Whether they know it or not, fantasy and science fiction fans loooove history. The genre is riddled with it, from stock pseudo-medieval settings to warped Victorian-age steampunk to alternate histories such as Harry Turtledove’s long speculation about what would have happened if the South had won the American Civil War. From the study of history and clashing cultures we can draw plausible conclusions about what life might be like in the future or on distant worlds, where human needs and human nature will be tested by new technologies, new environments, and new cultural constructs.
With so broad a playground to romp in, how do you tell if what you are reading (or writing, for that matter) falls into the category you think it does? Various fan groups thrive on infighting over “proper” labels for various works. Tags such as steampunk, historical fantasy, and alternate history raise certain expectations in readers hunting through bookstore catalogs. Disappointing those expectations can result in the reader tossing the book and never reading that author again. That is a shame, because the overlap between subgenres using historical settings is real and often fuzzy.
Steampunk is all the rage just now, sparking elegant trends in convention attire and wildly imaginative takes on steam-based technology. This genre fails without that technology; the best of it goes far beyond the near-obligatory airships to imagine the profound impact of these steam inventions on society. The setting is generally Victorian, usually pre-World War I. That war, of course, may never happen in steampunk worlds, where individuals and governments seize on the steam-powered tools that have reshaped 19th century society to bend history in new directions. Alternate history is often, therefore, a major element of steampunk.
Alternate history envisions a whole new reality, which requires a good shove at a critical historical juncture. This often involves time travel, either planned or accidental. Eric Flint’s 1632 uses alien intervention to displace an entire West Virginia town into the middle of Germany at the height of the Thirty Years War. L. Sprague deCamp’s Lest Darkness Fall sends a witness to Mussolini’s Italy from 1938 back to ancient Rome, where his intervention prevents the Dark Ages. Sometimes the new version of history grows organically from actual history. In Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories, England’s King Richard I (Lionheart) survives the siege of Chaluz, thus eliminating at a stroke the reign of King John, Magna Carta, the Wars of the Roses, and the entire sweep of British, French, and European history. Change can be also sparked by the introduction of new technology, as when Turtledove provides Robert E. Lee’s army with AK-47 rifles against the Union army’s muzzle-loaders.
To count as alternate history, the change must be lasting and sweeping. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court fails this test because, while Hank Morgan’s arrival at Camelot certainly affects Arthur’s mythical court, it does not affect “actual” history in the long run. This brings us to historical fantasy, which offers limitless choices for writers and readers. Garrett’s Plantagenet Europe uses magic, which, to an alternate history purist, blurs the lines quite a lot. Fortunately, history has room for a nearly infinite list of subgenres, from gaslight fantasy (Victorian era that combines “straight” history with a magical overlay, much like urban fantasy) to Weird Westerns, which can combine science fiction, magic, or steampunk with the Old West, to the SF of Connie Willis’s time-traveling historians. While the bulk of such stories use western history as the catalyst, writers such as Futaro Yamada, Ryo Hanmura, and Hiroshi Aramata have “altered” Japanese history and imagined all sorts of magical historical mayhem.
The one immutable rule of using history to drive a story is that it must be plausible. The ramifications of changing a critical moment in time must be logical and hold together as a construct across economic, cultural, and geographic boundaries. Changes large enough to alter the course of one town’s history must necessarily affect the region, the country, and eventually the world, because a town does not exist in isolation unless it is some version of Brigadoon. Even the most magic-laden “straight” historical fantasy needs to get the setting right, because true history lovers will cry foul when writers get it wrong.
We can argue about the lines between historical subgenres, but in the end, it all comes down to: is it a good story? Vampires in the Old West, Mongols in London, persecuted witches plotting their own Reformation—why the heck not?
S. A. Bolich’s books often open quietly—but don’t be fooled. By page 10 you may be hooked so thoroughly you’ll forget to get off at your bus stop. Her worlds are lived-in, magical, sometimes mind-bendingly exotic, always historically accurate, and inhabited by people who reach out and grab us by the throat and make us care about their problems. A historian, former military intelligence officer, and lifelong horsewoman, she writes everything from “straight” and alternate history to fantasy and science fiction, filled with characters who remain in your heart long after the book is closed. Her novel, “In Heaven’s Shadow,” well illustrates the blurred lines between “straight” history, magic realism, and paranormal, blending a poignant ghost story with the struggle of a living magic-wielder to find acceptance in a straight-laced Virginia village at the height of the Civil War. She is currently working on an alternate history/fantasy series that uses a fresh twist on the Salem witch trials to spark a fascinating and arcane version of the Civil War. Find out more about S. A. Bolich and where to find her work at www.sabolichbooks.com, or follow her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/s.a.bolich or www.facebook.com/sue.bolich).