Alternate History Reading and Recommendations

Writing historical fiction has all of the same problems of writing a prequel. For as much as the characters don’t know what’s going to happen, we do. We can’t pretend otherwise. When we browse the science fiction section at a bookstore, we see a dizzying, multi-dimensional array of possibilities. But it’s just as easy to look back and see the past as a set of constraints and settled facts. Somewhere in the back of my mind, history will always just seem a linear sequence of events.

So I'm naturally drawn to alternate history. The “face” of the genre are stories that treat history as a puzzlebox, a set of interlocking pieces seeking a new solution. But alternate histories can also put us in history by robbing us of our certainty about it. By taking away everything we thought we knew of about the shape and fate of their world, the crises of the past become immediate. That's the feeling I'm chasing with my stories. Here are some more alternate histories I've read recently that make me feel the same way:

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Jo Walton's Small Change trilogy, starting with 2006's Farthing, is also set in the years around World War II—but Britain has become a fascist ally of the Axis powers. While world history proceeds on the grand stage, through equally grand mechanisms, Farthing zooms in on a murder mystery at an English country retreat. Through this restrained perspective, Walton reveals the fascist undercurrents and sympathies of prewar British society, and delivers a devastating and terrifying new look at history, all wrapped in a tightly-plotted, human-scale story.

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Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt (2003) has the widest sweep of any novel here. It starts with the end of civilization in Europe, and carries on for centuries afterward. The Black Death mutated upon reaching Europe, and killed ninety-nine percent of its people rather than “mere” thirty-three. With such a heady premise, you might expect Robinson to focus on it, but, while there is plenty of redrawn history, The Years of Rice and Salt is also an intensely personal story about its two lead characters. It uses the conceit of reincarnation to trace them across continents and centuries. No matter where they are in the time, they’re as uncertain as we are about our place in it. It's easy to feel just as lost.

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Having our understanding of the world mediated by 21st century science and culture can be an impediment to perceiving the history as the people who lived through it did. In one of my favorite books of last year, Jeannette Ng's 2017 Under the Pendulum Sun, a pair of Victorian missionaries lose themselves in Arcadia, the land of the fae. The faeries are cunning and terrible and tragic, but they're the mechanism of the plot, not the motive. Theology, Christian apocrypha and mysticism, sin and guilt have a life of their own in the land of the fae. They're as oppressively real there as they are in the minds of the missionaries.

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China Miéville's The Last Days of New Paris (2016) interrupts and prolongs World War II with an explosion of the occult and surreal--literally, Surrealist artwork of the early century given life to terrorize and reshape a cordoned-off Paris. Agents of Hell, Surrealist amalgamations, and the ideologies of the wartime era given physical embodiment reshape Paris. All of my favorite post-apocalyptic tropes segue into a story about belief, art, and history. It's the most inventive book I've read this year, and has just about everything I love about Miéville's writing and this genre.