Essential Alternate Histories

Here’s a post by James Nicoll that I happened across last week: Essential Alternate Histories

It caught my eye, not because I’m especially focused on alternate history, but because my brother is. So I glanced over the list to see how many titles I recognized, and I have to say, it’s an interesting list. Nicoll includes quite recent titles like Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, but completely leaves off extremely well known figures in the subgenre, like Harry Turtledove.

He says he included titles according to two criteria: quality and importance to the field. Well, I would hardly argue that Turtledove writes the smoothest prose or the most compelling stories ever ever ever, but . . . importance to the field? His absence from this list seems hard to justify. I mean “hard to justify” in the sense of “inexplicable ommission.”

And then Nicolls includes DWJ’s The Magicians of Caprona. Which is a nice setting and a thoroughly enjoyable book, but I don’t think it actually is alternate history at all. It’s just a secondary world with the flavor of a historical period, and that’s not the same thing. “On A Red Station, Drifting” is even more definitely not alternate history. It’s science fiction, straight up, even if there are hints at a different history in the backstory. I am utterly baffled by its inclusion.

It all makes me wonder how Nicolls is defining his terms, and not to throw stones, but I think he’s working off the wrong definition, or possibly more than one wrong definition at the same time. Everybody and their cousin writes books set in “alternate” eg “flavor of” historical periods. Practically every SFF story out there counts as “alternate history” if you broaden the definition to the point Nicolls has. You might as well just title your list “20 Essential SFF stories” if you have criteria as broad as this.

True alternate history requires taking our actual history, changing a couple of things or one important thing, and then having those changes echo forward as history progresses. Right? Surely that is what nearly everybody means by the term?

Even supposing Nicolls wanted to mostly focus on books published in the last ten years — which he doesn’t say and I see no reason why one would limit a list of “essential” alternate histories with such a strict criterion, but a lot of his titles seem recent — but in that case, where is, say, the superb Clash of Eagles trilogy by Alan Smale? I just read the last book and the whole trilogy totally belongs to a contemporary list of essential alternate histories, imo.

In that one, the Roman Empire didn’t fall apart. It kept expanding. And now Rome has discovered the Americas and we get this tremendously exciting clash between the Romans and the Cahokians and it’s just an amazingly inventive alternate history, way way way more interesting than yet another Nazis Won WWII story or one of the other totally cliched topics. Really well written, too.

So where’s that one, eh?

Click through and check out Nicoll’s list.

Then compare to my brother’s list — I asked him for his picks, and here they are:

A huge proportion of AH is about WWII. The acknowledged classic is Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, which largely deserves its reputation. Is position is even more secure after the Amazon original series, which I haven’t seen. I stopped paying attention to WWII AHs a while back, so I don’t know what the cool new stuff is.

The second most popular divergence point (some way back) is the American Civil War. It doesn’t have a true classic: the closest is Ward Moore’s BRING THE JUBILEE, and I’m not a huge fan. Harry Turtledove’s THE GUNS OF THE SOUTH is a time-travel based alternate history that owes its existence to a sneering comment about “as anachronistic as Robert E. Lee with an AK-47”: if you don’t mind time travel in your AH, it’s a good place to start.

Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol stories are pretty definitive of their type: most of them don’t involve alternate history but the early one that does, “Delenda Est,” was my first introduction to the AH concept, and I probably like it even more it deserves. The last Time Patrol stories written are a fix-up/collection THE SHIELD OF TIME, which has a pair of alternate histories included.

There are also AH fantasies, set in an alternate timeline in which history is different and magic works, but the magic isn’t the reason for the historical divergence (if it were, history would be much more altered). JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL is more recent than my other classics, but it has probably become the central example of the type.

If there were a guild of alternate history writers, Harry Turtledove would be the guildmaster. He mostly writes very long series, often transposing real history into an alternate. Besides THE GUNS OF THE SOUTH, my personal recommendation of his wouldn’t be one of his long series but the singleton RULED BRITANNIA, which is Shakespeare in a world where the Spanish Armada conquered England.

FOR WANT OF A NAIL is actual historian Robert Sobel’s history of a world in which the American Revolution failed, written as a history text book with a full apparatus of footnotes: in the tiny field of “nonfiction alternate history,” it has never been equaled.

Since 1995 a committee of fans has given out an annual Sidewise Award for the best novel and short story in the field, usually from a small group of finalists. Their tastes in AH don’t agree with mine, but they seem pretty good at selecting worthwhile nominees — and they’ve attained some influence just by dint of spending more than 20 years at it.

Finally, I personally consider the first two volumes of Stirling’s Draka series to be classics, but I don’t think my opinion is widely shared. MARCHING THROUGH GEORGIA is a solid war novel in an AH version of WWII; UNDER THE YOKE, set in the (much worse) Cold War resulting, is a meditation on evil disguised as spy novel.

Yeah, I don’t think the Draka books would be my thing. Actually I read them a long time ago and certainly would never re-read them.

