A curious niche genrelet usually located within fantasy/science fiction’s bounds is that of alternative history. This is the quintessential “what if” genre – only with the lens turned not on the future, as with hard SF, but on the past.
The genre is a relatively recent one, and perhaps this is to do with changing outlooks on history. It is always surprising just how little people in ye olden dayes used to know about ye older dayes, and the general assumption, in literature and art, seems to be that the past was the same country, and they did things exactly the same way. This may be a side-effect of the Biblical “there is nothing new under the sun” doctrine, whereby everything that the world was supposed to contain was put there by God from the start (including fake dinosaur bones (2) but not, inexplicably, firearms. Amazingly, the church made very little fuss about firearms being outside the Word of God. It’s amazing how dogma melts away when you’re looking down the barrel of a blunderbuss (3) ). The Elizabethans were quite happy depicting the clash of Hector and Achilles as two mounted knights in contemporary armour. Shakespeare goes one better in Julius Caesar when his riotous Romans throw their hats in the air for joy because it’s a holiday. Now there was plenty of classical sculpture about the Mediterranean in those days, and so the inclusion of hats in itself seems odd, but these are not just any hats, they are the woolly holiday hats worn by Shakespeare’s fellow citizens of London (4). Of course, Will S is presumably making a cutting social point, but it does seem that he honestly didn’t seem to care about the details of history, and nor did anyone else.
Now, of course, we have archaeology and Schliemann and Tony Robinson digging up your back garden with a JCB, and we know that the Romans weren’t a hat-wearing nation, save for the kinds made of either (a) metal, or (b) laurel leaves. This interest in history is a recent development, the last few centuries at most, and it leads, rather indirectly, to this little gem of a literary genre. (6)
It is difficult to pin down a “classic” alternate history, but my best candidates would be Fatherland by Robert Harris, where the Nazis won the war (7) and the complex The Dragon Waiting by Ford, in which Europe during the late middle ages is overshadowed by the political might of Byzantium.
Ford’s book is a good example for another reason. When writing an alternate history, many authors accentuate the fantastical, bringing magic to the fore, and Ford is no exception. Another example of this (although one where the raison d’etre of the supernatural is both stranger and, to me anyway, not entirely satisfying) would be Keith Roberts’ Pavane, hypothesising the 1960’s in a world where the Spanish Armada succeeded and the Catholic Church firmly holds the reins of world power. Hence there is a subtly graded continuüm between the “strict” alternate history, where the events play out differently but the “rules” of the world are the same, and the fantastical history, where the altered timeline is supplemented by elements of the magical. It is worth noting, though, that even in the latter case it is the history that tends to take centre stage, and not the sorcery. Even in the Napoleonics Temeraire (Novak) and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (Clarke), although both are extremely heavy with the fantastical (dragons and magicians respectively), they stand solidly on historical feet, and thereby hold a great deal more depth and texture than an unanchored fantasy about wizards or dragons (8).
That being said, this relatively specialist genre has bred a great deal of variation, not only in choosing at what point history’s card goes off the rails, but in precisely how the concept is approached.
Michael Moorcock gives us, for example, an incidental alternate history in The Dragon in the Sword, where the hero jumps worlds partway through, briefly and unexpectedly encountering Hitler and affecting the course of the Second World War. This sequence is by no means the main thrust of the plot, but it is easy to see that a similar book (9) would need to skew the weighting only slightly to make the WWII events the main point. Another note of interest is that the hero’s intervention actually sets things “right”, preparing the timeline that we know – destroying rather than creating an alternate history.
On the subject of time travel and historical inevitability, of course, we have The Anubis Gates, a work by Tim Powers and possibly one of the finest books I’ve ever read. Powers’ work deserves special mention on the subject of alternate histories, because not a word of them admits the “alternity” of the settings he portrays. He specialises more in “secret histories” (10) or “covert histories” where the magical, horrific, awesome and mind-expanding truths he purveys can lie just beneath the surface of history, dictating the course of human progress whilst being invisible to those who come after. It is very, very difficult, when reading a book such as Declare or The Stress of Her Regard, not to wonder whether Powers does not have some occult source of information, and whether, therefore, it’s all true. In The Anubis Gates Powers takes us to London in the early years of the nineteenth century (the first of two such visits so far in his books) with a time-travelling modern protagonist. With extreme ingenuity, however, Powers ensures that, no matter what the time travellers do, instead of changing history they are simply bringing about the events they know to be recorded.
Frances Hardinge gives us another kind of secret history in Fly-by-Night, which at first blush appears to be set in an entirely fantastical land, but which further reading reveals is very much placed within a historical setting, just with the landmarks and street-names subtly altered. This is a “borrowed history”, perhaps, rather than a truly alternate one – or perhaps even a “convergent” history, where very different earlier events, with different places, different religious details and the like, conspire to hold a glass to real history. To a lesser extent, Martin does the same with his Song of Ice and Fire sequence, where the starting setup is a kind of distorted mirror of the Wars of the Roses.
I won’t go deep into the realms of graphic novels here, rather than the purely worded kind, but alternate history has certainly had its exponents in this art form as well. Whilst it is well worth noting the parallel-worlds of Talbot’s Luther Arkwright, which follows very much in the Moorcock tradition, and the surreal 1602 that Neil Gaiman wrote for Marvel, where all the Marvel Comics favourites turn up in doublet and hose in Elizabethan England, the jewel in this particular crown must be Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. This series deserves an entry entirely to itself, with its fiendish interweaving of strands from all across the history of fantastic literature (see especially the gazetteer that foots volume 2), and can best be summed up by saying that Moore gives us a world where practically every piece of fiction you can name is actually biographical, it all happened and all of those people, be they Prospero, Gulliver or Dr Henry Jekyll, were real.
