Alternate History

So, as promised in my post about Steampunk / Alternate History Week, I’m just going to talk about Alternate History.

Historical fiction is a genre that, especially for children’s and young adult literature, is viewed by some people as unpopular among the target audience. I’m not sure why; I stumbled upon A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg around fifth grade, fell in love with Eleanor and Henry and English history and historical fiction all at once.

I’m mentioning historical fiction because it’s loving historical fiction that led me to love alternate history. Take history — take a known — and tweak it. Tweak it a little, or tweak it a lot. The story can be about that change or the backdrop for a story, where the “what if” is less about the Changed World Event and more how that Changed World Event changed the world, people, culture and their points of view. It can also be great fun for the person who is familiar with the history, to see the almost Easter Egg references to famous people, places and things that are now just a wee bit different.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m going with definitions that work for me. I’m sure there will be people who disagree. So, if you do, just give me your definition in the comments along with some book recommendations.

A pretty classic example of “changed world event” is The Year of the Hangman by Gary Blackwood. It’s 1777 and in 1776 the British crushed the Revolution and now the leaders such as George Washington are waiting to be executed — hence the title. Exploring how things may have worked out is interesting not just for the person familiar with a time period; it’s also a great launching pad to discover the real history, to find out more about how things actually worked out and to think about why history works the way it does.

I’ve read alternate history stories where my history of the time period being discussed is so shaky that I had no idea what the “gotcha” event was until I read the historical explanation. OK, I”ll name a particular story — Counting Potsherds by Harry Turtledove. Guess what? I read that story about 20 years ago. And it stuck with me all those years because it was that good. 

Steampunk is a particular type of alternate history; as explained in Steampunk: Full Steam Ahead in School Library Journal, “Steampunk is both speculative fiction that imagines technology evolved from steam-powered cogs and gears–instead of from electricity and computers–and a movement that fosters a do-it-yourself attitude and a love of beautifully crafted, yet functional, objects. Although K.W. Jeter coined the term in the late 1980s, the concept is much older: Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mary Shelley, and other 19th-century authors are primary influences. These writers inspired a dark, melancholy genre typically set in Victorian England.” So it’s kind of alternate history because it’s usually set in a Victorian type England, but it’s also alternate science fiction because the speculative element includes technology. If you want even more information, the Locus September 2011 issue is all about steampunk.

There are some books that aren’t quite historical fiction — not in the sense of being able to pinpoint the exact tweak. Instead, different aspects of history and culture are taken and used in a different way. Take Flora Segunda by Ysabeau Wilce. (From the cover and sub-title, it was presented as a fantasy and it is. Their is plenty of magic. Read the excellent review at the New York Times to get a sense of the incredible fantasy world-building. Personally, though, I think Leila at Bookshelves of Doom conveys a better flavor of the book itself. 

Flora Segunda is set in an alternate world, where Flora’s mother is the commanding general of the army of Califa and that’s perfectly normal. Califa — California. And the enemies? The Aztec Empire. So on the one hand, this is fantasy, no doubt. But on the other, it also has a bunch of things in it that people who like their history can go “oh’ about. Wilce explained in an interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith: “I’ve got a degree in history and was working as historian, but as much as I loved researching and writing factual pieces, it was hard sometimes not to drift into “what if…” But historians must (for the most part) shun such thoughts. So I decided to look at history through the prism of my imagination, and Califa was born. So far all my fiction has taken place in this tiny country. Califa is not supposed to be an alternative history of any one place, but I’ve drawn from a lot of historical detail, as least as far as material culture goes. Once I decided to try to write professionally, I was very lucky how quickly I was able to proceed.”

So, alternate history — love it? hate it? don’t understand it? And if you love it, what titles would you recommend?


Tamora Pierce’s list of recommended Alternate History books

Edited to add: A round up of posts for Steampunk / Alternate History Week, over at Chasing Ray

Review: The Iron Duke

With the Thanksgiving weekend coming up, here’s something a little different for you — something for the grown ups to read! Yes, I sometimes read books for grownups, and this steampunk romance is a fun, entertaining, hot read for the weekend.

  The Iron Duke (A Novel of the High Seas) by Meljean Brook. Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2010. Personal copy.

The Plot: A dead body has been found on the estate of the Duke of Anglesey and Detective Inspector Mina Wentworth has been called to find out what happened. It’s a delicate situation. The Duke is Rhys Trahaearn, the pirate who nine years ago freed England from the control of the Horde. Mina knows that the investigation will be difficult, because Rhys is a pirate made respectable, a national hero, adored. Mina, on the other hand, is the oldest daughter of an impoverished Earl — and she is also half Horde. The Horde had enslaved England and its people in every possible way, and every time people look at her, they can only see their enemy.

Investigating the mysterious death is not going to be easy. It turns out that Rhys is not a suspect — so Mina doesn’t have to worry about accusing the most popular man in England of murder. Together, Mina and Rhys discover a conspiracy that could threaten England itself. Mina must also fight a growing attraction to Rhys. 

