Posts Tagged ‘alternative history’

Subgenre Study: Alternative History

My mother recently read Leviathan and Behemoth (books 1 and 2 of the Leviathan Trilogy) by Scott Westerfeld.  For those who haven’t read them (and you should) they are kind of an odd mix of steampunk and alternative history.  But she liked them and asked for recommendations of other books similar to them.

“The steampunk part or the alternative history part?” I asked.

“I don’t understand why people change history,” my mother replied.

I recommended His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik to her.

As I attempted to explain to my mother, alternative history is a way to answer the question “What if…?”  What if Germany had won the second world war?  What if the Napoleonic Wars were fought with dragons?  What if some deity decided the fate of the battle before it started – would it still be worth fighting?

Alt. History is an odd subgenre, one of the ones that spans both science fiction and fantasy but technically belongs to neither.  A book like His Majesty’s Dragon technically is fantasy, because of said dragons, but what about a story like the one mentioned above, where Germany won WWII?  It probably falls closer to science fiction, since it’s working on speculative events, even if said events take place in today’s past.

“I just don’t understand why people mess with history,” my mother said.

The short answer is that writers mess with everything so something as large as the History of the Human Race is certainly not exempt.  It provides a huge amount of fodder, even if you just change or exaggerate events a little.  It provides an almost irresistible pull to twist one fragment of time and watch the ripples move through everything that came after it.  What if Columbus had never discovered the New World?  What if Napoleon had been able to invade and subdue Russia?  What if the Cold War hadn’t been so cold?  Some things in history happened out of sheer, dumb luck – but what if that luck hadn’t held?  What new and differing technology would have to be available for some things to happen, or to not happen?  Really, the possibilities are endless.

Alternative history allows us to see the world as it might have been, for better or worse, and that’s a lot of power.

So, Squiders, what are your favorite alternative history books/stories?