Alternate history

Here’s an interesting post about alternate history, over at Fantasy Faction.

The post points out that creating a point of divergence is easy, but developing a rounded story from that point is difficult.

Let me just mention that if you want to see a set of fully-developed worlds based on alternate histories, you could do worse than to look up the GURPS Alternate Earths supplements.


These are fun to read even if, like me, you are neither a gamer nor actually planning to write an alternate history. I mean, I guess BLACK DOG is an alternate history in a way, because supernatural stuff has been influencing history all along, but really it’s not — there’s no point of divergence or anything.

Craig says that you can make absolutely any alternate history seem inevitable if you do it right. The scenarios presented in these GURPS supplements totally establish the truth of that claim.

Craig, the author of the linked post argues that JONATHON STRANGE AND MR NORRIL by Suzanna Clarke is the best-ever alternate history. Since you’ve basically read all alternate history stories ever, which one would you vote for?

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6 thoughts on “Alternate history”

  1. Waiting to hear from Craig…..

    I certainly think JS&MN is a darn good one, much better than, say, the Temeraire series, which is set in more or less the same time period.

    One I’ve heard frequently heard offered as the best ever is Ford’s DRAGON WAITING, which I’ve gotten into heated disputes about because I simply don’t believe in the AU setting.

    Dick’s MAN IN HIGH CASTLE, is another highly regarded, but which I bounced off of.

    I did read and find PAVANE by Roberts well worth it.

    If you have access to the Wall Street Journal you might want to look at the article on ‘adults reading children’s books’ that they printed today. Right now it’s accessible online.

  2. I personally downgrade all alternate histories in which magic or other nonexistent phenomena play an important role, which obviously applies to JS&MN. Also, historical fantasy is a different subgenre (everyone agrees with that, right?) and I personally call things HF instead of AH if history hasn’t significantly diverted from the actual course of events.

    So JS&MN is either a pretty good HF, if you focus on the events actually taking place and disregard the fact that history featured a magician conquering half of England a while back, or a pretty terrible AH, if you focus in on the fact that a magician taking over half of England for a while had no discernable effect on history, such that the cast of characters for the Napoleonic Wars is still the same.

    If you say, this is a nasty cleft stick for fantastic AHs, since diverging from history in reasonable ways means that you alienate much of your audience for HF — well, that’s true. A lot of AH runs into that problem, but when you change natural law obviously that’s going to make the problems bigger.

    (Often the best solution is the one in the TEMERAIRE books, to look the reader in the eye and say, no, this doesn’t make sense; can we get back to talking about dragons now?)

    The standard answer for the best AH ever is indeed Dick’s MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, which I do consider a pretty good choice. My own favorite is S.M. Stirling’s UNDER THE YOKE, the middle book of his DRAKA trilogy, which I typically describe as “a meditation on evil disguised as an AH spy novel.” It’s very very dark, however, which I normally consider a strong count against a book.

    In the AH subgenre of time travelers changing history, the 1632 universe leaves everything else in the dust. 1632 itself is way more fun than it has any right to be, although the series as a whole is so enormous that Stirling’s ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME trilogy and Turtledove’s GUNS OF THE SOUTH are higher average quality.

    I personally find Turtledove’s long AH war series (he has three or four of them) tedious enough that I’ve stopped reading them, but his shorter AH standalones like GUNS or RULED BRITANNIA or IN THE PRESENCE OF MINE ENEMIES are good enough that it doesn’t irritate me when people call him the master of alternate history.

    And to cycle back to history, I think the best historical fantasy AH is probably Randall Garrett’s LORD DARCY mystery stories, in which (unusually) the magic actually supports the alternate history.

    Oh, and I should give a special mention to Richard Garfinkle’s CELESTIAL MATTERS, which takes the alternate physical laws notion and runs with it: Aristotelian cosmology, physical and politics, with a side order of Daoism. Even the most jaded AH fan will be impressed.

  3. Oh, and those of us who care about the terminology in this area would call BLACK DOG “secret history”: it turns out that a lot of mundane history actually has magical explanations, but everything looks the same on the surface. (The fact that the secret part has recently broken down is unusual, but I don’t think there’s a standard term for it.)

    The acknowledged master of occult secret history is, of course, Tim Powers. Since I’m doing book recs: anyone reading who likes the notion and hasn’t read him, rush right out: start with THE ANUBIS GATES if you like time travel, DECLARE if you like spy novels, or LAST CALL if neither of those sounds instantly cool.

  4. Secret history! Yes, I knew that, but I’d forgotten the term. Yes, that is exactly what BLACK DOG is — stuff going on behind the scenes that explains some of what really has been happening in history.

  5. LAST CALL combining poker, Las Vegas and myth. It was the first Powers in several outings that I really enjoyed. ANUBIS GATES has some great moments, but never quite gelled for me. DECLARE kept me glued to my reading back when, but when I tried to reread it last year I bounced hard.

    I think JS&MN works as AH for me because the magical king conquering half of England is first mentioned as mythical and so maybe – as i recall the book – may never happened. So I passed it over. Whereas I couldn’t swallow Ford’s book’s extemely close mapping of his Europe to our Europe when things had been changed so drastically: Christianity is a small cult, paganism is big, and vampires are around, the Empire of Byzantium is still a big player. Yet in 1480 Medicis rule Florence and Edward IV is king of England?

    1632 is great fun, although I haven’t gone on with the sequels.

    We have the LORD DARCY books floating around somewhere, I should fish them off the shelf. Will have to look for the Garfinkle, too. I remember seeing it around, but have never picked it up.

    Right now I’m finally reading Doc Smith.

  6. Elaine, I applaud the eclecticism of your reading.

    I could never really get into THE DRAGON WAITING, which is a pity because John M. Ford is generally quite good. I don’t buy the AH aspects for an instant; I’m less strict about parallels than your real purists (such as the Sidewise Award judges), but there’s such a thing as too many.

    The 1632 sequels are a very mixed bag, so I can’t recommend them to just anyone. LORD DARCY is good for anyone who likes mysteries for the plots or alternate history for the setting (or — some of them, including the one novel — for people who like playing reference poker).

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