Alternative Histories in Science Fiction

The winner of the 2017 Arthur C Clarke was announced on Thursday evening – The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

I haven’t read the novel – only the freebie excerpt at the novel’s start on Amazon. I must admit the excerpt disappointed me because there was no obvious science fiction element in there – it had the look and feel of a historical novel. The comments about it indicate that it is an alternative history novel, which then, yes would firmly put it into the science fiction genre, where this is science fiction in the wider sense.

But it did make me think about alternate history science fiction novels. The classic ones are Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where Germany won World War II, and Keith Robert’s Pavane, where Queen Elizabeth was assassinated in 1588 and England reverted to being a Catholic country. As with Underground Railroad, these novels have an underlying political message to get across about the prevailing politics of the time. I suspect most alternative histories do.

But does this political aspect extend to any ‘time travel’ stories?

Well, it certainly was there in H. G. Wells The Time Machine with the obvious difference between the Morlocks and the Eloi. I would extend this to a lot of the long term themes of Dr Who stories – think Daleks, Cybermen and the Master. Some of the shorter term stories are more like fables or fairy stories teaching the younger generation about what is right and wrong.

In all these societies there is a simplification, a taking out of interfering factors of life that would intervene in the story. It makes the story tighter and more focussed on ‘the message’ it wants to get across. Such stories can be enjoyable, but to me, there is a lack of richness in the world building. The alternative histories will pinch a multitude of aspects from our real history, which makes world building easier for the author. The simplification to focus on the political theme will also make world building simpler because the author only picks up on what he needs for the story.

And this is where I sometimes have a difficulty… without going into details I was given an outline remit against which to try and put a story together. One detail – one very tiny background detail – jarred with my sense of physics and technology. It needed an explanation of how things had got to that point. End result a natural conflict point for a story. And it led to a whole background line of history for the story! The kind you would not get with the vast majority of alternate histories.

This experience goes to confirm in my mind that such alternative histories in the science fiction genre are limited in so many ways. Consequently, as a sub-genre it does not live up to the awe and wonder of some other science fiction sub-genres.



5 thoughts on “Alternative Histories in Science Fiction

  1. But then, I think that often applies to most world-building anyway. There are always limiting factors and details an author smooths or tweaks to overcome an inconvenient fact. Perhaps because I am by training a historian I feel that alternate histories can and should display suitable rigour – C.J. Sansom’s excellent ‘Dominion’ about Hitler winning the war, for example. Or Jo Walton’s Small Change series which covers the same subject, but in quite a different way. Both are talented writers who have produced well crafted books with a convincing backdrop.

    I haven’t read The Underground Railway either – but I’m hoping it’s a thumping good read with a strong message – or Emma Newman and Tricia Sullivan were robbed.

    1. I agree with you about the both Tricia Sullivan’s and Emma Newman’s novels being lovely to read. All I can hope is that the remainder of Underground Railroad is much better science fiction wise than the excerpt accessible on Amazon, or as you say, these ladies have been robbed.

      Agree with your overall premise that world-building is limited in depth of detail and background. The question really devolves for me as a reader, what are the new ideas behind the world building? This is where a lot of alternate histories are lacking in my opinion.

      1. Yes – I think you are right. But there are those who use the alternate riff to make interesting points by ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. I need to get hold of Underground Railway:). I’d also love to hear your take on it, too. Have a great week, Rosie:)

  2. Hmm …I wonder what you’ll think of my new novel “Entanglement “, Rosie? It’s an alt-universe thriller with divergence from a time-point in the mid-twentieth century. Maybe I’ve avoided the problems you describe by setting the action in the near future – I hope so!

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