Originally published in Helix SF #3
In her 2001 study, The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time (Kent State U.P.), Karen Hellekson firmly places alternate history within the confines of the science fiction genre, and not just because many of the field's most prolific authors are known for writing science fiction. At the same time, Hellekson acknowledges several alternate histories have taken on the guise of fantasy, although she has decided to "exclude from [her] study tests that rely on a reinterpretation of magic." While she states that the Alternate History-magic combination forms a minority of alternate history stories, it does, in fact, form a sizable minority.
The combination of mixing fantasy and alternate history is not new, even if you choose to ignore the many instances of non-scientific time travel (Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court) or unexplained time shifts (L. Sprague de Camp's "The Wheels of If"). At its best, the author thinks through his world and figures out how magic could have been introduced to the world and how it would change history. At its worst...
Perhaps the most famous combinations of magic and alternate history are Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series set contemporaneously with the time Garrett was writing from 1964 ("The Eyes Have It") through 1979 ("The Napoli Express"). Garrett placed the point of departure in 1199 with the survival of Richard I of England and the subsequent introduction of magic to the world. While Garrett's 1970s mirror our own world, it has a definite medieval flavor and the Kingdom of Poland is a world power.
During this same time period, Poul Anderson published Operation Chaos (1971, although published in magazines from 1956-1969). Not only does magic exist in Anderson's world, but bizarre creatures such as werewolves also exist. While the book has its own internal consistency and does postulate an alternate world history, Anderson relies a little too strongly on the introduction of what are known derisively in the alternate history community as "alien space bats," after a statement made by Alison Brooks about using supernatural deus ex machine in creating an alternate history.
Unfortunately, most of the fiction which merges magic (or magical creatures) and alternate history combines Brooks's alien space bats with Sturgeon's law, resulting in worlds which may make for interesting reading, but which don't hold up very well when fully examined.
A recent example is Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which is currently comprised of three novels with several more on the way. Novik postulates a world in which dragons are used during the Napoleonic conflicts, having been known for at least two thousand years. While Novik treats the dragons, and their integration into her world, quite well with an almost O'Brienesque touch, she hardly examines the role having dragons, especially intelligent dragons, would have on civilization. Instead, her world seems to have followed the exact same historical course until the events of the first novel, His Majesty's Dragon in the early 19th century.
A better look at magic and alternate history is Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker series, currently at six volumes with more promised. Also set in the early nineteenth century, Card's world has a naturalistic magic that works and has changed the way the colonization of the New World has occurred. While several historical characters make appearances, their roles and personalities are altered to fit into the new world Card has postulated.
One of the things that Card does well, as did Garrett before him, is apply the same world-building skills to his alternate history as hard science fiction writers applied to their own works. One of science fiction's most famous world-builders, Hal Clement, once noted that the work that goes into a successful and internally consistent alternate history equaled any scientific research he had to put in to his own worlds. It is easier to simply slap on an historical patch to make an alternate history, just as it is easy to just wave your hands to create a science fictional world.
Regrettably, most of the novels and stories which fall into the fantastic alternate history category are more like Novik's series than Card's when it comes to thinking through how magic or supernatural beasts would change the world. Aaron Allston's Doc Sidhe introduces magic use into our own world (and technology into faerie), but the world still follows essentially the same history.
Mark Sumner's Devil's Tower and Devil's Engine are reminiscent of Card's world, but his version of magic in the American frontier doesn't seem to be as well-defined. In this world, magic suddenly entered the world at the conclusion of the Battle of Shiloh. There are some internal incongruities in the novels, but the second one shows signs of promise.
As mentioned, many of the stories which don't quite work as alternate history work quite well if you ignore that aspect of the story. Novik's series works well as a story about dragons or a strange version of the Napoleonic wars and her research into shipboard life is well drawn out. Her problem is in that she doesn't appear to have thought through the way society would have been changed by their presence. Sumner similarly fails to explain how his explanation that adults don't suddenly acquire powers squares with the fact that there are many adults with powers only a decade after Shiloh.
Coincidentally, the only two magical alternate history works to win the Sidewise Award did so in the same year, 2000. Ted Chiang's "Seventy-Two Letters" created a world in which gematriya is a definable science and Mary Gentle's Ash had a world in which a Visigothic Carthage changed history, although it does so as the action is taking place and a modern historian is trying to figure the changes out. Both are examples of how magic and alternate history can be merged together.
While fantasy alternate history will not supplant more traditional forms of alternate history, it also shows no signs of disappearing. While straight alternate history branches off from a single historically feasible point of departure, the more fantastic adds an element of magic. Nevertheless, fantastic alternate history can demonstrate as much knowledge of history and world building as any more traditional alternate history.
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