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Counterfactual histories and historical fantasies

I came across a long-read in New Statesman today about The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I haven’t actually read the book – or watched the series based on it – but the article brought up an issue that interests me both as a writer and a reader: counterfactual histories, the genre of ’what ifs’. What if an event in the past had happened differently? It also reminded me that the past, real and imagined, lends itself well for all kinds of fiction.

I don’t read much historical fiction anymore – or watch historical movies, for that matter – even though I’m a historian by education. Even the best historical fiction tends to pale in comparison with the historical reality, and the incorrect historical facts and details tend to mar my enjoyment of a good story. The exception I make is for historical romances. I don’t care that most of them not only get the details wrong but the spirit of the era they portray too; I simply enjoy the romance.

And I know I shouldn’t be too judgemental. Truth, or learning from the past, isn’t the point of historical fiction. Historical fiction, even the kind that comes with the authority of academic learning and exhaustive research, isn’t there to educate people. It’s there to tell stories. The past is an inspiration for the author. However, even if readers assume that everything is invented, they can’t help but learn – occasionally incorrect things too. Georgette Heyer invented some of the things she wrote about, but her books are perfect as they are, and her idea of the life in Regency England is pretty much accepted as the truth.

That’s one of the reasons why I like counterfactual histories. They let the author to work with the richness of the past without the demand to have every single detail right. In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a Nazi America: what would have happened if President Roosevelt had been assassinated in 1933 and the entire Second World War had run a different course. What if Germany had conquered Soviet Union and Japan had won in the Pacific? Dick imagines other scenarios too, ultimately making the book about alternative realities – counterfactual histories multiplied. They’re not about historical truth, but ask questions about our society instead.

Nazis winning the WW2 is a favourite scenario in many counterfactual histories – and not only in fiction – but my personal tastes run towards more fantastical. I especially like steam punk and its view on Victorian society with engines that run on steam and ether. It's not ’purely’ counterfactual in the sense that it would allow only a reality that is historically possible, but I love the innovativeness combined with the spirit of the era. It’s historical fantasy at its best.

Urban fantasy, though set in the modern world, is often counterfactual, too. It usually imagines an alternate reality with supernatural elements that aren’t, strictly speaking, possible. As a writer, that’s what interests me most. I like to imagine the subtle differences that would have occurred if our history had been shaped by magic or entities that aren’t purely human. In my Two-Natured London series, for example, the Inquisition is a consequence of the Church wanting to purge the world of supernatural entities. That, in turn, has led to a continuing strife between humans and the two-natured, which influences the present-day narrative.

Historical fiction with fantasy elements doesn’t have to be solely about differences. It can also be about the modern interacting with or influencing the past, as in time-travel novels. The best – or my favourite anyway – example is Diana Gabaldon’s massive Outlander series, where a woman from the relatively modern world of the 1940s England ends up in the 18th century Scotland. The historical accuracy is there, but it’s combined with the observations of differences between the past and the present, and with the subtle influence a modern person would have on the people around her. There are also her outright attempts to change the past. It asks the question all time-travel novels ask: is it possible to change the past and if it is, then what.

No matter the type of historical fiction you go for, the past is a rich source to explore and to exploit. If you don’t want to limit your story with pesky things like ’truth’ or ’accuracy’, try writing historical fantasy instead. Past is a different country. Anything is possible there.


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