that is otherwise completely unchanged. The final part of that equation is how the story and characters showcase the setting and work within it – after all there’s no point in doing a detailed alt history and then just playing out a bog-standard historical plot as though nothing had changed. I also appreciate a time and place, and deviation, that hasn’t already been done and overdone. There are a lot of stories out there about the Nazis winning the war, or the Confederates willing the war, or the Russians winning the cold war. But there are so many other ways we can play with history, so many other places and times.
As for good examples, Mary Gentles The Architecture of Desire is a look at a Civil War England with a female Cromwell and a female Charles, and Gentle is a writer who absolutely knows her history. She also gave us Ash, her medieval(ish) epic, which is one of the best novels I ever read, and also one of the most carefully constructed alt histories I’ve seen. I should also talk about Tim Powers, except he doesn’t do alt histories, he writes books where the end result looks exactly like the real history, but is the product of all sorts of secret stuff going on behind the scenes – see Declare for my pick of his stuff. I also highly rate the Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories which is a magnificent grab-bag of short stories in a wide variety of times and places.
Science Fiction has often been referred to as the ‘What if?’ genre, and a lot of the time that is true: what if we could travel to the stars? What if evil aliens invaded earth? What if Matt Damon was trapped on Mars? Mostly Science Fiction creates a ‘What if?’ that explores futures that ‘might’ be. Alternate History, on the other hand, asks a ‘What if?’ that explores almost the exact opposite; a past or present that ‘could have been’. It is a genre that allows us to play with history. It is a genre that helps us confront the question of whether we ‘did it right the first time’.
I think this is maybe why it is so popular, and not just with writers and readers of science fiction. Mainstream literature has long held a fascination with Alternate Histories too. Vladimir Nabokov experimented with Alternate History in Ada or Ardor, Philip Roth imagined a 1940s USA ruled by a fascist President Lindergh in The Plot Against America, and Pulitzer Prize winning Michael Chabon tackled post-WWII Jewish resettlement in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I think it is natural for humans to dwell a little on the past and to imagine what might have been.
To write Alternate History – good Alternate History – isn’t ever as simple as a single change to history. Archduke Ferdinand surviving an assassination attempt in Sarajevo might not have prevented World War I from occurring. The situation in the Balkans at the time was much more complicated than that, and the reasons for war were more than just the death of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. WWI may still have happened, it just would have been a slightly different war. Any change to history will cause ripples, and those ripples will cause more ripples. The best Alternate Histories account for this. They weave their tales around the ripples flowing outwards – on the aftermath and consequences – rather than focusing too much on the initial Point of Divergence.
As with any form of historical fiction, researching the time period is especially important, but with Alternate History it becomes more of a juggling act. Understanding what might change and what might stay the same. What to include, what to leave out, what to embellish, and what to just make up and to hell with whatever might have happened in the past. It is easy to go overboard with the changes though. To be successful, I think an Alternate History has to retain an element of the familiar. The reader should be able to feel that this is ‘still our world’. I’ve always found that it’s the small changes – a different face on a coin, a different hit on the radio — that intrigue me most and draw me into an Alternate History.
For me, Jack Womack’s Terraplane ticks all these boxes. It’s a science fiction and time travel novel too – part of Womack’s wonderful Dryco series – but it is the alternate 1930s USA that makes this book. The main Point of Divergence in Terraplane is way back, in 1861, when Abraham Lincoln is murdered by a pro-slavery mob in Baltimore, but it is the ripples that count. Lincoln’s death leads to the Civil War never happening, and the changes continue down the line to create a conservative USA more frightening than the corporate-dominated cyberpunk future the main characters have arrived from.
I like Alternate Histories where there is that gap-of-years between the Point of Divergence (POD) and the story being told. Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy detective series, where magic is real and science seen as mere superstition, takes its POD as Richard I surviving the Crusades and returning to England but the Lord Darcy tales are set in the 1960s of that Alternate History. Likewise with L. Neil Smith’s magnificent The Crystal Empire, which (similar to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, but predating it by a decade) is set hundreds of years after Europe and Christianity are wiped out by the Black Plague.
Harry Harrison’s Eden series (West of Eden, Winter in Eden, Return to Eden) takes this ‘gap-of-years’ to an extreme, and would have to be my favourite Alternate History of all time. What if Earth was not struck by an asteroid 65 million years ago? What if the dinosaurs were never wiped out? Would a new intelligent species evolve? Would humans evolve at all? At the time of the story, millions of years have already past. An intelligent reptiloid race, the Yilanè, have risen to be the dominant technological species while small bands of humanoids have finally evolved enough to struggle through a late stone age existence. With millions of years to play with, Harrison creates a complex species with a culture, technology and language that seems so alien and yet also totally and disconcertingly authentic.
And, for me, that’s the trick to a good Alternate History. More than any other type of fiction, it has to feel ‘True’. Like we’re reading a real history of something; something that never was but certainly could have been.
A good alternate history story creates a dialog between our known timeline and other possible historical paths. It holds up a mirror. Our knowledge of the real history – or what we fondly believe the real history to be – adds depth and resonance to the altered, fictional history. And sometimes the other way around.
And, let’s face it: there are far too many opportunities for glorious and exciting stories set in the past to allow ourselves to be constrained by the documented reality.
I tend to believe that a great deal of our history is contingent: that events and historical narratives are inclined to diverge rather than converge, that a lot of manifest destiny and historical inevitability only looks inevitable in hindsight, and that our current, very solid and substantial-feeling timeline actually rests on very fragile underpinnings. Hundreds of tiny matchsticks, in fact, any one of which could have broken and sent us off in a completely different direction.
I look at my own life. I grew up in England and now live in America. A hundred separate contingencies led to me sitting on this couch, in this house, in this city, having published those scientific papers, these stories, and that particular novella that led to these three books. Which is far from saying that my life has been arbitrary, because there were always strong undercurrents. I’ve been a writer ever since I could read. I always knew I’d end up living outside the UK. But I can easily see paths that would have taken me to Europe or Asia instead of the Americas, and given me a very different life story and different fictional stories to tell.
There are movements in social and economic history that contain a strong driving power. An aggregate of the population pushes society in a certain direction, and these movements are less subject to single-point failures. But a lot of history pivots on the action of individuals. What if a truck driver kills Hitler on March 13, 1930; if JFK is merely wounded on 11/22/63; if an arrow penetrates a tree instead of an eyeball on an English hillside in October 1066? What if the lost copy of Lee’s Special Order 191 is recovered by his own troops rather than Union soldiers in 1862? What if fog doesn’t happen to descend on the East River on August 30, 1776? What if?
Well, history might have taken a sharp left or right turn. And stories of the alternate realities we could be living in as a result will always be compelling.
As for my writing process . . .
My Clash of Eagles series is set in a universe where the Roman Empire never fell. After the death of Septimius Severus in the early 200s A.D. a civil war breaks out between his sons Caracalla and Geta, which ends up averting the Crisis of the Third Century, and . . . Well. Now it’s 1218 A.D., and that’s all ancient history. Here in the thirteenth century, and with extensive help from the Norse, a Roman legion is landing at the Chesapeake Bay and marching into the North American continent, there to face more determined resistance from the Iroquois and the Mississippian Culture than they could have anticipated. . .
I’ve researched my alternate timeline in exhaustive detail, little of which appears in the books themselves. I’ve convinced myself that the Fall of Rome was by no means inevitable, despite it having that weighty “historical inevitability” thing going on, and extrapolated forward a thousand years. I’ve sprinkled in some details that I hope provide a solid basis for the adventures on the page. But even more research went into the details of the Roman armies and into the real-life history, archaeology and anthropology of the cultures of pre-Columbian North America. I read everything from popular-level books to academic treatises; I felt like I needed to understand everything I possibly could to do the story justice. The Mississippian city of Cahokia and the wilder areas of North America are portrayed as realistically and accurately as I know how.
Because what also makes for good alternate history and historical fantasy is that sense of authenticity, a feeling that the story is grounded in reality. That, indeed, if matters had gone a different way at some critical point, this is the history that would be inevitable.
Good research makes for good alternate history. The best stories teach the reader about our timeline even when introducing them to an alternate timeline. I would never have learned about Mordechai Anielewicz, the Jewish resistance leader in Poland during World War II, if I wasn’t first introduced to him in the pages of Harry Turtledove‘s Worldwar series. I would never have learned that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli wrote one of the earliest alternate histories (“The Wondrous Tale of Alroy“) if I didn’t read how his doppleganger saved the British Empire in SM Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers. Furthermore, if you want to inadvertently learn about pop culture history, check out the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman.
The authors I mentioned above would not have inspired me to learn more had they not first done the proper research to write their stories. A good alternate historian has to be a zealous student of history before they can properly change it. You can’t just rely on what you were told in school because that history can be full of misconceptions, propaganda and outright lies. Even worse, you don’t want to become derivative by retelling a story that people have read a hundred times before, like the Confederate States of America winning the American Civil War or the Axis Powers being victorious in World War II.
Good alternate history is made by delving deep into the obscure or the unknown. You need to find something original to present to readers who are often tired of reading the same exact story over and over again. Did you know that the longest running alternate history book series involves a West Virginian coal mining town being transported to Germany in the middle of the Thirty Years War? Or did you know that a self-published novella about a group of astronauts trapped on the Moon in a timeline where the world was destroyed in nuclear war won the 2012 BSFA Award? Did you also know that the novel credited with starting the steampunk genre was about Charles Babbage actually building his Analytical Engine in a Britain where Lord Byron was Prime Minister?
Good alternate history presents new and fascinating topics instead of just the same the same old stories for (to use a phrase from Sidewise Award judge Karen Hellekson) a battlefield fetishist. Readers want new and exciting worlds to explore and while I can’t promise your own story will be a success, you have a better chance at finding your audience by giving alternate historians something they have never seen before. Something that will encourage them to learn more and share what they learned with others.
Of course the only way to do this is to do your research.