Mind Meld: Alternate Histories We Love

Alternate history can be a thrilling, but daunting, subgenre of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to dive into; there are seemingly endless possible “what-if,” timeline, and story combinations for readers to try. This month, Mind Meld asks writers:

What is your favorite alt-history novel?

What about the author’s treatment to the particular time period and story made you fall in love? What about the alt-history subgenre draws you in, as an author or a reader?

Ken Liu
Ken Liu is the award-winning author of The Grace of Kings, a silkpunk epic fantasy of revolution (2015); The Wall of Storms, the first sequel to The Grace of Kings (October 2016); and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (March 2016). He translated from Chinese into English The Three-Body Problem (2015), Death’s End (September 2016), Invisible Planets, an anthology of contemporary Chinese SF in translation (November 2016). Twitter: @kyliu99

One of the most interesting alt-history novels I’ve read is Peter Tieryas’ The United States of Japan. Like PKD’s The Man in the High Castle, it imagines a world in which the Axis Power won World War II, and the United States is under occupation. It pushes the setting to later, so that there’s more time for a Japan-occupied Pacific Rim to develop its own culture, technology (there are giant mechas), and even video games.

I found the novel by turns moving and thrilling. The war crimes of Imperial Japan have always been minimized in the West, and it’s important to have a treatment that gazes at these crimes unflinchingly and articulate our responsibility to history. The novel wrestles with questions of historical war crimes, of racial violence and the legitimacy of violent resistance, of the unresolvable conflicts of carrying out duty’s demands within a fundamentally unjust system. And it does all of this not through long, philosophical disquisitions, but through giant mechas going to war with each other, video games that have real lives at stake, and characters who you can love and hate with passion. It’s a singular achievement unequaled by any other alt-history novel I’ve read.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the World Fantasy Award winning editor of She Walks in Shadows. Her latest novel, Certain Dark Things, follows warring narco vampires in Mexico City. Her third book, The Beautiful Ones, will be out this fall. She’s online at http://www.silviamoreno-garcia.com. Twitter: @silviamg

It feels like everyone has an alternate World War II novel in them, but Lavie Tidhar’s A Man Lies Dreaming stands above the rest. It is a genre-mashup (noir, pulp, historical) at turns heartbreaking and sardonic. The old canard applies: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be amazed he went there. And go there he does indeed. One half of the book involves Wolf aka Hitler, who instead of becoming Führer of Germany had to flee the country in the mid 30s. He is now a private detective in London who keeps finding himself in bad situations involving tremendous violence and kinkiness. He bumps into real historical figures from Tolkien to Ian Fleming while a serial killer roams the streets branding prostitutes with swastikas. The other half of the book is the man who lies dreaming: Shomer Aleichem, once a pulp writer of lurid tales, who attempts to make it through the horrors of Auschwitz. It’s the kind of idea which in the wrong hands would shatter at the first wrong turn, but Tidhar balances all the elements. It’s bold, it’s smart, it’s seedy and the best damn alternate history book I read in years.

A mention should also go to Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov. It’s set in the 19th century in a world very similar to ours called Antiterra, where North America shows a marked Russian influence. Some people seem aware of a different parallel reality, which could be our own. Unlike most alternate history books where the focus is the historical whys, ifs and hows of the reality, the heart of the novel is a relationship: the incestous love affair between a brother and sister. For those who may remember Nabokov solely as the author of Lolita this thick book’s inclusion in a SFF list may come as a surprise, but Nabokov’s melding of different strains of literature is a precursor to prize-winning books such as Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and yes, A Man Lies Dreaming.

Helen Lowe
Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and avid reader. The Heir of Night, the first novel in her The Wall Of Night quartet won the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Fantasy Debut in 2012 and she is currently working on the fourth and final novel in the series. You can find Helen on her “…on Anything, Really blog and also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

All alternate histories must take a bold step into the unknown, but I can never go past Kim Stanley Robinson’s (KSR) The Years of Rice and Salt for breadth of imagination and scope of storytelling. The story’s starting point is that rather than obliterating (a mere!) 30% of Europe’s population, the Black Death wiped out 99%, opening the way for an alternate world history dominated by two main empires, one predominantly Muslim (Dar al-Islam) and the other Chinese.

The Years of Rice and Salt not only explores the immediate consequences of the Black Death but traverses a time period from the 14th century to an alternate present. Culture, politics, war, and evolving global empires: KSR’s imagining encompasses the evolution of the various societies over time, including a North Amerindian confederation (the Hodenosaunee League) that is formed to resist the encroaching Chinese and Muslim empires. Yet the story remains centered on distinct individuals in each generation, letting their personal stories illuminate the larger sweep of alternate history.

