August 22, 2011

Alternate Histories

I tend to talk a fair amount about YA trends I just can't stand, so I thought I'd take a moment to talk about something I would love to see A LOT more of: alternate histories.

I realized this as I was finishing up Leviathan (Scott Westerfeld) last night. What drew me in the most about this book was the alternate history. For those who haven't read the book, I don't think I'm giving too much away by saying that the book starts on the eve of World War I (before it was called WWI, obviously, but even before it was termed 'The Great War'), in a world where the British and their allies are "Darwinists," and the Austro-Hungarians are "Clankers". The Darwinists use genetically engineered animals and ecosystems as vehicles and weapons; the Clankers use machines.

I love that stuff. Can't get enough of it. It appeals to the history buff in me, and I'm in awe of the people who can do this well, because to do alternate history well, you need to be neck-deep in research for a very long time if you want to avoid sounding like an idiot. Maybe that's why I don't see more of these sorts of books in the YA market.

But there must be some! I'm racking my brains right now and am only coming up with a few on the YA side (although to be fair, I can only come up with a few on the adult side as well):

Young Adult Alternate History

1. Year of the Hangman, by Gary Blackwood. Possibly the first alternate history book I ever read -- the premise is that the Americans did not win the Revolutionary War.

2. Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest. Haven't finished this one, but the premise is that the Civil War just did. Not. End. (After 16+ years.)

Adult Alternate History

1. Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, by Orson Scott Card. This one is a little more complicated, but the premise is that in the distant future, everything sucks (to put it bluntly). A team of scientists believe they have traced the tipping point to 1492, when Christopher Columbus "discovered" the Americas. So they send a team back in time to stop Christopher Columbus from making his fateful discovery... only to discover that somewhere, somewhen, someone else has already made the same journey.

2. The Eyre Affair and sequels, by Jasper Fforde. Very difficult to describe, except to say that it's an alternate version of Great Britain circa 1985. There's time travel, cloning, and you can, literally, get lost in a good book. Very cool for fans of Jane Eyre.

There are more -- there HAVE to be, right? And I want to read them. So, friends -- anyone have any suggestions for further alternate history reading? My list is pathetic. Help me out!


  1. I love the idea! In AP US History we had a "for-fun" essay assignment, and I did "the Americans did not win the Revolutionary War", but they did win several years later...and of course that was only the backstory. Hm. I don't think I have that typed up...

    Don't know if The Shakespeare Stealer's more just "historical" than "alternate history", but it's a good (kids') book.

    Pastwatch was cool but IMHO a little heavy-handed. Also, Card.

    Timeline (Crichton) is also not "alternate" but it does have time travel in the past. Sadly, Weapons of Choice (Birmingham), where a future navy crew is sent back to WWII, is not so great.

    Hm. Why haven't we read more of this genre?

  2. I know! I don't think of it often (probably because there isn't much out there) but when I do read an alternate history I fall in love all over again. I think it's a genre (subgenre?) that has tons of potential.

    I think that one of the general prerequisites for alternate history (that distinguish it from the more "historical," like The Shakespeare Stealer) is that they tend to deal with BIG events. Wars tipping one way or the other. An influential king dying and changing the order of succession. Etc. etc.

    In any case, I'd love to see more of these, though I hypothesize that we don't just because they're so HARD to do well. But maybe there's something else going on?

  3. Turtledove is known for his alternate history stuff. I think he has quite a few books.

    I also enjoyed Leviathan, though I'd say that's probably closer to steampunk. If you like that, definitely look out for Gail Carriger's Soulless series; it's great, and along the same lines of Leviathan, though more paranormal than alternate history. It's set in Victorian London, and there are vampires and werewolves and such things, in addition to advanced machinery that definitely wasn't actually around back then.

    I I think of any more I'll let you know!

  4. @Tahleen

    I love Gail Carriger! Although yes, I think she's more steampunk/paranormal than alternate history. I have all her books signed, and I've seen her three times in person. (Because she always comes to SF -- I get lucky.) I can't wait for her YA series...

    There's definitely a lot of overlap between alternate history and steampunk, but I'm looking more for alternate history. I think there's enough steampunk out there right now to satisfy me, but not nearly enough alternate history.