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September 9, 2015

At the moment, I’m reading both an alternate history novel and a time travel novel. The alternate history is interesting, but I’m fairly sure it’s taking a few liberties with the cultures involved and the writing is average. The time travel book is much better written, but is likely out of date in terms of the history by now. Not by a huge amount, but just enough for me to notice, and that got me thinking—at what point does dated historical fiction become alternate history? Where’s the line between something like urban fantasy or steampunk, and alternate history?

I am not qualified to discuss this. I’ve only read a handful of true alternate histories, and tend to read more in the surrounding genres, historical non-fiction included. I’m not going to let this stop me.

Here’s I think how this goes:

  • alternate history – reads like historical fiction, taking itself fairly seriously, though it doesn’t need to follow one character or a group the way most historical fiction does; is mostly focused on exploring ideas and the fallout from whatever’s changed, so that there’s much talk about how 19th century England deals with living under Napoleon’s dynasty or how contact with China changed the power dynamics in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1400s.
  • urban fantasy – tends to read like a mystery or commercial fiction, following the lives of one or two characters as they deal with the magical elements in their city; magical changes to history may be so small it’s still very recognizably our world, like fairies who keep themselves entirely separate from humans, or so large that the political and social landscape is vastly different, like fairies who’ve seized control of a national government or two.
  • time travel –  generally reads like science fiction, because it tends to focus on changes or paradoxes or exploring the “new” world; occasionally reads like fantasy, when the travel isn’t elaborated on and the “new” time period reads more like historical fiction, even if it’s the future.
  • historical fiction – tends to read like commercial fiction, with prose that’s neither simplistic or flowery, but that pulls you along all the same; generally explores the lives of an individual or sometimes a small group within a given historical context, like the War of the Roses or the British Raj, bringing the history to life without presenting the full scope of the era or upsetting historical fact.
  • historical mysteries – reads like a mystery, with all the familiar tropes and stylings; is not set in the here and now and tends not to upset historical fact.
  • steampunk – more of an aesthetic than a genre, as others have said, so you can have gears and steam engines in fantasy, science fiction, time travel, alternate history, mysteries, and so on, because the tropes that make it “steampunk” are mostly set dressing and costumes; however, most steampunk I’ve encountered changes up a historical event, adds events, or redraws political boundaries, so it could be classed as alternate history, except that it doesn’t normally follow that plot structure.
  • historical non-fiction – is very much concerned with facts and who did what, when, where, and doesn’t tend to care about what the setting smelled like or what the general dreamed about or if two peripheral people were falling in love; is also frequently less neat and tidy than fiction because people don’t live their lives or do their deeds with regard to narrative.

Now that I’ve laid things out like that, I realize we’re probably dealing with a web of genres or a continuum or maybe a bit of both, and that trying to tease out whether something like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is more alternate history or fantasy is about as easy as sorting out a time paradox. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, except…

…I’ve also got to thinking about this recently because I’ve kind of come to realize that I’m writing one of those alternate history/urban fantasy blends. And that my next project* is likely to mash together even more genres. And that I apparently bite off more than I can chew because I love my novel ideas and want to see them realized, but I also look at even the decent alternate history I’m reading and balk at the thought of how much research the author did to write it.

Oh well. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.
And I should probably start reading more outside the aforementioned genres, because I can’t name more than a handle of books that I’ve read outside that Venn diagram. Less if you exclude straight-up sci-fi. I always say that, though, and every year it doesn’t happen.


* Do not ask why I’m already thinking of my next series when I haven’t even finished book one of the current one, but this is apparently what my brain does. I can’t exactly stop it.

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