A Couple of Classic Alternate History Stories

I’ve recently come upon an unusual (but nice) little paperback anthology of alternate history stories, OTHER EARTHS edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. I’ll talk more about that one at a later date.

Strangely enough (well, maybe not so much for me), finding this anthology started me on a major alternate history trip, sending me off on an expedition to dig out of the vaults some of the best examples of classic AH in my admittedly large collection of SF books. I’ve just finished re-reading two of my favourite classic alternate histories, and these two stories are a perfect example of just how good AH can be.

The first is the magnificent novelette, He Walked Around the Horses, written by one of my favourite-ever SF authors, H. Beam Piper. The story was first published in the April 1948 edition of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION, but I first read it back in 1982-1983, in the anthology THE GOLDEN AGE OF SCIENCE FICTION, edited by Kingsley Amis, which is also where I’ve just finished re-reading it. It is set during the Napoleonic War, when a British ambassador to her European allies takes a step sideways into an alternate reality where Napoleon never made it big, there is no war, and the political and military alliances in Europe are quite different from those in “our” world. This world’s alternate version of the protagonist leads a different life altogether, and, understandably, the authorities in this alternate reality consider “our” protagonist to be some crazy guy, so he’s locked up.

The second story is the excellent novella The Summer Isles, written by one of the best SF authors in the UK, Iain R. MacLeod. I first read this little gem back in the October/November 1998 edition of ASIMOV’S SCIENCE FICTION MAGAZINE, and I’ve just re-read it in MacLeod’s excellent short story collection, BREATHMOSS AND OTHER EXHALATIONS (2004). This is a sensitive tale of a forbidden homosexual relationship, set against a background of fear, paranoia and deadly political skullduggery. It takes place in an alternate 1930s Britain, in a reality in which the Allies lost in World War I, and the Germans were obviously victorious. In this reality, it is, ironically, Britain which has become the repressed fascist dictatorship, and not Germany.

Both stories are exquisitely written, and examples of the best of the genre. They’re the sort of story you can show to even mainstream literary snobs without fear of them ridiculing you, and they are also the type of story that the pretentious “mainstream literary wannabies” within SF itself can’t even begin to criticize. I don’t believe in any of the elitist bullshit that these people hold to – a good story is a good story, irrespective of genre. And keep in mind that SF isn’t merely a “genre”, it’s a “state of mind”, a meta-genre, encompassing many other sub-genres. Alternate histories represent one of the many “respectable” faces of SF, a sub-genre with (in the vast majority of cases) no spaceships, laser guns or BEMs, just mankind and the “human condition”, and a lot of history, mixed with a big dollop of “What If?” that really gets the speculation flowing. And one of the main fundamental pillars of SF has always been “What If?”

In my “mundane”/non-SF persona, I’m an historian. I’ve always been fascinated by history, its mechanics, and its possibilities, its futures. And I’ve also always loved SF. So mixing the two in the shape of alternate histories was always going to be a winner in my book. The two stories above are among my favourites, but there are so many other great alternate histories out there that I can’t even begin to list them all. Go track them down, take your pick of a few of the recommended ones, and read some of the best stories that SF has to offer.