Alternating the past

Just reading me old mucker Ariels’ blog on the Alien and seeing he’s just reading the excellent Pavane by the troubled soul who was Keith Roberts. It is a fantastic alternative history from a few decades ago, re-issed by the rather fine SF Masterworks range from Gollancz and I too highly recommend it. Also on the same imprint is the great-grandaddy of the alt-hist novels, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, which I will need to suggest to the SF Book Group for a future subject (July’s meeting last week was for the Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, ana amazing obok as many of hers are and we were delighted to have some new members turn up to discuss it).

Bring the Jubilee, written many decades ago, is, like Pavane, a slim volume (especially by today’s standards where too many writers and indeed publishers feel books – of all genres – must be big wrist-breaking tomes). It tells of an America ruined by the defeat in the Civil War of the Union by the South. Now only a few states are left in the Union, impoverished, resentful of black people who they have turned on as to blame for the whole schism, with a powerful South beneath them and a rampant British Empire above them in Canada. Late 19th century New York is a small town, not the powerhouse we know. Streets are festooned with telegraph poles and rich households have telegraphs in the home – there was no great USA for Alexander Graham, Bell to leave Scotland to finish his invention in, so no phones… It’s a very clever novel which deftly avoids the obvious traps and cliches a poorer writer would fall into and it finishes with an intriguing twist which I shan’t describe – read it instead.

Of course, there are still some good alt-histories out there today and one which is enormous but nevertheless fine is Kim Stanley ‘call me Stan’ Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt which follows a world for centuries after the plague wiped out all of Europe in medieval times, using notions of Buddhist reincarnation to follow a group of characters in different centuries as the history diverges from ours. It’s a fabulous read and also quite enlightening on the customs and religions of other cultures. I’m not sure Neal Stephenson’s wonderful Baroque Cycle falls into this genre or not to be honest – it’s almost impossible to qualify, which is something I love about it, but it often gets hooked into the sub-genre for want of a better label.