From the outset, I felt The Years of Rice and Salt’s imagination, epic scope, and ambitious storytelling exemplified alternate history’s juxtaposition of the realism of actual history with exploration of the “what if” that underpins speculative fiction. All in all, in terms of both the subgenre and The Years of Rice and Salt, as both reader and author I find plenty to like.

T. Frohock
T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and history into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina, where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying. She is the author of the dark fantasy Miserere: An Autumn Tale, and her newest series, Los Nefilim, which includes the novellas In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death, is from Harper Voyager Impulse. You can keep up with T. at her website: www.tfrohock.com or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/T_Frohock

Alternative history is especially appealing to me simply because of the variety and the numerous ‘what ifs’ involved. What if vampires helped drive Napoleon out of Russia as they do in Jasper Kent’s brilliant recreation of the Patriotic War of 1812 (the Danilov Quintet)? Or what if the United States and Japan forged an alliance in 1906 and guardian geomancers were used to protect San Francisco from a cataclysmic earthquake (Breath of Earth by Beth Cato)? Or what if a Cather girl commanded the power of angels in France during the black days of 1348 (Between Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman)? If your tastes run to darker fiction filled with poetic language: what if the old gods walked the wild-west as they do in Gemma Files’ Hexslinger series?

‘What ifs’ abound.

The shame of this Mind Meld is that I have been asked to pick just one favorite.

So one it is: The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis. the first book in his Alchemy Wars trilogy. Tregillis’ novel is set in an alternative seventeenth century and examines free will through the story of Jax, a rogue clockwork mechanical man, known as a clakker. Controlled by geas–hierarchical compulsions that force the clakkers to serve humans–these intelligent machines are supposed to be the perfect servants. However, when the geas becomes damaged, clakkers develop free will.

Is the man-made alchemical soul within the clakkers equivalent to the human soul? If so, is it right to use the clakkers as slaves? Utilizing the philosophical differences between the Calvinist ideology of predestination and the Catholic belief in free-will, Tregillis examines the nature of the soul while simultaneously serving up a rowdy mixture of action, espionage, and strong characterization. I usually prefer standalone novels, but I am greatly looking forward to reading the next two books in the Alchemy Wars trilogy, The Rising and The Liberation.

Mur Lafferty
Mur Lafferty’s newest space thriller, Six Wakes, is available January 31. Her award-winning writing podcasts can be found at murverse.com.

I love Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but early in the book when Archduke Ferdinand’s (fictitious) son is working through what starts World War I, it was clearer than any history book I’d ever read before. The alternate history hooked me, but I fell in love with what Westerfeld did with the characters of Alek and Deryn and then the science of Darwin to create the modified animals that became war machines was my favorite part.

The audiobook, read by Alan Cumming, just makes it even better with his accent; it is totally immersive.
Margo-Lea Hurwicz is an Anthropology and Gerontology professor who has loved science fiction and fantasy since the day long ago that she found, and devoured, a stack of Analog, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction magazines hidden at the back of her father’s closet. She can be found on Twitter as @MangoHeroics.

My favorite recent work of alternate history, Los Nefilim by T. Frohock, is made up of three previously published novellas – In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death – that take place during the run up to the Spanish Civil War.  Into this real world setting is woven an innovative twist on the “Angels and Demons (Daimons)” framework – only here the Angels do not always have good intentions where humans are concerned. Caught between warring factions, we find Los Nefilim, Spanish Nephilim who can use music and light to influence the outcome of the continuing battle. Discovering how all this works is part of what makes the book worth reading. It’s not the usual angels and demons story.

But what really makes me love this book is the way it incorporates the personal story of mixed-heritage Diago Alvarez, whose father is a Daimon, and who has just discovered he has a son, mothered by an Angel under less than straightforward circumstances.  Although his choices will influence (drum roll) the future history of the world, it is his devotion to his partner Miquel and to his very young son Rafael that drive his actions. Life wasn’t easy for a same-sex couple in 1930’s Spain. Add raising a child who has been rescued from abuse, in the context of a war between supernatural beings that threatens to spill over into what feels like the history we know – and the stage is set.

The sensitively drawn characters are more important to me than the plot, but there is some enjoyable whodunit in the mix. I was left wanting more, not because of unresolved plot elements (because we know what happened to the world, at least in our own timeline), but because I want to spend more time with Diago, Miquel and Rafael.

 What’s your favorite alt-history?

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