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BRIEFLY NOTED: Alternate History
As I’ve written before, I am an absolute sucker for alternate history. Unfortunately, though, most of it is not very good, even by the standards of genre fiction’s transparent prose. Its attraction is really the idea, with all its surprising facets, and means the best examples are typically the ones where the idea is so good — the unexpected ramifications so startling at the moment but so obvious in retrospect — that you can forgive the cardboard characters and lackluster prose.
But, what the heck, I’m feeling self-indulgent, so here are some of my favorites.
Island in a Sea of Time et seq., by S.M. Stirling: This is my very favorite. The premise is quite simple: the island of Nantucket is inexplicably sent back in time to 1250 BC. Luckily, a Coast Guard sailing ship happens to be visiting, so they’re able to sail to Britain and trade for grain to survive the winter while they bootstrap industrial civilization on the thinly-inhabited coast of North America. Of course, it’s not that simple: the inhabitants of the Bronze Age have obvious and remarkably plausible reactions to the sudden appearance of strangers with superior technology, a renegade sailor steals one of the Nantucketers’ ships and sets off to carve his own empire from the past, and the Americans are thrust into Bronze Age geopolitics as they attempt to thwart him. The “good guys” are frankly pretty boring, in a late 90s multicultural neoliberal kind of way — the captain of the Coast Guard ship is a black lesbian and you can practically see Stirling clapping himself on the back for Representation — but the villainous Coast Guardsmen and (especially) the natives of 1250 BC get a far more complex and interesting portrayal.1 Two of them are particularly well-drawn: a fictional trader of the thinly attested Iberian city-state of Tartessos, and an Achaean nobleman named Odikweos, both of whom are thoroughly understandable and sympathetic while remaining distinctly unmodern. The Nantucketers, with their technological innovations and American values, provide plenty of contrast, but Stirling is really at his best in using them to highlight the alien past.
Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp: An absolute classic of the genre. I may not love what de Camp did with Conan, but the man could write! One of the great things about old books (this one is from 1939) is that they don’t waste time on technobabble to justify the silly parts: about two pages into the story, American archaeologist Martin Padway is struck by lightning while visiting Rome and transported back in time to 535 AD. How? Shut up, that’s how, and instead pay attention as Padway introduces distilled liquor, double-entry bookkeeping, yellow journalism, and the telegraph before taking advantage of his encyclopedic knowledge of Procopius’s De Bello Gothico to stabilize and defend the Italo-Gothic kingdom, wrest Belisarius’s loyalty away from Justinian, and entirely forestall the Dark Ages. If this sounds an awful lot like the imaginary book I described in my review of The Knowledge: yes. The combination of high agency history rerouting and total worldview disconnect — there’s a very funny barfight about Christology early on, and later some severe culture clash that interferes with a royal marriage — is charming. Also, this was the book that inspired Harry Turtledove not only to become an alt-history writer but to get a Ph.D. in Byzantine history.
A Clash of Eagles et seq., by Alan Smale: When a NASA astrophysicist writes a novel, you expect it to be sci-fi. However, like many of us, Smale read Charles Mann’s 1491 and said, “Wow! Pre-Columbian North America is really cool!” and decided to write about that instead. The premise as enough to sell me: it’s 1218 AD — excuse me, 1971 ab urbe condita — and the 33rd Legion has been dispatched across the western ocean to find a way to attack the Roman Empire’s Mongol enemies from behind. But it turns out there’s another continent in the way, and there Praetor Gaius Marcellinus encounters the Mississippian culture of Cahokia and its allied cities. The particular culture and especially technology imagined for the Cahokians is a little eye-roll-y even if Smale insists it’s theoretically plausible, and there’s more than a dash of “look how noble and enlightened these non-Europeans are (don’t you feel bad about colonialism and imperialism)” but I kept reading because I wanted to see the Mongols fight the Romans and boy howdy do you get the payoff if you stick it out. The first book is pretty tightly focused on the imagined Cahokia; the second opens up to a much broader and more interesting swathe of North America, and the third is a tremendously satisfying conclusion with more Romans than you can shake a stick at.
Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card: In a technologically advanced but environmentally doomed far future, humanity has developed the capacity for high-res surveillance of the past. And then one day they discover that Christopher Columbus’s search for the Indies, as opposed to his earlier obsession with a crusade to liberate the Holy Land, was the outcome of a “vision” produced by a holographic projector sent back in time. In fact, their (and our) entire timeline is actually the product of some different future’s attempt to rewrite its own hideous bloody past in which Aztecs conquered and slaughtered their way across Europe. Better? Perhaps, but not good enough to save humanity, and with proof that sending something back in time is possible three people set out to change the course of history…again. The exact course of events is entertaining, but for me the real selling point is the Lest Darkness Fall attempt plus the intriguing suggestion that the alternate history is already here…
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon: The rare exception that is really very good on its own terms, even if you don’t care for alt-history. Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winning litfic guy (whenever I’m pregnant, I like to go back to his essay about how every child is a novel you’ll never write), so it’s wildly unsurprising that the year he wrote something technically genre he won the Hugo, Nebula, and Sidewise awards. This is also the book that convinced me the best way to explore a new world (which of course speculative fiction definitionally does) is through hewing closely to the established beats of a known genre: in this case, we get a noir murder mystery set in a Southeastern Alaska settled, per the recommendations of the Slattery Report, by four million Eastern European Jews fleeing the Nazis. The hardboiled detective stuff is done to perfection and the imagined world is full of Yiddishisms, often very funny: the protagonist is a murder cop, slangily termed a shammes from the Yiddish for a synagogue sexton but also, of course, pronounced like the pulpy “shamus.” A lesser writer might have turned the relationship between the Sitka Jews and their Native Alaskan neighbors into a ham-handed analogy for the Israelis and Palestinians, but Chabon goes out of his way not only to avoid that but to create a distinctively Ashkenazi Alaska quite culturally unlike modern Israel. And while the eventual plot turns out to reflect more mid-Oughts liberal Jewish discomfort with Protestant philosemitism than I might have preferred, the whole thing is so clever and so beautifully executed that I don’t even care.
Ruled Britannia, by Harry Turtledove: Turtledove is by far the most famous and successful alternate history author out there, with lots of short pieces and novels ranging from “Byzantine intrigue in a world where Islam never existed” (Agent of Byzantium) to “time-travelling neo-Nazis bring AK-47s to the Confederacy” (The Guns of the South), but this is the only one of his books I’ve ever been tempted to re-read. The jumping-off point, “the Spanish Armada succeeded,” is fairly common for the genre2 — the pretty good Times Without Number and the lousy Pavane (hey, did you know the Church hates and fears technology?!) both start from there — but Turtledove fasts forward only a decade to show us William Shakespeare at the fulcrum of history. A loyalist faction (starring real life Elizabethan intriguers like Nicholas Skeres) wants him to write a play about Boudicca to inflame the population to free Queen Elizabeth from her imprisonment in the Tower of London, while the Spanish authorities (represented, hilariously, by playwright manqué Lope de Vega) want him to write one glorifying the late Philip II and the conquest of England. Turtledove does a surprisingly good job inventing new Shakespeare plays from snippets of real ones and from John Fletcher’s 1613 Bonduca, but of course I’m most taken by his rendition of the Tudor world. Maybe I should check out some of his straight historical fiction…
Seventh Son et seq., by Orson Scott Card: Apparently the plot of the series is a giant thinly-veiled rehash of Joseph Smith’s biography, but, well, that’s Card for you. I mostly love it for the setting, an early 19th century North America disaggregated into independent polities each with their own culture: a theocratic Puritan New England, a slaveholding Deep South governed by the exiled Stuart king, a backwoods “Apalachee.” Magic is real but (and this is how you can tell this series started in the 80s) racially-determined, with “Red” nature magic, “Black” voodoo, and “White” folkloric “knacks.” The supernatural elements let Card justify a level of cultural diversity that was already fading by the real period; at its best, the series is American Nations But Fantasy. Could it be done better, without the standard-issue Card cardboard-cutout hero? Yes. Has it been? No, it has not.
