One of the most intriguing things about the whole genre of alternate history novels is seeing how one change, or a couple of changes, to the past can make an entirely different present. The best of these books are the result of a lot of thought, a lot of world-building, and can illuminate our present world in new and fascinating ways. I always think of them as time travel without the annoying paradoxes (“yeah, but if you went back and changed that, then you wouldn’t need to go back and change it in the present so you wouldn’t have gone back and changed it, but then you would have to go back and change it . . . “ , and on and on).
We have a number of recent arrivals at the Field Library that explore the possibilities of alternate histories, ranging from Victorian Britain to 1940’s Europe to present day America. Check them out and see if you don’t start looking at the present world a little differently.
Take Smoke by Dan Vyleta, for instance. The big concept in this book, set in Victorian England, is that you can tell the difference between good and bad people because the bad people emit smoke, like smog, and the good people don’t. Thinking about the terrible smog that enveloped London in the Victorian era (and if you want a wonderful description of that smog, you could hardly do better than the beginning of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, but I digress), the idea that it’s caused by all the bad thoughts and emotions people have is fascinating and makes a kind of perverse sense. And of course, this being Victorian England, the upper class people do NOT smoke; it’s only the wretched working class people and poor who are demonstrably bad because they are surrounded by smoke and exude it from every pore. Except that maybe it’s not that simple, after all. The sons of the upper class are sent to boarding schools (as they were in this world), and among other things they are taught how to suppress their smoke tendencies, and little by little the secrets of this world, and the truth of the smoke and how it’s used by the upper class to maintain control, are revealed.
What might have happened if there had been a Jewish country at the time of World War II? In the Middle Ages, there was such a kingdom, Khazar, which was later absorbed into Turkey. What if it hadn’t been? What would the response of such a country be to the rise of Hitler? That’s the intriguing question at the heart of The Book of Esther, by Emily Barton. In the mid to late 1930’s, streams of Jewish refugees pour into the Khazar khaganate, fleeing from the incipient Nazi regime, and then Germany attacks Khazaria itself. Only Esther, the daughter of the country’s chief policy advisor, recognizes what an existential threat Germany presents to the country. Unfortunately, since she’s a woman, she can’t raise an army in this very traditional society. So she sets out to find this legendary valley of Kabbalists who, rumor has it, can change her into a man so she can be her country’s Joan of Arc and save their whole civilization from the nightmare of Hitler.
Or, coming a little closer to home, imagine a modern day United States, just like the real one in every way except that the Civil War never happened. This is the starting point of Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, and it leads to all kinds of horrifying situations. For one thing, slavery is still legal in four states (the Hard Four, as they’re known in this world), and runaway slaves are pursued by agents of the Federal Government, including our protagonist, a young black man known as Victor. On the trail of an infamous runaway called Jackdaw, Victor tries to infiltrate an abolitionist cell, as memories of his own childhood on a plantation threaten to resurface. He tracks this Jackdaw through the reaches of the Underground Airlines, through churches and garages, hotels and parking lots, but starts uncovering more than he bargained for, including a chilling insight into the bargain the government has made with the Hard Four and what the government is willing to do to keep that bargain. A world very much like our present one, but subtly different: Underground Airlines shines a disturbing light on our history and our current state of race relations.
Not that we’re playing “Can You Top This,” but the only thing that’s more worrisome and chilling than a world in which the Civil War never happened might be a world in which the Cold War turned hot, and that’s what one of the masters of alternate history, Harry Turtledove, brings us in Fallout. After World War II, America and the Soviet Union unleashed their nuclear arsenals upon each other. Millions died. Millions more were displaced. Harry Truman, President of the U.S., prepares to assassinate Josef Stalin, while he plans a counter move. Land war rages in Europe, with France and Italy trying to decide which is the winning side so they can join before it’s too late. While everybody’s distracted by these events, China is about to invade Korea and Joseph McCarthy rages in the United States. In a world with nothing left to lose, all the players on the world stage pretty much go mad, and we, the readers, are drawn into our worst nightmares, skillfully played out in the hands of someone who’s spent a lot of time imagining all the possible consequences and fallout.