Parallel universes

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Steampunk

Listen up fans of historical fiction and historical science fiction. We are about to enter parallel universes…thanks to our web manager, Dale Hobson, who suggested I share with you NPR’s list of top historical fiction 2012. This led to a brief conversation in the digital operations office (which often feels like a parallel universe…but that’s another story) about how much I enjoy historical fiction, whilst Dale loves historical science fiction.

This is a mini battle of the fictions–based in history or on history with a twist.

First, four one-offs plus a trilogy from Dale, who says:

I enjoy historical fiction about history that didn’t happen, at least not in this world-line of the multiverse.

The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Pioneering “steampunk” novel set in Victorian England in 1855. Gizmos based on Charles Babbage’s mechanical computing device along with advanced steam tech form the industrial basis of the global British Empire. The US is fragmented into the USA, the Confederate States, and the republics of Texas and California. Manhattan is a commune run by Karl Marx.

The Man in the High Castle, Phillip K. Dick. It’s 1962 in occupied America. Nazis hold the East Coast, The Empire of Japan the West. A kind of weak “Vichy” US remains between. Blond, blued-eyed astronauts goose-step on Mars. The protagonist is the author of a popular but subversive alternate history novel in which the Allies win WW2.

 SS-GB, Len Deighton. 1941 in Nazi-occupied Britain. An SS standartenfuhrer oversees the Scotland Yard murder squad, looking into the death of a physicist with mysterious burns on his arms.

The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson. It’s 700 years since the Black Death wiped out 95% of Europe. Islamic cultures dominate the continent. Indigenous civilizations have risen undisturbed in the Americas.

Procurator, Kirk Mitchell. In this world, Rome never fell, Pontius Pilate pardoned Joshua bar-Joseph and the Germanic tribes were defeated. After 2000 years the Pax Romana has gotten a little stale. When most of the royal family is killed off in a coup, Germanicus, procurator of Anatolia, takes the purple. In a sequel, New Barbarians, Rome takes on the Aztecs. In Cry Republic, Germanicus tries to restore the Roman Republic.

Oh, I feel so mundane recommending these feet-on-the-ground historical fictions, but I loved them all:

Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road), taking us through the dark passages of World War I, and filled with fictional and historic characters who loomed large during the “war to end all wars.”

Barker’s work started me on a multiple-year WWI reading orgy–with Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August being a great starting point for historical fiction about this period because it sets the stage for the outbreak of the war.

The Civil War has also produced a treasure trove of great historical fiction. Here are a couple I loved:

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, by Alan Gurganus.

Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, follows a Confederate soldier struggling to find his way home at the end of the war. Another by Frazier, Thirteen Moons, explores a slice of 19th century America where the fate of the Cherokee people crosses paths with the book’s white protagonist. Both of these well worth your time.

Now, it’s your turn. Dale and I want to know about which side of the divide you live on: historical fiction or historical science fiction. And, a title or two you particularly recommend.