Civilisations, by Laurent Binet: I almost didn’t include this on the list, because it’s not actually a good book. (Even by the standards of a genre that includes a best-selling series where aliens invade Earth in the middle of World War II, Hitler and FDR have to team up to fight them, and it turns out the aliens can get high on dried powdered ginger, you have to insist on something.) But it is very cleverly done, and the basic premise — that some of the Vinland Norse headed down the east coast of the Americas, introducing metallurgy and Old World diseases as they went — is fun. The book is divided into four sections, and Binet does a wonderful job of imitating a historical literary style for each: the first chunk, starring Freydis Eriksdottir, resembles a Norse saga, and the final segment, starring a young Miguel de Cervantes in a very different Spain, is a pitch-perfect imitation of the real Cervantes’s “Rinconete y Cortadillo.”3 It’s the third and longest section, in which the exiled Inca Atahualpa…invades and conquers Europe(?), that really loses me. Binet is so busy with his admittedly very clever jokes (oh look, it’s the Field of the Cloth of Gold! but different!) and his enthusiasm for a pluralistic liberal order to replace mean old Christendom that the actual conquest makes no sense at all. But I’ll almost forgive it because eventually the Aztecs invade France and we end up with another, doubtless very different, pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre. Reader, I laughed.
GURPS Alternate Earths and GURPS Alternate Earths 2, by Kenneth Hite, Craig Neumeier, and Michael S. Schiffer: Okay, so since the fun of alternate history novels is usually in the idea — if characters and prose are more often endured than enjoyed — why not just skip the fiction altogether and go straight to the worldbuilding? Granted, you miss some of the really excellent moments that make it all worthwhile (I will read a lot of lackluster prose to get to a Roman emperor facing down Genghis Khan), but if it’s actually fun on its own terms… And these two are. They’re collections of worlds intended for exploration by dimension-hopping time-travelers in a roleplaying game, but they work just as well as closet drama. Each world, from the obvious (surviving Confederacy/Nazi Germany/Roman Empire) to the bizarre (Japanese-inflected cyberpunk universe, expansive industrialized Aztecs, a world ruled by Vikings) has an extensive and fairly plausible backstory, plus discussion of the world’s “contemporary” culture and the roles played by people from our own history. It’s more or less “how can we justify this particular thing people enjoy in genre fiction, but starting with Earth?”
And on that note I absolutely must mention Day After Ragnarok, also by Kenneth Hite, which takes a similar approach — only the thing it justifies is a barbarous, magical world of
swords submachine guns and sorcery, intentionally reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age. And it does so via the delightfully wild premise that Nazi occultists awoke Jörmungandr the World-Serpent, a lone American B-52 flew the Trinity Device into its eye, and now the leaking magical corruption from the Midgard Serpent’s corpse is slowly poisoning the world. I cannot do this justice. In a better world — probably the one where Henry Cavill’s prestige cable Conan show is gearing up for its The Hour of the Dragon season — it would be the basis for a Hollywood blockbuster. You can safely ignore the crunchy parts unless you actually want to run a game; it’s worth the price of admission just for the section on the evil occult wheat in Henry A. Wallace’s Red Iowa (there’s stiff guerilla resistance from the Kiwanis and Elks), let alone the treasure trove of other clever deployments of historical figures. Possibly it’s far enough from reality that it’s not really alternate history any more? Definitely I don’t care.
So go! Imagine a world like ours, but just different enough to let you really appreciate the differences. See other people who love other things; see that the things they love really do have something lovely to them. Plus, you know, it’s fun to play with LEGOs from different sets.
Well, except for the peaceful matriarchal Marija Gimbutas-y “Earth People” being displaced from Britain by the invading Proto-Celts; they’re also “good guys” and therefore, sadly, boring.
Not as common as “the Nazis won,” obviously.