History’s Alternatives: Five stories about all the worlds that might’ve been (Part I)

Gautham Shenoy March 31, 2018 10 min

What If the Third Reich had won WW2? What If Babar had been defeated by Rana Sangha? What if The Confederates had won the American Civil War? What if Vasco Da Gama had lost his way – like Columbus – and never made it to India? What if the Neanderthals – as intelligent as the Cro-Magnons – had never died out (& become dominant)? The questions are as many as every little incident in known and recorded history.

The writer and historian, Thomas Carlyle famously said, “History does not reveal its alternatives”. Well, that’s why we have a whole genre called Alternate History – also known as Alternative History, and Allohistory – in which writers speculate about the past, not the future. Imagining a different world, most often diverging at a point in real history or introducing an event of their own to see how that might have changed things. Like for instance, in perhaps the only Alternative History short story in English from India, The Adventure, in which the author Jayant Narlikar takes as his point of divergence, the Marathas winning the Third Battle of Panipat (instead of losing it).

The “what if” is at its most critical in this genre of SF, and most often tends to be about Adolf Hitler/Third Reich/ WW2 or the American Civil War, which have birthed some real classics of the genre, which we shall look at in a future edition of New Worlds Weekly. For this, Part 1, we’ll look beyond these two eras, with five novels that explored a whole new (different) world, all predicated on a critical ‘What If’ of history, and imagination.

THE YEARS OF RICE AND SALT – Kim Stanley Robinson

WHAT IF…the Black Plague – or the Black Death – had killed and wiped out 99% of Europe’s inhabitants in the 14th century, instead of just a third?

The author of the acclaimed Mars Trilogy, and one of the finest generation starship novels ever (Aurora), and amongst the great modern masters of science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson, uses this as the diverging point for his alternate history novel that spans over a thousand years, exploring in great, and rich detail the implications of this ‘what if’.

Left & Right: Covers for different editions of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Centre: The audiobook cover.

One of them – with Europeans having been wiped out – is that India is where the scientific renaissance and the industrial revolution happens, so to speak, and one of the key players in the geopolitics of this world is the enlightened Indian nation of Travancore, with the other chief players being the imperialist Chinese and the moderate Islamic empires, with Native Americans and other peoples playing a larger role than they have in our history. Christianity is but a footnote, and it is Buddhists, Muslims, Indian philosophers and others who take centre-stage. The story starts with Timur, and with the Mughal emperor, Akbar as the last character with a real-world counterpart, The Years of Rice and Salt, takes the reader through history as experienced by the common people, but driven by larger events beyond their control. Amongst the most detailed and rigorously written alternate histories, Years of Rice and Salt parallels in many ways the world and its history as we know it – because after all, this world too is set in our same universe – but diverges in so many ways, in a manner that is sure to keep you thinking long after the last age is turned.

OSAMA – Lavie Tidhar

WHAT IF…global terrorism didn’t exist, the events of 9/11 had never happened?

The best of science fiction talks about the future to put the present into better focus. It’s the same with the best of alternate history novels that posit a different world different from ours, only to make us question our real-world history. Lavie Tidhar’s Osama – which pipped Stephen King’s time-travel story, 11/22/63, and George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons to win the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel – is amongst them, and for added measure is an ‘alternate’ alternate history (think Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle).

From left to right: The covers of the English, Czech, and French editions of Lavie Tidhar’s Osama

In the world of Osama, European colonialism ended earlier than in our world, and America has not been involved in all the regional conflicts that they had no business being involved in, in the first place. It’s a world that’s seen much less violence, but all these factors and more also mean that it’s less technologically advanced, with no PCs, and credit cards still unfamiliar to most, for one.

And Osama Bin Laden is only a fictional character created by one Mike Longshott and appears in his series of pulp fiction novels that all feature ‘Osama bin Laden: Vigilante’. The action begins when Joe, a private detective, is hired by a mysterious woman to find Mike Longshott. Joe’s quest takes him – and us – across the world, as the mystery deepens further, just as much as the waters get muddied. Realities get muddled, as Joe tries to find out who Mike Longshott really is, what is Osama, and how much of the books is truly fiction. Realities bleed into one another as we’re given a glimpse into extracts of the Osama pulp novels featuring acts of terrorism by Al-Qaeda, which of course in the world do of the novel is pure fiction (or is it?). Lavie Tidhar masterfully blends elements of a thriller novel with those of private eye detective noir, throwing in non-fictional (meta-fictional?) elements to create an alternate history that is both compelling and disturbing but in all the right ways.

THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE – Bruce Sterling & William Gibson

WHAT IF…Charles Babbage succeeded in his goal of building a mechanical – and practical – computer in the mid-19th century?

