Recently, I’ve been getting obsessed with alternate history again, one of my favourite subgenres in science fiction. And I’ve been getting irritated with the misclassification of novels.
You will see the following books often mentioned as alternate history novels in lists of the best alternate history novels (www.uchronia.net – I’m looking at you).
- Lest Darkness Fall, L Sprague De Camp (incidentally what a great name!)
- 1632, Eric Flint, first of the Ring of Fire series.
- Island in the Sea of Time, S M Stirling, first in the Nantucket trilogy.
Er no, I disagree and here’s my reasoning.
Not because they’re not good novels, they are but in my opinion, they are all time travel novels not alternate history novels. In each of them, the protagonist (or protagonists) travels back in time and changes history so the future is different. It has been argued that when they make those changes, it splits off into a different timeline but how do they know that they have created a new timeline? For example, at the end of “Lest Darkness Fall”, the hero thinks – “Rome will not fall.” So the Roman Empire doesn’t fall but has it changed our history or created another one?
I say that these novels belong to a subgenre of time travel.
If you like this subgenre, you will be pleased to know that there are many novels in the Ring of Fire series and three novels in the Nantucket series.
Incidentally, there is a time travel fantasy novel that belongs in this sub genre – A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of King Arthur by Mark Twain. It says what it does on the tin. I don’t think you can count this book as science fiction since King Arthur is the stuff of myth and legend.
And another thing that winds me up – mixing historical fantasy with alternate history or alternate historical fantasy. For example, Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series are both often mentioned as alternate history or alternate historical fantasy. Wrong.
In my opinion, both are historical fantasy. Why? Simple. Because Susannah Clarke’s novel has magic in it and Naomi Novik’s novels (try saying that when you’ve had a few) have dragons. Any novel that contains magic, dragons, elves, vampires, werewolves etc. by definition is a fantasy so should not be described as alternate history.
And these sorts of fantasies should not be described as alternate history fantasies unless history has actually changed. In the Temeraire series, dragons have existed since time immemorial but it has not altered history to any significant extent. Elizabeth I still reigned; the Napoleonic War is still being fought (albeit with dragons).
To my mind, there are precious few alternate historical fantasies around. One that springs to mind are the Lord Darcy mystery short stories by Randall Garrett and then Michael Kurland, about a sorcerer magician set in a world where Richard the Lion Heart’s descendants sit on the throne of an Anglo-French empire.