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Category Archives: alternative history

The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest

The Clockwork Century is a series of  interconnected novels set in the 1870s  in an alternative United States of America. In this USA  the Civil War is still raging on, with the Confederacy slowly losing but not yet defeated, while  Texas is an independent Republic. In this world  technology is more advanced  and  (as in all the best steam-punk novels ),   there are airships whose crew and captains  play a key role in  several of the novels. There are also zombies, a genre I usually avoid like the plague so to speak, but in these  novels I can put up with them as they are not the main storyline.

It isn’t the steampubnk technology or even the alternative history that makes this such an enjoyable  series to read,  but the  ingenious storylines  and the engaging array of characters. Many of the lead characters are  women,   while others are black,  Chinese and Native American. The novels are not direct sequels  but are set in the same world and  characters from one novel often appear in another.

boneshakerThe first novel is Boneshaker (2009), set in Seattle –  not the hip  city afloat on coffee that we know from Frasier –  but a small, barely  known city  in the wilds of Washington Territories which suffered a devasting catastrophe when a mechanical  underground digging machine  – the “Boneshaker” of the title – created  by Leviticus Blue  undermined the foundations of the city, releasing a yellow  posion gas  known as ” the blight”. This not only kills  but also creates zombies  (or “rotters” as the inhabitants  call them) who prowl the deserted streets looking for victims. The gas can also be turned into a drug called “sap”. The whole city has been isolated by a huge wall to keep the gas from spreading ; the few inhabitants still  left  live underground  with supplies brought in by airship, while fresh air is supplied by pumps run by the Chinese.  We meet an array of characters including a young man Zeke Wilkes (Blue’s son),  who enters the city in search of the truth about his father;  his mother Briar Wikes, who goes in pursuit of him and knows the secret of  the gas outbreak;  Captain Andan Cly, an air pirate;  and Princess  Angelina, a Native American.  . The book ends with a dramatic battle for control of the city, and  revelations about the “Boneshaker”.

The second novel is Clementine (2010)  which introduces as to Belle Boyd, a real historical character who was a spy for the Confederacy. In this alternative world she is in exile in the North, widowed and broke,  and goes to work for the Pinkerton detective agency in Chicago. She is sent on a mission on behlaf of  the Union  army to protect their one of the airships – the Clementine of the title – which is being  pursued by air pirate and escaped slave Croggon Hainey (one of the joys of the novels is the names Cherie gives her characters).  But as is often  the way of such  things  Belle’s mission takes an unexpected direction…

Dreadnought (2010) is the third novel. We meet Mercy Lynch, a nurse working  in a hospital  in the South where among the wounded she finds an increasing number affected by “sap”. Learning finally that her husband is dead  and  that her father has been wounded in Seattle she sets off an epic journey  across the frontline eof the war  to see him. The “Dreadnought” of the title is an armoured Union train  on which  she travels for  part of her journey and which has  a mysterious cargo whose true nature she is desperate to learn.   On the way Mercy and her fellow  passengers are faced with a life and death struggle when they run into a posse of “rotters”.

The fourth  novel is  Ganymede (2011), which is set  in New Orleans. Josephine Early,  a black woman, runs a brothel  but is also an agent for the North.  Her task is to somehow move an experimental submarine, Ganymede,  (which really existed, by the way), hidden in Lake Ponchartrain  out of its lair and out to sea.  To do she calls upon a former lover, Andan Cly (whom we first met in Seattle), to  pilot the submarine. There are of course people desperate to find the submarine and stop it getting into the hands of the North…

fiddleheadThe Inexplicables (2012)  is the fifth novel which  takes us back to the gas-blighted city of Seattle, which comes under attack from a gang which wants to seize control of the supply of “sap”. At the same time the inhabitants of the Underground are disturbed by the appearance of a mysterious creature on the streets.

The final novel in the series  is Fiddlehead (2013), which  begins in Danville, capital of the South before taking   us to Washington DC, the capital of the  North. Here the ex-slave and brilliant engineer  Gideon Bardsley  has built an advanced calculating machine – nicknamed “Fiddlehead – financed by the former President  Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln  is in a wheelchair after  surviving an assasination attempt. Fiddlehead predicts that the greatest threat to the country is not the war,  but the “rotters”. Belle Boyd is sent to protect  Lincoln and Bardsley and is caught up in desperate race against time against an enemy who will stop at nothing to keep the war going.

 

Thoroughly recommended.

 

If the Victorians had had computers: The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

difference engine novel

Set mostly in 1855, The Difference Engine imagines what might have happened if Charles Babbage had succeeded in creating a workable computer in the 1820s, which he called “The Difference Engine“. It’s part of  a  genre of science fiction which has become known as “Alternative History”: short stories and novels whose plots hinge on  history going down a different route at some cucial point. My favourites in this genre include  Pavane by Keith Roberts , the Time Patrol  series by Poul Anderson and The Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest. Inevitably there is a website devoted to this genre,called  Uchronia. Some of the novels mentioned on this  site look intriguing, but many of them look deathly dull.  Just how many novels in which the South won  the American Civil War does the world need?

In this England  the “Rads”, the Industrial  Radical Party  of industrialists and scientists, backed by the working class, seized power in a revolution in the  early 1830s, overthrowing  the aristocracy and killing the Prime Minister, the Duke of   Wellington. Now Lord Byron is  Prime Minister, while his daughter  Ada  (who in our timeline did  work with   Babbage on his computing ideas)  is known as “The Queen of Engines”.  The “Rads” use the  Engines to enhance their  wealth and power,  and also to closely  monitor its citizens.   Dissent is crushed.

The United States, whose affairs play a minor role in the story, has split into four countries with a northern state, a Confederacy,  and an independent California and Texas. Lord Engels is a cotton magnate in Manchester, while Karl Marx is the leader of a Communist Commune in Manhatten.

The main character is Edward Mallory, a scientist and explorer, who embarks  on a journey across London in pursuit  of  a set of computer cards stolen from Ada Byron. He is aided by his brothers,  and  Fraser,  a secret policeman. They run up against a secret organisation led by “Captain Swing” which is planning a revolution  against the “Rads”. The journey shows vividly  that that in this society there is still rich and poor, avarice and violence. A minor part is played by Sybil Gerrard, daughter of a Manchester Chartist (executed by the Rads twenty years before), who has come into possession of the cards.

difference engine model

This is  a description of the Engines, whose operators are known as “clackers”, by the way:

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines – so many that  at first  Mallory thought the walls  must surely  be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant  to trick the eye – the giant  identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as rail cars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewasheed ceiling, thirty foot overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns.White- coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. Their hair was swaddled in wrinkled white berets, their mouths and noses hidden behind white gauze. 

For me the strength of  the novel lies in portrayal of this alternative London, familar yet alien.  The most interesting character is Sybil  but, disappointingly,   after encountering her at the start of the novel working as a prostitute and becoming involved in the hunt for the cards, she flees  to France after her paramour is murdered, and we only meet her again at the end, now wealthy and established, when she  attends a lecture given by Ada. The male characters are far less interesting, do not change,  and the novel runs out of steam, so to speak, after the defefeat of Swing.  The novel ends in 1991 in a glittering crystal London as, it seems,  an Engine achieves self-consciousness :

Dying to be born.

The light is strong,

The light is clear;

the Eye at last must see itself

Myself…

I see:

I see,

I see

I

!

 

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