Steampunk! Alt History! Dragons! Ok, so dragons aren’t inherent in the alternate history genre, but come one… Dragons! Dragons make everything better.
the Sword and Laser liveshow at DragonCon vs the Sword and Laser video show with Gail Carriger. Sorry, David… Gail and Lem win.
However, we aren’t here to talk solely about dragons. We are here to talk about alternate history. And books. And conventions. Because there are conventions about alternate history! So, let us start with books and the difference between alternate history and secret history (no, not the one by Donn Tartt).
What is Alternate History?
I’m so glad you asked! Alternate history is a world in which something has diverged from history as we know it. The English won the American Revolution and we all drink tea and add the letter ‘u’ to things (which I do anyway. It’s honour and colour). Dragons are real and commonly known and have therefore changed the course of history. The same is true of magic. Almost all steampunk stories represent alternate history. There’s an entire forum devoted to discussing alternate history!
Ok, great. What’s Secret History Then?Secret history is a little bit like alternate history, but no, on the other hand, it isn’t really. Writing Excuses did a great episode on secret history and Mary Robinette Kowal explained it well. Secret history is the unknown, behind the scenes mechanization that got us to the history we already know. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln did kill vampires, but it never got into any of the history books. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth really was a man (No, she wasn’t. Leave my historical ladies alone!) Maybe warlocks worked magic to help sway the outcome of World War I. But, the point is, that all of this is under the surface. It’s a secret. And the end results are the same as those we learned in our history books.
Now that we’ve got that sorted. Let’s talk about some of my favorite Alternate History media…
His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
This is one of those times that history is vastly improved by the addition of dragons. The series is set during the Napoleonic Wars and dragons are just a thing. They are large enough that they function more like a war ship than an individual soldier. The dragons are all crewed and each has it’s one special bondmate who captains the dragon. The series opens with sea-captain William Lawrence unintentionally bonding with a rare, black dragon named Temeraire. He is suddenly thrust into an entirely different branch of his majesty’s military forces. He and Temeraire are an anomaly among the British forces. They have to fight not only Napoleon’s troops, but also the attitudes and laws within their own government.
Alternate Histories of the World by Matthew Buchholz
Buchholz has created an art book with images, like the one to the right, of historical ephemera updated with bonus content. The view presented here is of Tentaculus, the Philadelphia river monster circa 1875. He also includes the alien overlords of Boston, the robot who helped write the Declaration of Independence, Napoleon’s giant growth serum, and many, many more well-known events and monsters of historical import.
The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal
These books deal with an alternate English Regency period where magic is a known and accepted fact of life. A young lady’s education is not complete if, in addition to covering screens, painting, playing, singing, and trimming hats; she cannot also weave glamour. Glamour is illusion spun out of light and ether. It is tiring and cannot be worked on either a large-scale, or while moving. Therefore it has no military applications and is left to the domestic sphere. At least, for book one.
Other Regency alternate history fantasy novels that I love include Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevermere and Patricia Wrede and Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis.
Point of Honour by Madeline Robins
This is one of the subtlest alternate histories on my list. Sarah Tolerance is a fallen woman who has set herself up as a private inquiry agent in London during the regency of Queen Charlotte. That’s right. The point of divergence is that Queen Charlotte, not Prince George was appointed Regent due to King George’s incapacitation. The resulting changes in the world are subtle, but present once you start to look for them. In fact, the changes are subtle enough that one reviewer on Goodreads blasted the author for not knowing her history having completely failed to realize that the book was intended as an alternate history. This is one of the only alternate histories I’ve read that has no magic or supernatural elements to it. It’s a lovely book and I highly recommend it to those with an interest in alternate history or period mystery novels.
I could list tons more, basically anything steampunk, but I wanted to confine myself to things that were a little closer to the events of our actual history. Some more modern alternate history novels that I haven’t read include The Mirage by Matt Ruff, Christian Nation by Frederic Rich, Blonde Roots by Bernard Evaristo, Resistance by Owen Sheers, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
Lots of horror novels are also alternate history that diverges now. The Newsflesh series by Mira Grant, World War Z by Max Brooks, Dead of Night by Jonathan Maberry, The Passage by Justin Cronin. Things are fine and rocking along as we know it and then, BAM, zombies. Or zombie vampires. Or owlbears. Whatever. Then there are the post-apocalyptic novels, which could also be considered extreme alternate histories like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Partials by Dan Wells.
Then there are movies and video games. I’m not going to go into too many, but the ones I have personal experience with are the BioShock games and Last of Us. I’ll leave it to the many, many, many game blogs to discuss those.
DragonCon has an entire alt history track that takes over large portions of the Westin Hotel. Steampunk is the most common flavor of alternate history, but everyone is welcome to play. Then there is Anachrocon. It’s taking place over Valentine’s Day weekend in 2014. I shall be attending and will hopefully report back with lots of exciting pictures, costume ideas, and stories.