Nightfall

Nightfall

For decades, science fiction has dreamed of stepping through portals and entering new worlds. It were these sort of fantasies that birthed the modern alternate-history genre. To this day, stories are told with this device, such as Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World.

Here, I will discuss a modern example of this subgenre: Nightfall, the first book in Andrew J. Harvey’s Clemhorn series.

The book follows various members of the Clemhorn family in high places of the Cross-Temporal Empire, a polity which rules multiple alternate incarnations of Earth. Each of these worlds is run by a bureaucratic hierarchy, which meet in the central imperial government. The Clemhorns are aristocrats, related to leaders of this empire. Through their eyes, they experience a massive upheaval in the empire, with threats from within and without.

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Succession

Succession

There are innumerable titles in the alternate-history genre that deal with a Great Britain occupied by the Nazis in the aftermath of their victory in the Second World War, from Len Deighton’s classic SS-GB to more recent works like C.J. Sansom’s lengthy and somewhat controversial Dominion (review here), not to mention many other titles published by indie authors.

There are so many, indeed, that it has become a distinctly tired trope within the genre, almost as stale as the overarching concept of the Third Reich Victorious scenario in general. Yet it cannot be denied that there is something to the concept of an occupied, fascist Britain that (perversely) appeals to me regardless of how uninspired it has become, and I’m always on the lookout for any alternate-history titles that offer an “alternate” take on the scenario and potentially rejuvenate it in the process.

After a great deal of searching through the Kindle charts and on social media, I was finally able to come up with a potential candidate: Succession, by Michael Drysdale.

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Napoleon Victorious

Napoleon Victorious

In my time spent exploring alternate-history fiction , I’ve come to the (no doubt entirely unoriginal) conclusion that there are two different types of publications in the genre; two broad “spheres” that nestle comfortably at either end of the genre and only occasionally overlap.

The first can perhaps be best described as “traditional” fiction, i.e. those novels and anthologies that are focused on plot and atmosphere and character development — whether they be an alternate-history crime thriller (In the Case Where Your Saviors Hide), legal thriller (Defying Conventions), naval-focused military history anthology (Those in Peril) or even espionage and politics (the classic Agent Lavender).

The second sphere consists of what its authors, editors and often readers seem to prefer labelling as “counterfactual” titles, far more formal and rigid essay-style counterfactual publications that focus exclusively on cause-and-effect explorations of a change or changes in a historical scenario. Almost inevitably these are military history-focused, with titles either following the what-if format or “X Victorious”, where X can stand for, variously, the Third Reich, Dixie, the Rising Sun and other nations or entities in history.

Both spheres have their pros and cons, and until very recently I had limited myself to reviewing titles in the traditional fiction sphere, as there were so many that I had discovered while wading my way through Kindle listings and social media posts. However, in my teenage years I had been an avid reader of counterfactual military history collections, and I still have a certain fondness for them. So when I discovered that Greenhill Books and Frontline books — the main publishers of many counterfactual collections — had significantly reduced the prices of many of their titles in ebook format, it seemed like the ideal time to dive back into that sphere.

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Axis of Andes

Axis of Andes

We in the alternate-history community have a tendency to hyperfocus on the lands on the Atlantic area. The bulk of alternate history is devoted to Europe and North America from the eighteenth century onward, to the neglect of the imperial peripheries that make up the Global South.

It is with great satisfaction, then, that I bring your attention a duology by D.G. Valdron that concerns events in South America, perhaps our genre’s most neglected continent. Axis of Andes was originally a timeline on alternatehistory.com and now consists of two books: Axis of Andes: World War Two in South America and New World War: Part Two of Axis of Andes.

I wholeheartedly agree with my Sea Lion Press colleague Gary Oswald’s review of the duology: Axis of Andes demonstrates the great accomplishments of which the online alternate-history community is capable. (I’d argue that many Sea Lion Press works demonstrate that too.) It is an impressive work, epic in scope and extremely detailed in every section about a number of different countries.

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Alternate Presidents

Alternate Presidents

Every four years, American voters get the chance to elect a new president. The choices voters, and sometimes the House of Representatives, made on those occasions have been a rich vein from which alternate-history writers have drawn to tell stories. The late but prolific writer and editor Mike Resnick certainly thought so, commissioning a volume with more than two dozen such tales. Published as the 1992 presidential race was getting firmly underway, Alternate Presidents remain an intriguing collection to this day.