I will add that the comments to Nicholl’s post include several the titles Craig listed when I asked him for essentials — and at least one commenter over there also points at The Magicians of Caprona. and “On a Red Station” as odd choices, just as I did. So I’m certainly not alone in wondering about Nicholl’s criteria.

Interesting question:

Defining Alternate History according to the more usual and stricter definition, what, written in the last or fifteen years, could be considered essential?

My pick, obviously:

Clash of Eagles trilogy by Alan Smale

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11 thoughts on “Essential Alternate Histories”

  1. An awful lot of Essentials/Greats/Must-Read lists have 19 male authors and a token woman. James’s silently do the opposite.

    This usually works very well in pointing-out-without-pointing-out how many really core books in any given subgenre are written by women (but usually get left off the lists), but maybe it was more difficult for AH? Is the core of AH “this battle went the other way”, and are men more likely to write that? (I dunno, don’t read a whole lot of it.)

    Or perhaps the list is suggesting that the boundaries of AH should widen so that “Italy is organised in city-states, not unified” is enough to make a book AH even though it’s more commonly classified as children’s light fantasy? (I suppose one could say that in the Chrestomanci series it’s our universe that’s a secondary world…)

    Red Station, Drifting certainly seems like pure far-future SF to me! Maybe there’s a line somewhere about the history of that universe that says the Vietnamese were the first to the Moon, or something, that technically gives it an AH background??

  2. Jen, thank you, that’s a very interesting suggestion for what might have been going on when Nicoll put together his list.

    It’s so deeply misleading to leave off male writers in a list of this sort that . . . words fail me. If this kind of list results from that sort of motivation, you’re trying too hard even if your motivation was laudable.

    I think it’s obvious that what should have been included is a much clearer statement about criteria for inclusion, including the gender of the author if James Nicholl considered that relevant. If you want to set the boundary ten times wider than is *generally accepted* for the category, you owe your reader a statement that you’re doing that.

  3. I know he’s been posting lots of lists, and limits any particular author to just one mention on one list, and never the same title on different lists. He grumbled on usenet in a discussion of this list that he keeps being constrained by earlier choices.
    But a lot of people were puzzled by this particular list. Not just MAGICIANS but Aiken’s STOLEN LAKE? of all the choices to make, why that one?

  4. I don’t believe I realized his rules meant a particular author, once placed on a list, could never appear on any other list.

    If Nicholl finds that rule overly confining, which is not difficult to imagine, this may because he has imposed an unnecessary straitjacket on himself and should now reconsider his rules.

  5. When this was linked to in File 770 last week (the 10/19 Pixel Scroll), Nicoll commented the following: “I was sent tome after bloated, padded tome of various Turtledove books and if any of them make it onto a list of mine, it won’t be a compliment.”

    Another made the comment that THE GUNS OF THE SOUTH has a pretty rose-tinted view of how the South would behave in victory, and Nicoll said, “Yeah, that right there is enough to take the book off the reread list.” (For what it’s worth, given the articles I’ve read recently about Robert E. Lee and slavery, I find it incredibly hard to believe he would’ve done what he did in this setting, and that’s just really disappointing from Turtledove.)

    For Aliette de Bodard’s Xuya stories, she actually says in the introduction on her website ( that “Xuya is a recurring universe in my alternate histories: the premise is that China discovered the Americas before the West, and that this led to a global Asian domination of the globe rather than the Western one–and to a space age dominated by Confucian powers (Chinese and Vietnamese galactic empires).”

    The Xuya universe actually include stories set in the 20th century as well, so even though “A Red Station, Drifting” is set in the 22nd century, it’s still set in an established universe.

  6. Just to add on, though–I personally love most of what I’ve read by Turtledove. I’ve always loved the Videssos series, which is pseudo alternate history (Roman legion transported to a pseudo-Byzantine Empire with magic).

    I met Alan Smale at Capclave at the beginning of the month, and I’m definitely looking forward to reading CLASH OF EAGLES soon.

  7. I don’t think ‘regency with magic’ or ‘regency with automatons’ qualifies as AH very well. It doesn’t hinge on a “what if” about some decision point in history.

  8. David H: I think for retelling of history in SF milieu, you can’t beat David Drake, who’s done it all, starting with the Odyssey. Greek, Norse Myth, Roman, British Empire…

  9. I am not a great admirer of Turtledove’s writing (thinking here of the Worldwar series), but I think he’s too important to the subgenre to leave off a list of essential Alternate History. But whatever, not my list.

    Question: is a work includable if the author declares she is working with alternate history, even if no trace of the subgenre can be detected in the particular work in question? That’s an interesting dilemma.

    Hope you enjoy the Cahokians as much as I did! Warning: the protagonist winds up in truly dire circumstances over and over. Spoiler: things work out.

  10. I grew up in STL, so I’ve made plenty of school trips to Cahokia growing up–can’t wait to see it in fiction. :)

  11. Me too, David. Been years since I’ve been to Cahokia, but it’s certainly worth seeing — and imagining what it must have been like as a living city.

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