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Alternate Histories Offer a Glimpse of What Could Have Been

Alternate Histories Offer a Glimpse of What Could Have Been

American hippo ranching. San Francisco full of magic. The Cold War fought with superhumans. An African nation rebuilding in the face of colonialism. A Japanese victory during World War II.

Such worlds are those contained in the alternate history genre, a speculative fiction subgenre that typically feels like a historical fiction novel — except with usually one or two little changes. (Like the whole “entire economy centered on hippo ranching in the southern United States” bit.)

Alternate history has existed for quite some time in speculative fiction, but has recently been gaining attention due to the series The Man in the High Castle, adapted from the Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, which is set in a world where Germany won World War II. While World War II alternate histories are pretty common — The Man in the High Castle, The United States of JapanFront Lines — the genre’s been picking up speed for the past few years with new titles focusing on different alternative historical eras.

Some of the most recent alternate histories move beyond speculation on the potential different outcomes of war to examine histories with other possibilities — not only on the scale of the world, but in the small universe of an individual experience.

One such example is Beth Cato’s 2016 novel Breath of Earth, set in a 1906 San Francisco where the US and Japan have formed an alliance and magicians known as geomancers channel the energies of the city’s earthquakes into crystals as a power source. Its protagonist, Ingrid Carmichael, is a woman of color who wields geomancy even stronger than the wardens she assists:

Earth magic was considered a hereditary trait among men, like baldness or an affinity for foul-smelling cigars. But then, women weren’t supposed to do anything as well as men.

Another recent alternate history title, Everfair by Nisi Shawl, explores how the political landscape of West Africa may have been different in a steampunk novel following a group of American and British settlers who purchase part of the Belgian Congo from Leopold II. While the nation of Everfair has its share of issues — for example, the white colonists are still pretty racist despite being very progressive for the era, and all of the colonists still take a colonial attitude towards the regional indigenous — the novel explores an alternate past that’s frankly quite a lot better than what really happened there.

The novel offers voices to the unheard, and a growing number of alternate histories are stepping away from alternate history as a device for dystopia to explore pasts that treat marginalized characters with greater dignity and humanity.

In Sarah Gailey’s upcoming novella River of Teeth, an alternate history involving hippopotamus ranches in the United States gives several characters a chance to be treated with dignity in a genre that doesn’t always do just that. This western-inspired tale, set mainly in the areas around the Mississippi, has a cast that’s diverse in just about every way: race, sexuality, and gender, to start. And with its premise a startlingly realistic alternate path, River of Teeth‘s action-adventure is one that readers didn’t know they needed in their lives.

Alternate histories offer writers a chance to grant traditionally marginalized characters — women and often people of color — stories in which they can be heroes instead of solely victims. (While it seems that fantasy can and should also offer this opportunity, that tends to fall by the wayside.) In alternate histories, we see what we could have had — and in some ways, what we can have in the future.

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Feliza Casano
Editor at Girls in Capes
Feliza founded Girls in Capes in 2013. She edits and writes for all sections of the web magazine, specializing in science fiction and manga. She occasionally live-tweets @FelizaCasano and you can find her at the same handle on Instagram posting pictures of paper products.
Feliza Casano
Written by Feliza Casano

Feliza founded Girls in Capes in 2013. She edits and writes for all sections of the web magazine, specializing in science fiction and manga. She occasionally live-tweets @FelizaCasano and you can find her at the same handle on Instagram posting pictures of paper products.