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 cliché, 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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Countdown

Countdown

The 1960s Space Race saw the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in an ever-evolving game of oneupmanship. One that saw them leaping from first satellite to the first man to the first woman and first multi-person crew to, thanks to President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 declaration before Congress, to putting someone on the Moon first. That goal was reached in July 1969, when Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Lunar Module Eagle onto the lunar surface.

In a different world, it might have been another astronaut taking that one giant leap using modified Gemini hardware with such a scenario depicted in Robert Altman’s 1968 movie Countdown.

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The Two Georges

The Two Georges

The two most common alternate-history settings are ones based on World War II and the American Civil War. Bringing up a distant third are those based upon the American War of Independence, one of which is The Two Georges by author Harry Turtledove and Academy Award-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

The history presented within the novel is kept deliberately vague in favor of a globetrotting adventure mystery across this alternate North America, unraveling a vast international conspiracy against the British Empire and indulging in all of America’s favorite stereotypes of Britain and the British.

This last aspect of the novel mars a riveting plot that makes up for a lot of holes in the history presented, but the novel is unashamedly pop alternate history with recognizable twentieth-century figures of the United States shown broadly similar to their historical personalities within the timeline. In going for this feel, the history presented in the novel comes in brief facts and flashes throughout that has to be pieced together, but enough for the reader to get an overall feel for the different direction history has taken.

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Titanic Alternatives

Titanic.

It’s a name that conjures up images. The grand ocean liner of the Edwardian era caught up in fate and circumstances on its maiden voyage. A ship full of the rich and famous, as well as those hoping for a new life. All of their lives intertwined when the vessel hits an iceberg in the mid-Atlantic. And without enough lifeboats to save them all from the freezing water around them. It’s a tragedy that has played out in every form of mass media since that April night in 1912, from books and songs to computer games and movies.

But did it have to be so?

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In the Presence of Mine Enemies

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

We alternate historians, and the broader popular culture more generally, rightfully think of Nazi Germany as being an incredibly violent place. You had Jewish shops being smashed on Kristallnacht after the Reichstag was set ablaze. You had bloody street brawls between Nazis and Nationalists and Social Democrats and Communists. You had political dissidents tortured in Dachau. All of this was before they manufactured a fraudulent casus belli at Gleiwitz and sent the tanks rolling into Poland, the blitzkrieg that brought France to heel, the rampage through the Soviet Union and the opening of the death factories for Jews and other “undesirables.”

In our world, such a regime was put down with bombers and tanks and bullets. Few would disagree with the notion that such a heinous regime deserved to be put down. When we alternate historians write about other worlds where the Nazi regime lasts longer, we usually project it as either falling apart into a bloody civil war, its imperial adventures causing the whole regime to unravel (often in a form of aforementioned bloody civil war), or another war between it and the other great powers that ends in something even worse than the war in our world (think the ending to Festung Europa, available from Sea Lion Press).

However, it is widely considered bigoted at least when we call any society inherently violent; in recent decades, the targets of choice are Muslims and African Americans, and calling either inherently violent is rightly tarred as extremely racist. However, we are also generally willing to say that certain governments and methods of governing are inherently violent. Which those are is often a hotly debated concept.

That tensions between society and government, and their respective tolerances for violence, is the core narrative thrust of Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies.

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Dominion

Dominion

The very conceit of a German victory in World War II is in and of itself a cliché in our online alternate-history communities. However, mainstream published authors have an annoying tendency (speaking as someone with approaching ten years in the online community) to not realize that fact. It feels like every few years, some mainstream author comes out with a new take on the subject that non-genre critics will fawn over briefly and at which those in my circles will roll their eyes in disdain. I think this is a manifestation of a problem that for many writers, alternate history is but one literary toy to play with rather than a dedicated genre to be explored in its own right. As a result of this, many dilettantes in the genre have little idea of the conventions thereof.

In that light, I was quite satisfied to know that C.J. Sansom had at least dipped his toes in the genre and the subject matter before writing Dominion. In his afterword, he says that he came to the conclusion that Operation Sea Lion was absolutely impossible on his own when doing research for his book. Likewise, he explicitly praises Robert Harris’ Fatherland, which is widely lauded as an alternate-history classic by the community.

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Resurrection Day

Resurrection Day

In my stead as the administrator of the Alternate History Online group on Facebook, whenever I see a question involving the Cold War going nuclear in any way, I post a black-and-white GIF of flowers blooming with the caption “everybody dies.” I concluded when I was on an episode of the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns and Colin Salt that it is hard to make a story where the Cold War goes hot that is dramatically compelling as the devastation would be swift and total.

Enter Brendan Dubois’ Resurrection Day, one of the books that I read as research for that podcast episode. Dubois has the great nightmare of the sixties come to life: the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba (and American missiles in Turkey) ends with the missiles flying, the doomsday machines in both superpowers activating, bathing the world in nuclear hellfire.

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