Two more writers are worth a particular note before I close. William Gibson is probably not a name that would logically follow, being a man writing firmly in the future, but it is worth re-examining his Neuromancer trilogy. This first book, an iconic classic of science fiction, was written in 1984, during the cold war, and the future world the book reveals is a world where the cold war came to a climactic third world war, Germany became a nuclear wasteland, the internet (11) arose from the superpowers’ attempts to out-intelligence each others’ computers (not so far from the truth, I believe), and a world ensued of cybernetics, direct neural connection, orbital health spas and artificial intelligence. Of course, five years after the book was published the Berlin Wall came down (12), manned space-travel slowed to a crawl, and the internet became something both very like and very unlike Gibson’s cold war dream. What we have in Gibson, although it was probably not intended at the time, is an alternate future, a future that will never be, not because of its technology, but because of its social axioms. The world of Neuromancer split from ours in 1989, and we will never be those people, never do those things. In a curious echo of this Gibson wrote a short story three years before Neuromancer called The Gernsback Continuüm in which the narrator is plagued by images from an alternate, futuristic present based on 1930’s art deco ideas of what (their future/our present) would look like.
Finally, one must tip the hat to a woman who is surely the queen of the alternate history: Mary Gentle.
Anyone writing an alternate history must be well read. In order to change something, you first must understand what it is you seek to change. Beyond that, though, Gentle has given us a kaleidoscope of mirror-worlds in which her very evident knowledge is twinned with a voracious imagination. As an example of a quite twisted, and yet immaculately presented history I recommend to you the post-Civil War England of The Architecture of Desire. (13).
However, Gentle’s genius for twisting history is most surely shown in Ash: A Secret History. She has followed this up since, both with a loose sequel (Ilario) and with the intriguing 1610: A Sundial in a Grave which manages not only to be a covertly alternate history (one that, as with Powers, could exist within the history we know without breaking the surface) but also qualifies as alternate literature (14). However, as the very acme of what can be done with the concept of alternate histories, Ash stands alone. It is not so much the details of her history that make it so, intriguing as they are: a late middle ages where everything is subtly divergent: the Green Christ, the Visigothic empire out of Carthage, the Turkish crescent symbolising Astarte and not Islam. No, the quality that sets Ash apart from the rest is the way that Gentle approaches history itself. The book runs two plots in tandem: the notes of a modern scholar of history, and the life of the mediaeval mercenary captain that he is uncovering, save that as the book goes on, the history that the scholar anticipates, the history that he reads of in researching Ash’s life, and the history that his world understands, all start to…
Well, to say any more would be to spoil it, and Ash is a book that should be read unspoilt. So go and read it. (15)
(1) With apologies to the people who do so much good work for the Jubilee Debt Campaign and similar, whose slogan I’m ripping off. Mind you, one does wonder whether a certain section of the American film industry, responsible for atrocities such as Enigma and Pearl Harbour– sorry, Perl Harbor, might not go under the banner of “Make History Poverty.”
(2) Yep, fake dinosaur bones. Seldom trotted out now, but of all the creationist arguments, surely this was both the daftest, and the most alarming in its theological implications. God as lame practical joker whose main mission in (omnipotent) life was to mislead people and punish curiosity?
(3) Not as quickly as it would looking down the gullet of a dinosaur, and it’s a crying shame this never happened to one of the more crooked medieval popes
(4) A lovely example of the government shoring up local industry. The wool markets were flagging, so it was made mandatory for everyone to have to wear a woolly hat on holidays, to make work for the woolliers (5). No kidding.
(5) Or whatever one is, when one makes things from wool.
(6) To stay with the Renaissance for a moment, Greg Stafford, in the Pendragon RPG, has a very good stab at retelling La Morte d’Arthur as alternate history, starting in around the fifth century AD and with the timeline branching with the dolorous stroke. Over the next century the Dark Ages culture undergoes a shockingly rapid cultural and technological golden age so that we have, in a historical Saxons, Picts and Celts setting, Arthur’s renaissance court, gothic plate mail and the intricacies of the joust, and then when Arthur dies, everything falls apart and the “real” history reasserts itself with Britain being overrun by the Saxons.
(7) And another interesting example of a book that stands on the borders of mainstream and SF.
(8) Lord yes, in fact stuff elves, stuff magicians, if there’s one idea that symbolises the most derivative, overused and threadbare end of the fantasy market, it’s dragons, and it’s marvellous to see that Naomi Novak has rejuvenated the old beasts so majestically.
(9) Perhaps written by some alternate Moorcock.
(10) Which puts us onto Mary Gentle, but I’m coming to her later.
(11) Cyberspace, as he coins it. He also coins the term “the Matrix” and “the Net” within the pages of Neuromancer.
(12) I don’t mean to suggest a causal relationship, of course. Gibson is credited with a great deal, but ending the cold war and dismantling the Warsaw Pact is probably over-egging the pudding.
(13) Never mind that the principle characters in Architecture are hopscotched by Gentle across a motley of settings without apology or remorse, so that Casaubon and the White Crow can live under the heel of giant rats, can haggle with Olivia Cromwell, and can turn up in the streets of a post-modern London, without ever ceasing to be themselves.
(14) Surely, surely a topic for another time. Suffice to say that Gentle is not the first to write a history to sit behind a work of literature. In her case it is Dumas’ Musketeers, whereas Michael Crichton does the same for Beowulf in his Eaters of the Dead/The Thirteenth Warrior.
(15) Well read it again then.