The Good: This book is AWESOME. But before I get into all the amazing wonderful reasons I love this book and want there to be many, many more, let me be one hundred thousand percent clear: Adult Book. For grown ups. For the romance section of your library, or general fiction, or science fiction. This is for YOU. Enjoy it over Thanksgiving.

The Iron Duke is alternate history, set in a Victorianish world where the Horde (the descendants of Genghis Khan) successfully invaded Europe and England. Those of you wanting all the specific details can check out the author’s website for the exact details. There are airships, and steam powered vehicles, and nanoagents. Why, what is a nanoagent? Small bugs that were introduced to the English, hidden in sugar and tea. Once activated by the Horde, the Horde could use radio waves to control the nanoagents and thus control the people — their actions, their emotions, their bodies. Strong emotions, that may lead to rebellion? Done away with. What would make a miner or seamstress better? Why, having their tools be part of their bodies! The nanoagents help incorporate the metal into bodies, but also helps people heal, go faster, be stronger — be better workers for the Horde. And if the Horde thinks not enough babies are being born to create new workers, they order a Frenzy. A Frenzy is… well. I told you this was for grownups.

Brook does an amazing, astonishing world building. I was blown away by this intricate alternate history, and how careful Brook was in what she told the reader. Obviously, she put a lot of thought and research into The Iron Duke, but she resists the temptation to infodump all she knows on the reader. We don’t know all the history, we don’t even know all the present day politics and events. We know what Mina and Rhys know, we  learn what we need to make this work. Any science fiction or fantasy writer should take a look at the way the history is told, is related, to see how less is more even when dealing with a complex alternate historical and technical world.

Mina and Rhys are two smart, flawed people. Mina is half Horde as the result of a Frenzy. She herself was old enough to be subject to a Frenzy before the Horde were driven out of England. Mina’s past makes her who she is: smart, driven, enough of an outsider to be a good observer, enough of an insider to know how people think. She doesn’t trust easily — not other people and not herself. When you’ve learned you cannot control your own body, your own emotions, your own feelings, how can you trust anything? And that is another thing — her past is part of this story. Mina’s relationship with Rhys is one she fights, not because she doesn’t like him, but because she has to learn to trust herself before she can trust herself to be with him. Also? Mina’s past is not unique. Her entire country – including Rhys – is full of people trying to figure out the same things. Bad things didn’t just happen to Mina, or to Rhys. They happened to everyone.

Rhys. Rhys is hot. And he is strong, impulsive, loyal, smart, a leader. Like Mina, he has things in his past which means he keeps people at arm’s length. Rhys is attracted to Mina but he has his own issue about emotional intimacy. Sigh. It’s so much fun seeing these two people, attracted to each other yet being held back by their own baggage.

This is a love story, yes, a love story between Mina and Rhys. But it’s not the only love story here: it’s also the love between friends and family. Rhys, an orphan, has created a family out of friends, one bound with loyalty. Mina may be the child of rape, but she is also the adored daughter of her parents. Her parents are amazing people — despite the Horde trying to control strong passions and emotions, despite being subject to multiple Frenzies, despite all their hardships, her parents love each other and love all their children.

Oh, and while this is a romance, and steampunk, it’s also a mystery! A very well crafted mystery which I didn’t figure out ahead of time.

Did I mention the hot romance? And that it’s a romance for adults? It is steamy. Rhys and Mina work through their issues with physical and emotional intimacy. A lot.

Oh, and before I forget! ZOMBIES. Yes, there are many, many zombies.

There are no unicorns, but given the technology which has included some genetic mutations and scientifically altered creatures, I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up at some point.

I have some questions about how the nanoagents work and the Horde and other details. But you known what? I trust Brook. My questions are just because Brook has created such a believable, real, world that I want to know more. I trust that we may have those answers in future books. Heart of Steel is due in November 2011; I’m hoping we see even more!

One more thing. No, this isn’t for your middle school. No, it isn’t for your high school. Ask your adult fiction selector to buy it. Your teens who are excited about books where a couple may or may not kiss? Yes, this is not for them.

Alt History / Steampunk

I love Alternate History books. Love, love, love. Because…

Why, I cannot tell you NOW. Not when, as announced by Leila at Bookshelves of Doom,for the entire week of December 13th, we’re going to celebrate and discuss — and we, of course, invite and encourage you to do the same — Alt History and Steampunk novels. (We’re mostly focusing on the YAs, but I suspect we’ll do some branching out — there’re a TON of adult titles, and loads of those have insanely excellent crossover potential.)”

Leila is having a contest as part of the celebration! Nutshell, design a better book cover. Full details are at her blog.

Basically, alternate history is fiction where something has changed in the historical timeline. Steampunk is a particular subset of this genre.

If you want to read a whole lot more about it, as prep for what you want to post about the week of December 13, check out this post at Tor by GD Falksen:steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here “Victorian” is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized 19th century.” And if you want to read even more, here is Scott Westerfeld talking about it in Genre Cooties.

Image from Finding Wonderland.