Across 28 stories, Resnick assembled writers and their tales of different commanders-in-chief. There as wide-ranging as Benjamin Franklin as the first president instead of George Washington to Victoria Woodhull becoming America’s first female president in 1872, to two very different presidencies for Thomas Dewey and Michael Dukakis’s first day in office taking him to Dulce Base in New Mexico. As that description might attest, the anthology runs a wide gamut between plausible alternatives and downright ludicrous.

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Basil’s War

Basil's War

Even as we pass eighty years since the days of Spitfires and Messerschmitts, Britain’s fight against the Nazis maintains an heroic luster. To many Britons, it was their country’s finest hour as people came together to withstand the German bomber fleets. Even many Americans like myself have had such feelings, for it is a seemingly obvious episode of pure good versus pure evil.

Here we will discuss an American take on the British legend: Stephen Hunter’s Basil’s War.

The protagonist, Basil St Florian, is compared to James Bond in one of the quotes on the cover, a comparison that is apropos. He is introduced in the bedroom of a film star of his day (I’ll let you have the pleasure of finding out who), to be called upon by his employers. Basil has a history as a troublemaker, losing job after job, post after post, until he accepts a position as agent that lets him do irresponsible things and be paid for it. He has a coolness that the more reserved Bond actors brought to the role, and one which takes Basil away from the zaniness of Roger Moore and closer to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (review here), if with more on-the-ground action.

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Storm Front

Storm Front

Chris Nuttall is a prolific writer of various genres, including alternate history.

In Storm Front, the opening of a series, he writes in that well-worn area of alternate history, the “Nazi Victory”. It’s 1985, and the United States is one of two major world superpowers (this may sound slightly familiar). The other is a German Third Reich which stretches into Africa and the former USSR, now named Germany East. The status quo is about to be upended, and it’s viewed through the eyes of many people, from the top to the bottom of society.

The Harry Turtledove influence here (and not just in the form of a character with that name as an obvious reference) is gigantic. Namely, this contains two big similarities.

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The Fall of Rorke’s Drift

The Fall of Rorke's Drift

Ideas are cheap. Most people can come up with a thousand concepts for books. The skill is in the execution. In bringing that vision into life, putting the idea into words. And yet there is still a value in a good concept. There are hundreds of well-written, well-executed books that hold no interest to me because the concept is one I don’t care for. The world’s best-written story about the innate eroticism of painting walls is still unlikely to become a bestseller.

Alternate history is no different in this than other genres. For alternate-history books, often the selling point is the concept rather than the writer. Thus a question to be asked when considering writing alternate-history fiction is often less, “Is this a plausible alternate world?” and more, “Is this an interesting alternate world? Can I say something interesting about our society with this setting?” An eye-popping setting or point of departure can immediately attract the eye.

A useful weapon for that, of course, is novelty. There are a lot of alternate-history books working with World War II or the American Civil war, but other areas are less explored. There have not been many alternate-history stories written about the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 and so, as someone who has written an article about that war, the concept of this book immediately appealed.

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Fatherland

Fatherland

What are the best works of alternate history? Are they the ones with the richest, most detailed and most plausible histories described? Or are they the most engaging stories that happen to take place in a timeline different from our own?

Fatherland, by Robert Harris, by the latter definition, might just be one title that can be counted among the greatest works of alternate history. Through its description of an Axis victory timeline that has since become clichĂ©, its engaging plot and rounded characters, and its presentation of one of the most frightening dystopias since Orwell’s Airstrip One, it has rightly earned its place as a seminal work of alternate-history fiction.

A bestseller in the UK upon its 1992 release, does Fatherland still hold up as one of the greats of published alternate history?

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Back in the USSA

Back in the USSA

In some respects, alternate history is an examination of irony. There are many examples of serious alternate history. There are moments when characters reflect on how our own history is implausible or unthinkable. For something more tongue-in-cheek, Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman took the United States, capitalist and democratic and emerging victorious from the Cold War, and pasted the twentieth-century history of Russia, revolution and tyranny and eventual collapse, onto it in their 1997 collection Back in the USSA.

The history presented in the collection closely parallels our own only with the United Socialist States of America in the place of the historic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with the United Kingdom and a reformed Russian Empire splitting duties as the United States equivalent. This parodic take on twentieth-century history is peppered with existing objects from popular culture portrayed as real figures, rubbing shoulders with our own historical figures in new situations.

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