Thursday, October 11, 2012

Sample Something a Little Alternative

Guest post by Alison Morton.

I stumbled on AHWU almost by accident and was thrilled to find a welcoming site full of news, articles and, best of all, book reviews. I read, absorbed and bought several recommended books. And have enjoyed them greatly.

Then it struck me. Not only on AHWU, but on other sites and even on the mighty Zon, many books designated as alternate history involved war of some kind, usually on a world scale. Troops were deployed, desperate defense of loyal enclaves made, resources from another time or planet used to change the course of history. Gripping stuff.

But in parallel to mainline historical fiction, shouldn't alternate history examine social, cultural and political events within an alternate historical society? I'm thinking here of Kingsley Amis' The Alteration which is firmly set within its world. Both title and dilemma of the story neatly reflect the altered society and the potential alteration of one of the characters within it. Like any good book, it has terrific characters, atmosphere, a heart-aching choice, sacrifice, the instinct for survival, tension, etc. The beautifully written world bustles with altered technology and yet retains familiar historical details: express barouches, seven-hour transport between London and Rome, gaslight, photograms and airships yet ermines, silks, velvet, fustian, servants and apprentices. The language is historical and structured, such as you would find in C J Sansom or Ann Lyle, but it never disguises people’s motivations or emotions. The most disturbing thing is how convincing this alternative world is.

Few people need introduction to Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, featuring the world-weary Meyer Landsman, a detective with murder and chess dilemmas. A melancholy tone is relieved by glimpses of optimism and impossible bent-back-on-itself humor  Strong streaks of realism and universal dilemmas are woven into very rich world-building. Also, the plot is more than slightly mad. Again, no wars or forces from the future, just people in their world working through their problems against a background of political pressure and murder.

An equally richly described world, but without any comic tone, is found in Keith Thomas' Pavane, where after the assassination of Elizabeth I, England is constrained in the grip of the post-Armada Catholic church. Individual personal stories set from the 1960s to the 21st century in a semi-feudal England are linked through generations. The most advanced form of transport is the steam-powered traction engine; long-distance communication is achieved by the use of mechanical semaphore towers. But rebellion is in the air...

The classic, Robert Harris' Fatherland; what praise can I heap on it that isn't there already?  All policeman Xavier March wants to do is investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb. That and survive in a corrupt society. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo and racing against time, he uncovers a shocking secret which chills to the bone. The alternate history setting is impeccably drawn, with descriptions of Speer's thousand-year Reich vision of Berlin and celebrations of Hitler's 75th birthday, but the spare, clever writing,  tension and plot are essentially those of a crime thriller.

Although different in complexity and scope, but all the same mirroring the domestic rather than global, I recently read Dinah of Seneca by Corinna Lawson. The story unfolds using the alternate timeline as its natural setting. The Roman Empire of this tenth century stretches from Russia in the East to a new continent in the West. But a new continent brings new threats to their rule. The Roman garrison in Seneca, located in modern-day New York, lacks the supplies and men needed to defeat an alliance of native Mahicans and immigrant Vikings.

Dinah, a former slave trained in espionage, had hoped Seneca would be the start of a new life. Instead, she's pulled back into conflict, both political and very personal. If Seneca is to survive, Dinah must reconcile her allegiance to Rome with her chance to create her own destiny in the New World with Gerhard, the Viking leader. The novel focuses heavily on character interaction and Dinah is a sharp and mostly unbiased observer. The book also has sufficient spycraft, politics and action scenes to satisfy most readers but also plenty of emotional punch. In short, it’s a romance in an AH setting.

So here I've noted a few books which are firmly fastened in other genres: literary, historic, crime thriller, romance. I like time travel, timeslip and a good war story and these along with steampunk are perceived to be the staples of alternate history fiction, but I wonder if AH widened its scope, stretching out to embrace other genres, it would entice more readers from the fixed world to sample something a little alternative.

* * *

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed thrillers with an alternative history setting and hopes to publish the first of a trilogy early next year. She muses on writing, Romans and alternate/alternative history at her blog.


  1. Thank you for this post, which I fully agree with. It's easy to indulge in another "Nazi Germany wins the deciding battles and dominates the following decades" story, but more subtle yet not less fascinating stories are up for grabs. A great example in German is the book "Plan D" by Simon Urban, where he spins a story of suspense in a Germany which was never reunified.

    1. What an intriguing idea. Is there an English translation available?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.