When writers want to bring back the feel of interwar pulp fiction, they will of course exploit the technology and the political situation of the time. They will, however, also use the supernatural as imagined then: ancient, occult and at least somewhat incomprehensible. This, I have seen argued, is taken from the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his emulators, given most famous expression in the Indiana Jones films.

Sometimes, alternate history dwells on this sort of dieselpunk. One such example is Hannu Rajaniemi’s 2018 novel Summerland. It takes what is on the surface a well-trod alternate-history setting, interwar Europe, and combines it with an imaginative realization of the supernatural that never descends into cliche. Summerland is something like what I’d imagine if the likes of Jeff Vandermeer wrote alternate history; it is a book that possesses the odd yet distinct properties of “weird fiction”.

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Can You Write An Historical Story Ignoring War?

Alternate Peace

It’s not exactly insightful to say that historical fiction, alternate history included, is obsessed with war, and there are good reasons for that. War is both common, being able to live through a lifetime without ever directly experiencing combat is a privilege that most of humanity didn’t have, and incredibly dramatic, nations and ideals can fall and rise based on a single gunshot.

But every genre needs variety. If all alternate-history stories are war stories, then the genre can appear, as Arturo Serrano put it, as of only interest to war gamers. All about tanks and bullets with little interest in the cultures and societies that wars defended, formed and destroyed.

This article, while originally written before our panel discussion on “Guns or Butter,” will go out sandwiched on either side by that discussion which was about the question, “What has alternate history lost by focusing on military fiction instead?”

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What If Callaghan Survived the 1979 Motion of No-Confidence?

There are few moments in history where you can pinpoint a single decision that brought about momentous changes as a direct result. Even when they are pinpointed, more often than not you find it is not so simple to change it. If a war or an election had gone the other way, it may seem like a single change, but it is so broad as to essential warrant hundreds if not thousands of little changes to actually happen.

Stanislav Petrov deciding not to report a nuclear alarm to his superiors that turned out to be a false alarm is one of these pinpoint moments. A few thousand voters in some marginal constituencies changing their mind thus altering the results of an election is less of a pinpoint and more of a pincushion.

Sometimes, though, an election result can depend on the decision of one person. In 1979, a motion of no-confidence in the Labour Party government led by James Callaghan was passed by a single vote, the resulting general election would be won by the opposition Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. She would lead the United Kingdom as prime minister for eleven years and her party form the government for seven further years.

A single changed vote and the government would have survived the no-confidence vote… but would it have made a difference in the long term? There are numerous possibilities for the vote to be tied. What changes would they have wrought to the history of the United Kingdom if any of them had voted differently on the evening of March 28, 1979?

In a lot of examinations of alternate history, there is a temptation to try and just avoid the event altogether, but in the instance of a no-confidence vote in the Callaghan government it was perhaps inevitable without enough changes in the events of 1978-79 to stop the opposition from calling it.

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Rising Sun Victorious

Rising Sun Victorious: The Alternate History of How the Japanese Won the Pacific War

When it comes to alternate histories of the Second World War, there seems to be a strong focus on Nazi Germany. Something which comes out of the focus on it both in nonfiction writings and in popular culture. After all, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones fought them rather than their counterparts in the Pacific, the Imperial Japanese.

Yet the Pacific Front is not without its potential points of divergence, as both editor Peter G. Tsouras and his essayists wrote about in the 2001 collection Rising Sun Victorious. Published as part of what Goodreads users have termed the Greenhill Alternate History Anthologies Series, the ten essays remind readers that battles, like history itself, often turn on the most innocuous pieces of luck.

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The Moscow Option

The Moscow Option

While it can be fun to read alternate-history fiction, from time to time I do like to dip my toe into the more academic side of the genre and read through some of the more detailed counterfactual scenarios devised by those writing in that area, especially those titles that are structured more like historical texts. Some excellent examples that I’ve reviewed for the Sea Lion Press blog include Napoleon Victorious, by Peter G. Tsouras, and The Hitler Options, a collection of essays focused around differing scenarios that might have occurred in the Second World War.

For this review I’ve been reading another book in that style, courtesy of redoubtable publishers Frontline Books, who have once again favored us readers by heavily-discounting another tranche of their counterfactual titles. The first of that set is The Moscow Option, from none other than David Downing, legendary author of John Russel espionage series (Zoo Station, Stettin Station, etc.), set before and during the Second World War. This appears to be a title that he first had published in the mid-1970s and which was rereleased by Frontline Books in the distant past of 2001, and now converted to ebook format.

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The Iron Dream

The Iron Dream

Within published alternate-history fiction of decades gone by, there seemed to be only a few genres that would make use of an alternate-history setting. The most common being the thrillers like SS-GB (Len Deighton, 1978) and Fatherland (Robert Harris, 1992) as well as epic like the multi-volume Worldwar and Southern Victory series by Harry Turtledove. These were pretty well-defined by the 1990s, but before this there was a lot more experimentation with the format like we see again today.

One such experimentation was Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail (1973), which presented itself as a history textbook from another world and is a format that we are all the more familiar with nowadays than readers were when it was first released.

Another such fictional document narrative is The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad — but here the document is not a history textbook, but rather a science-fantasy novel and an accompanying scholarly analysis. The metafictional science fantasy adventure within The Iron Dream is Lords of the Swatstika, by Adolf Hitler.

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Last Flight of the Arrow

The Last Flight of the Arrow

The Avro Arrow is one of those incredible what-if stories to come out of the Cold War. A Canadian-built fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Arrow was a plane ahead of its time in the 1950s, not to mention the pride of Canada. And, like the British TSR-2 in the following decade, cut down before its time in circumstances that remain controversial and mysterious decades later.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Canadian author Daniel Wyatt reimagined the fate of this famous aircraft for his 1990 alternate-history technothriller novel The Last Flight of the Arrow. Taking place across the late 1950s, Last Flight of the Arrow puts the fighter straight into the Cold War standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union.

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The Hitler Options

The Hitler Options: Alternate Decisions of World War II

In my review of Peter Tsouras’ Napoleon Victorious, I briefly discussed the idea that the alternate-history genre can roughly be split into two broad “spheres” that nestle comfortably at either end of the genre and only occasionally overlap.

The first is best described as “traditional” fiction, i.e. those novels and anthologies that are focused on plot and atmosphere and character development.

The second sphere consists of what authors, editors and often readers seem to prefer labeling 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.

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The Greening of Mars

The Greening of Mars

Mars has called to generations of space enthusiasts, a crimson fleece for would-be astronauts. Visions of how we might or might have gone there have become a staple of speculative fiction, especially in the post-Apollo era, as things such as Stephen Baxter’s Voyage can attest. But in 1984, Gia hypothesis creator James Lovelock and science writer Michael Allaby presented The Greening of Mars, a Martian shape of things to come which arrived almost a decade before Kim Stanley Robinson offered his vision of the red planet transformed.

As a work of future history overtaken by reality, it is also alternate history. For what Lovelock and Allaby’s slim book (the edition I read in 2019 ran a mere 166 pages) does is present a brief history of Martian colonization that began in the 1980s and runs someway into the future. Its driving force is Sir Travers Foxe, someone not unlike an Elon Musk for the Boomer generation, an entrepreneur who, using former nuclear missiles and CFC carrying machinery, starts the process of change on Mars.

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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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