Alternative historical fiction has become a growing interest of mine. Every fiction writer, at one time, will ask themselves, ‘what if’, but what sets apart alternative fiction is that it takes this question one step further, exploring new trajectories for the world that might have been. The possibilities are only limited to the author’s imagination, and they do make you look at historical events in a new light.
When I hear alternative historical fiction, I immediately think of the acclaimed Roma Nova series and its architect, Alison Morton. The series is an alternative historical thriller, based on the premise that instead of the Roman Empire having collapsed, it’s thriving and ruled by women, albeit as a mini-state in the mountains. Alison has built a thoroughly detailed world incorporating her love of Roman history to create the foundation for Roma Nova.
Recently, Alison has released the seventh book in the series, CARINA! And bonus for me! It includes a Canadian angle with the Republic of Quebec. How very intriguing! Read more about CARINA further along this post.
It’s my great pleasure to welcome Alison today to talk about alternative historical fiction and the althist genre.
Take it away, Alison!
An Alternative Historical Tale
Historical fiction is a very broad church. It can include literary narratives; fictionalised accounts of historical lives; personal stories set within great events, or within a historical environment with no great event; historical romances; dual timelines; time travel, historical fantasy, historical crime, mysteries and thrillers. But there’s another way of looking at history…
Out of our television screens recently has come the story of Nazis acting deplorably; would we expect anything else from the black-uniformed, jackbooted tyrants, even in the persona of John Smith acted by Rufus Sewell? But this is not occupied Europe; we are in the New World. The Man in the High Castle has gripped our imaginations as the most horrific thing that could have happened to Western Europe/America in recent history. Of course, Robert Harris’s Fatherland gave us a ghastly vision in 1992 of the Nazis winning the Second World War, a book written only three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is not real, but alternative (or alternate), history.
Despite current popularity, the Tudor period is not the only historical one. Neither are the Nazis the only alternative historical actors. Writers in the US enjoy speculating about the outcomes of the War of Independence or the American Civil War, the latter conflict still raising vivid echoes even today.
As France, a country with a strong sense of history, struggles to redefine its place in the world, it’s worth noting that any respectable French bookshop inevitably has a section on the ‘what if’ of Napoléon winning at Waterloo in 1815.
On the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings in 1066, nine authors joined together to write eleven alternative historical stories (1066 Turned Upside Down) where the outcome was not always one where William the Conqueror succeeded.
Alternative history is nothing new
Roman historian Livy speculated on the idea that the Romans would have eventually beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived longer and turned west to attack them (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri (The History of Rome, Titus Livius). In 1490, Joanot Martorell wrote Tirant lo Blanch about a knight who manages to fight off the invading Ottoman armies of Mehmet II and saves Constantinople from Islamic conquest. This was written when the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 was still a traumatic memory for Christian Europe.
So what is althist?
It’s a speculative genre with two parents – history and science fiction. Its fiction can sit anywhere along a sliding scale from the well-researched counter-factual following historical logic and methodology to the completely bonkers story designed only to be cool. I explain the types in full detail here; I stand at the historical end because I’m a historian as well as a thriller writer.
As with any historical fiction, good world building is crucial. To be plausible and consistent, a writer must have worked out with historical logic how life in the alternative timeline looks, feels and smells. A good general knowledge of history is essential as well as a strong imagination!
Like any genre there are conventions for althist stories:
- the event that turned history from the path we know – the point of divergence – must be in the past.
- the new timeline follows a different path forever – there is no going back.
- stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.
The world can partially resemble our timeline or be very different. Sometimes there are documented historical characters, sometimes entirely fictional ones or a mixture of both. In no case are alternative history stories parallel or secret histories such as The Da Vinci Code or fantasy like Noami Novik’s excellent Temeraire series. Nor can you have time travel machines, heroines falling through time, time travellers dropping in to sort out history then popping back out, or goddesses putting it all back as it was.
So what’s the purpose of althist?
Like any other story written in any genre, there must be a purpose to an althist story. It can’t be “Look at this new world I’ve invented, aren’t I clever?” It needs a strong story. As a reader of fiction I want to be entertained, to learn something and be encouraged to think. Alternative history gives us a rich environment with solid historical roots in which to develop our storytelling and let our imaginations soar. Like all speculative fiction and a fair bit of historical fiction, althist may well reflect concerns of the time when it’s written. But above all it allows us to explore unthinkable, frightening or utopian worlds in a historical context from the safety of our favourite reading chair.
Some althist stories:
Prolific writers of althist, especially from the US viewpoint, include Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint and S.M. Stirling. Here is a list of althist stories for further reading:
- England has remained Catholic – Pavane, Keith Roberts or The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
- Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn have a son and Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain have a daughter – The Boleyn Trilogy/Tudor Legacy Series, Laura Anderson
- Alaska rather than Israel becomes the Jewish homeland – The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon
- Roosevelt loses the 1940 election and right-wing Charles Lindbergh becomes US president – The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
- Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from St. Helena and winds up in the United States in 1821 – Napoleon in America, Shannon Selin
- Is John F. Kennedy killed by a bomb in 1963? Or does he choose not to run in 1964 after an escalated Cuban Missile Crisis led to the nuclear obliteration of Miami and Kiev? – My Real Children, Jo Walton
- A secret fifth daughter of the Romanov family continues the Russian royal lineage –The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina’s Legacy, Jennifer Laam
- An England in which James II was never deposed in the Glorious Revolution, but supporters of the House of Hanover continually agitate against the monarchy – Children’s favourite The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
- if a remnant of the Roman Empire had survived into the present day, but with a twist – the Roma Nova thrillers. 😉
Alison Morton writes the acclaimed Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.
All six Roma Nova full-length novels have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices. AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. SUCCESSIO was selected as an Editor’s Choice in The Bookseller. CARINA is a novella set between INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS.
A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing.
Now she continues to write, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.
Carina Mitela is still a young inexperienced officer in the Praetorian Guard Special Forces. Disgraced and smarting from a period in the cells for a disciplinary offence, she is sent out of everybody’s way on a seemingly straightforward mission overseas.
All she and her comrade-in-arms, Flavius, have to do is bring back a traitor from the Republic of Quebec. Under no circumstances will she risk entering the Eastern United States where she is still wanted under her old name Karen Brown. But when she and Flavius discover a conspiracy that reaches to the highest levels of Roma Nova, what price is personal danger against fulfilling the mission?
Set in the time after INCEPTIO but before PERFIDITAS in the Roma Nova series, this thriller novella reveals hidden parts of Carina’s early life in Roma Nova. And North America isn’t quite the continent we know in our timeline…
Banner image attribution:
By Amphipolis (Ara Pacis — Imperial Family) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons