Two Paths Diverged… (TBR: Farthing)

Jenny Davidson at Light Reading recommended Farthing by Jo Walton, so I picked it up at the library.  It’s a classic English country manor mystery, with the twist that it’s set in an England where the Hess mission was successful and England has made peace with Nazi Germany.  It’s a clever twist that pumps fresh air into a somewhat stale genre, and Walton does a nice job with it.  Nothing spectacular, but a good read.  The politics (warning of how fragile democracy can be) are a bit heavy handed, but certainly timely.

Davidson explicitly links Farthing with some other recent, more literary alternate histories — The Plot Against America and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  Of the three, I think Plot is probably the best, not as clever as YPU, but better executed.  But the comparison set me thinking about alternate histories, and wondering about a) why alternate histories are often considered a subgenre of science fiction and b) why so many of them take WWII as the point of divergence.  So that’s really what I want to write about.

I think the main reason that alternate histories are often considered sci-fi is that the authors who write them are often primarily associated with sci-fi, with Philip K. Dick as an early example and Harry Harrison as a more recent example.  My personal judgment is that if an alternate history story involves time travel or movement between parallel universes, it qualifies as sci-fi, but otherwise it’s probably not.

In looking up links for this post, I ran across the wonderful listing of alternate histories, ordered by the data of their convergence, at  This list, which includes essays and newspaper articles as well as fiction, suggests the divergence points are more evenly spread out than my subjective impressions would have led me to conclude, but I still think that most of the memorable alternate histories I’ve read diverge either at World War II or at the Civil War.  Those are times when the course of history clearly changed — and mostly for the good.  As a rule, writers are far more interested in divergences where things could have gone horribly awry than in divergences where things could have gone right for a change.  In alternate histories, even when good things happen — Lincoln survives the assassinated attempt — they turn out to have horrible consequences

I don’t think it’s because writers are inherently cynical, but it’s hard to turn things going right into a story.  Let’s say those chads didn’t hang, and Gore was elected in 2000.  I think 9/11 would still have happened.  I could write a story in which the US didn’t invade Iraq and Hussein was still in power but we captured Bin Ladin somewhere in Afghanistan and the government had a reasonable response to Katrina, but unless there’s some ironic twist somewhere, this may be good propaganda, but not much of a story.

9 Responses to “Two Paths Diverged… (TBR: Farthing)”

  1. RSBasch Says:

    Depends on what you mean by “good things”. Had Germany won WW1 prior to the US entry, the following would have been the reasonable results (among others). Hitler would not have come to power. Lenin would not have been shipped back to Russia, leaving the moderate more democratic Kerensky government in place. The holocaust would not have occurred. The German welfare state, as developed by Bismarck, with health insurance, accident insurance and old age pensions would have spread throughout Europe.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    Orson Scott Card wrote a not-too-terrible story in which Columbus introduced Europe to N & S America more gradually, so that not so many people died of smallpox & the cultures met on equal ground. “Pastwatch.”

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    Sorry, should have said alternate history *stories* even good things have bad consequences. I basically agree that the most plausible outcomes of a German victory in WWI are positive — but if I were writing a novel, I’d probably assume that the Germans imposed an equally punitive treaty on the French, and that fascism rose in France rather than Germany in the middle of the 20th century.
    I’ve read Pastwatch, and I think it makes my point about positive alternate histories making for lousy novels. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise, but it’s basically an essay masquerading as a novel. There’s no real plot or character development.

  4. Sarah Says:

    I am a bit nervous when I read alt. histories–they can mess with my mind for months. Have you read “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson? He imagines that the Europeans die off in the Plague and how the world would have developed and interacted with Europe. He uses reincarnation to follow roughly the same characters from 1300 to ~2000; it is harder to follow the country development because the names are not the imperial or colonial names the Europeans gave. It is a long read and way too long to be coherent, especially when you get to around the 1900s (different numbering scheme as Christianity has died out). But simply fascinating to imagine.

  5. Christine Says:

    Most novels about the future tend to be categorized as Sci-fi, so I am guessing dealing with the past is sort of time travel when it involves different outcomes in the future. I am a big fan of historical fiction rather than alt. history. Although, I would like to read an alt. history if the Soviets were successful in Afghanistan and Islamic fundimentalism wasn’t what it is today, but Soviet success could have made it worse. I think it is a little self-centered to depict the turning points as WWII or the civil war and reveals a lack of consideration or knowledge for other historical moments. Most people can visual, from a distance, how the planet changes, both environmentally and anthropologically, so I am always concerned that these types of books or futuristic novels in general don’t encourage fear or prejudice. Overall, I don’t think humanity has learned anything in the great girth of sci-fi novels out there and we seem to be swirling in an embrace of these books technology and control.

  6. Cecily Says:

    Another cool book that kind of falls into that catagory is “Rule Britannia” by Daphne du Maurier, where the USA invades Britain. Very interesting.

  7. Kai Jones Says:

    Jo Walton is a science fiction/fantasy writer; a sequel to Farthing is coming out this fall, and she’s working on the third book.

  8. Anonymous Says:

    I think one of the alements of alternate history that pushes it, for me, into the fringes of SF, is the basic “if X, then Y” attitude: not quite history as a science, but the same idea that things are connected in predictable ways.
    Of course, the events of history are so complicated that anything might happen, but small changes can have big effects. Consider what would have happened if the USN carriers had been in port when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour.
    I’m not so sure of the Great Man elements of alternate history–it’s trivial to write away Adolph Hitler, but anyone could have capitalised on the post-WW1 situation in Germany (and the definite SF of Elleander Morning does some interesting stuff with that problem).
    On the other hand, I’ve come across some very parochial stories, in which an alteration pitchforks some well-known Americans into obscurity, and an otherwise pretty ordinary story happens around them. Something like Elvis Presley as a bartender meeting an English sailor called John Lennon…
    It can be hard to see that sort of story as SF.

  9. Martin Wisse Says:

    The way I see it, alternate history stories are science fiction stories where the science is history, even when the divergence is relatively mundane.
    Interestingly enough though, alternate history as a genre seems to have been invented twice, at roughly the same time: once by sf writers, once by historians proper; there’s a famous pre-ww2 anthology, If it had Happened Otherwise of alternate history stories with contributions by such luminaries as Winston Churchill…
    World War II and the American Civil War are indeed stereotypical AH subjects, which isn’t too surprising. There are still plenty of people who wish the ACW had gone the other way, it’s effects are still felt in US politics and of course it’s, to a certain extent, a fairly romantic war; if not in reality then in legend.
    World War II is of course the war that looms the largest in our memories, created the world as we know it today and the consequences if the war had turned out otherwise are so hideous that there’s a horrible fascination in speculating about it. I just read an interesting book on the subject, Gavriel D. Rosenfeld’s The World itler Never Made, which examines how alternate histories reveal how various countries have come to terms with World War 2.

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