The seminal classic by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson – the chief architects of cyberpunk –  that helped bring the retro-futuristic aesthetic of steampunk into the mainstream, The Difference Engine posits a Victorian Britain in which not just the Industrial Revolution, but also the Information Revolution occurred simultaneously.

Covers of various editions of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, including the cover of the SF Masterworks edition on the right.

A book that reads like real history – thanks to its structure of interconnected stories and short vignettes – The Difference Engine brings to the fore the best of the co-authors Bruce Sterling and William Gibson when it comes to technological inventiveness and takes on people. In this world – set in 1855 – Lord Byron is the Prime Minister, the United States is fragmented – in yet another example of Britain’s Divide and Rule policy – into many states including a Confederate States of America, and a Communist Manhattan with Karl Marx. And the Irish  Potato Famine never happened, amongst many other things but balanced by all the things that were made possible by Charles Babbage and his successful Analytical Engine. Abounding in steam-powered technology, and shedding light on not a few details of the implications of the novel’s premise, The Difference Engine is not just an essential read when it comes to alternate history, but also to understand what makes steampunk, and for the wild techno-imagination of Bruce Sterling’s innovations and cybernetic engines that drive this world, and William Gibson’s take on the people who inhabit it.


WHAT IF… a devastating meteor shower hit the Earth in 1878, creating a massive dust cloud that blocked out the sun, causing a winter that lasted for years?

The story begins about 150 years after an event known as ‘the Fall’ causes the collapse of the European industrialised civilization, and by 2025, most of Europe and America is home only to savage, cannibalistic bands. The most powerful nation is the Angrezi Raj (formerly the British Empire), based out of the Indian sub-continent, and which was only able to survive because Queen Victoria managed to evacuate the people of Britain to India, Australia and South Africa, currently the headquarters of the Raj’s main regions, but with the main parliament in Delhi.

Left: Cover of the paperback edition of S.M. Stirling’s The Peshawar Lancers. Right: The art for the audiobook.

The superpowers of France, the Caliphate of Damascus, the Empire of Dai-Nippon (a Japanese-ruled China and the Far East), and the Russian Empire round off the other empires. Well-researched, and with detailed world-building, the book is set in India and features elements of steampunk. The Peshawar Lancers follows Athelstane King, an officer in the aforementioned regiment, on his adventures and intrigues as he’s drawn into a conspiracy that threatens not just his country, but maybe the planet itself.

EVERFAIR – Nisi Shawl

WHAT IF…what if the native population of the Congo had acquired steam tech before the Belgian colonization? What if there was a country in Africa that its people could call their home, and a refuge for other disenfranchised peoples?

At the turn of the 20th century, the real-life Fabian Society of Britain (which gave rise to Today’s Labour Party) decides to use its money to purchase vast tracts of land in Congo instead of endowing a college (today’s LSE). They purchase this land from King Leopold II of Belgium – who at the time was at the heights of his tyranny, subjugating the people of the ironically named Congo Free State mercilessly in his pursuit of natural rubber – and create a new country called Everfair, a land of equality, freedom, and hope.

Left & Right: Covers of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, featuring cover art by the illustrator, Victo Ngai. The lead image is a detail from this. Centre: Cover of the Everfair audiobook.

Everfair is a haven, a refuge not just for the African people fleeing the atrocities of the king’s forces, but also for American-African escaping slavery. So instead of dying by the thousands, they run to the promised land of Everfair, where steampunk marvels exist, and they can replace missing limbs with new and better contraptions, weapons even.

Told in an episodic fashion, via short chapters each told through the point-of-view of a character, Everfair features an incredibly diverse cast of characters and fleshes out the global implications of a free and tech-enabled African country in the time of colonisation. Everfair is – of all the books mentioned above –the most emotional and heartfelt, and the most hopeful; giving as it does a voice to a range of voices that have historically been silenced, looking as it does at a time and a place often ignored even today. And a modern masterpiece in itself for turning one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a lovely exploration of the many possibilities that might’ve been, if only… Read Everfair not just for the story it tells, but to experience the way in which it is told by Nisi Shawl in lyrical, heartfelt prose. It’s a story that needed to be told, and one that needs to be read.

Well, that’s it for Part I of the New Worlds Weekly list of must-read alternate history novels. In the not-too-distant future, I hope to come back to this fascinating genre, with more interesting stories about the worlds that weren’t. In the meanwhile, a quick reminder that the last date for the latest New Worlds Weekly giveaway – announced in last week’s edition – is only a few days away (Wed, April 4). Submit an entry, and you never know, you could be the winner of a personalised, author-signed copy of Malka Older’s Infomocracy. All the best.

Live long and prosper!


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