Speculative Fiction for History Buffs

Alternate History is one of my favorite subgenres. When I searched for “alternate history romance” I was given a long list of steampunk romances, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. I vaguely remembered coming across a couple of genuine alternate history based romances, and between Google and one of those trivia files in the back of my mind I tracked them down, two long-out-of-print novels by Maura Seger: Fortune’s Tide (1990), set in a world where the American Revolution failed, and Perchance to Dream (1989) in which the Confederate States were victorious. Apparently that subgenre never took off, alas.

But the idea of alternate history has always been popular over on the science fiction shelves, although such stories don’t usually have a lot to do with science. Steampunk certainly presents an alternate Victorian world, but my suspicion is that it’s based more on technology and society than on history. I haven’t read enough steampunk to be sure, but I plan to remedy that. (In my spare time.)

I do have several favorite alternate history novels on my keeper shelves (and on my To Be Read stacks). Such stories generally have a point of change, sometimes called a hinge, some specific event that changes the course of history from what we know to what the author imagines. Some are straight history, while some add a fantasy or science fiction element.

Harry Harrison went way back in time for his hinge, setting the trilogy West of Eden, West of EdenWinter in Eden, and Return to Eden (1984-1988) in a world in which the cataclysm that ended the age of dinosaurs 65 million years ago never happened, leading to conflict between the highly evolved dinosaur civilization and the rising Ice Age human race. Geeks like me will also enjoy the appendix detailing the biology, culture and language of the dinosaurs. And who can resist domesticated mammoths?

Peshawar LancersS.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers (2001) is set in twenty-first century India, now the seat of the British Empire, after a disastrous fall of comets in the 1870s destroyed much of Europe, changed the planet’s climate, and brought technological advance to a standstill. The book includes a set of fascinating appendices on history, technology and language. Stirling, a prolific author, has also written other alternate histories, including the dark and violent Domination series and two enjoyable novels based on Venus (The Sky People, 2006) and Mars (In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, 2008) as the inhabitable planets they were imagined to be a century ago.

Lord DarcyRandall Garrett’s Lord Darcy novels (written in the 1960s and collected in one volume in 2002) have a big fantasy element (think CSI with magical technicians), but the world is the twentieth century as it might have been if King Richard the Lionheart had stayed home where he belonged, changing the course of British history with a long and successful reign. Lord Darcy himself has no magical Talent; he is a criminal investigator with a sorcerer assistant. Together they solve cases in tales full of in-jokes and references that will delight any mystery fan.

Jo Walton’s Small Change trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, 2006-2008)Farthing describes a world in which Britain made peace with Germany before WWII began, leading to a very different and dark mid-century. The books are mystery/thrillers tied together by a police detective with deep secrets of his own.

Harry Turtledove is the acknowledged master of alternate history, writing dozens of novels, many in long series, about everything from the survival of the Byzantine Empire to an alien invasion changing the course of the Second World War. Two on my shelf are Guns of the South (1992), in which time-travelers provide the Confederacy with AK-47s, and Ruled Britannia (2002), in which the Spanish Armada has conquered England, and Shakespeare is writing a play about King Philip. Turtledove has written something for everyone who loves history.

I could go on. And on. When I was planning this post I found a notice of a new book, Three Princes, by Ramona Wheeler, a novel of nineteenth century intrigue in a world dominated by the Egyptian and Incan Empires. How could I resist that? Hence a trip to the bookstore (I bought a steampunk romance, too, as long as I was there.)

Sharing these books makes me want to read them again–that’s why they live on my keeper shelves. And while I’m at it, maybe I should take a shot at writing an alternate history romance. Heaven knows I’m becoming an expert at writing in subgenres no one knows how to sell.

For even more ideas, visit this list of The Most Unusual Alternate History Novels Ever Published.

Alternate history fiction

has always fascinated me.  A quick scan of my science fiction shelves (always a dangerous practice: those books are still there because I want to read them again!) turned up several, but I’ve just finished reading a new collection of old favorites, Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy.  Once upon a time I read these tales in three long-out-of-print paperbacks, the story collections Murder and Magic and Lord Darcy Investigates and the novel Too Many Magicians.  Most if not all were originally published in science fiction magazines and anthologies.

Lord Darcy is the Chief Investigator for Richard, Duke of Normandy, the brother of King John IV, ruler of the Anglo-French Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, New England, New France, and several other territories.  The stories are set in the 1960s and 70s (when they were written) in a world quite different from our own.  For one thing, Lord Darcy solves mysteries (many involving the Polish Secret Service of King Casimir) with the aid of Forensic Sorcerer Sean O Lochlain.  The people of Darcy’s world don’t have automobiles, airplanes or telephones (the technology in general is rather Victorian), but they do have a carefully formulated science based on the laws of magic.

Garrett clearly had fun with Lord Darcy on several levels.  The stories are all good mysteries, often of the locked room variety, with frequent references to mystery novels, movies and TV shows.  Too Many Magicians is a tribute to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels: Wolfe appears as the Marquis de London, and his legman Archie Goodwin as Lord Bontriomphe.  “The Napoli Express” reworks Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, with quite a different outcome.

Then there’s the “forensic science,” much of it based on the magical laws of similarity, which Master Sean loves to explain to anyone who will listen.  Locks and privacy spells are keyed to their owners.  Food is preserved not in refrigerators or freezers but in storage containers with preservation spells, rather expensive because the magic has to be refreshed frequently.  Lord Darcy, however, has no magical Talent himelf, just a Sherlockian gift for deduction.

The turning point for this particular alternate history, the event or circumstance where it left our own, came in 1199, when Richard the Lionheart survived the arrow wound which killed him in our history, returned to England, and took his job seriously.  As a result, the Plantagenet dynasty still rules a vast empire, which Garrett fills with enticing people and places, like the Journeyman Sorcerer Lord John Quetzal, son of the ruler of Mechicoe, or the New England colony of Robertia, where tobacco is grown for pipes and cigars.  Characters drink caffe and ouiskie, travel by carriage and train, and communicate by handwritten notes and teleson.

If you enjoy mystery, magic, or historical world building, the adventures of Lord Darcy will delight you.