Jan 13 2009 9:02am

Dynamite alternate history: Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist

The Explosionist is set in an alternate Edinburgh in 1938. It’s the story of Sophie, a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in a world on the edge of total war. The Hanseatic League is in danger of being engulfed in another Great War, only a generation after England fell to Europe. Not since Wellington lost at Waterloo has so much been at stake!

So far, so excellent. The history in this book is terrific. Given the turning point, it’s clear Davidson has thought about the possibilities and turning points through time and come up with something that plausibly feels like more than a hundred years of different but solid history. I was very impressed with the way it all fit together. She says in the afterword that she had the idea for the novel when seeing how St Petersburg is like Edinburgh and Copenhagen and wanting to weave a history where these cities became part of each other’s Northern orbits in an Enlightenment context. This succeeds admirably. And the history has the kind of twiddles that real history does, the war veterans begging in the streets, the dominance of the Nobel corporation who make the explosives they hope will keep the peace.

Davidson also does the thing that so many people like of having famous people in our timeline famous in the other timeline, but often for different things. Oscar Wilde was an gynecologist who invented the incubator, Einstein wrote challenging modern poetry and so on. I tend to find it a bit implausible and precious, but it isn’t over-laboured here, nor is it the main point of the story. As a set of asides it adds to the book’s charm.

The other thing that’s really good about it is the writing—Davidson has a good grip on the characters and the language of the time and place. There’s only one phrase that leaped out at me as anachronistic—and I’m really picky about that kind of thing. I also liked the ways in which Sophie and the school and her friends were the same and different from the way they would have been in our history where the threats were different. It’s a school story, and a coming of age story.

Most interesting is conscription of almost all girls at sixteen into the army auxiliaries, the landgirls, or IRLYNS—where they are treated with Stepford methods to make them into perfect secretaries. Sophie’s Great Aunt’s generation of feminists is busy selling the next generation down the river in the name of national unity. There’s a lot here to like, and which I did like.

But the book ought to have made up its mind whether to be fantasy or science fiction.

Spiritualism—and all the apparatus of automatic writing, table tapping, mediums and spirit photography—was indeed an obsession in the 1930s, and earlier, from the mid-Victorian period onwards. (See Angels and Insects for a brilliant modern fictional treatment and Unnatural Death for a contemporary one.) But it didn’t ever actually work, and it couldn’t have ever worked in the real world. Spiritualism was largely a case of people who, as Byatt says, desperately wanted spiritual consolation in a secular age, and were tricked into believing they were getting messages from dead people. It was all fraudulent, as investigator after investigator proved.

This isn’t to say you can’t take it seriously in fiction, and even have it work just as the gullible people in our world believed it did. It’s just that if you do, you’ve moved from science fiction to fantasy. A world in which you can fairly reliably talk to dead people with crystal radios, where licensed spirit photographers can produce evidence admissible in court, and where mediums are not fakes would be a world far more different than one where Napoleon won. Davidson has thought through the consequences of her science fictional changes remarkably well, but of her fantasy ones far less so. It’s unlikely that a world with that kind of relationship with the dead would have been sufficiently like ours through any of its history to ever have got to Waterloo in the first place. Fantasy needs to be as integrated into the world as anything else, and it isn’t. I kept trying to think of the laws of magic in Randall Garrett, but Garrett’s magic is integrated into Lord Darcy’s world in a way that the spiritualism here just isn’t. It’s further unfortunate that the spiritualism is needed to drive the plot at every turn.

The ending, while providing a satisfactory climax to the story, seems designed to open out for a sequel. I’d be more interested to see Davidson use her excellent ability with history to come up with a different world, one either fantastical or science fictional, that I could wholeheartedly enjoy.

Eugene Myers
1. ecmyers
I kept expecting the fantasty elements (the belief in spiritualism) to have had a significant impact on the historical events (perhaps even somehow leading to Napoleon's victory), since it seemed to be at least as large a factor as the science fictional alternate history and advanced technology. Having both the fantasy and sf did seem like stretching credibility a bit too far--too much of a good thing. Still, I enjoyed the non-standard European/historical setting, even if I ended up feeling ignorant because I've forgotten enough actual history that I was guessing at some of the divergences.
Nentuaby do
2. Nentuaby do
I don't agree that anything "needs to decide whether to be science fiction or fantasy", but it's still disappointing to see one or the other tacked on instead of integrated.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
Nentuaby: I generally think that as they are different, though related, genres, and that things are better off being one or the other. Nevertheless I do appreciate that there are plenty of things that are excellent and are both, or on odd frontiers between them. I think it's a really hard balance to pull off, and that this book, unfortunately, and excellent as it is in other ways, doesn't quite manage it.
Nentuaby do
4. Laini Taylor
I don't have a great argument for why I loved The Explosionist in spite of the things you mention, but I did. I don't think deeply about the alt history angle and all the ramifications, but just really enjoyed the story, supernatural elements and all.

As a fantasy writer who recently attempted -- and abandoned -- my first sci-fi book, I am more fully aware than ever of the differences between sci-fi and fantasy. I agree with you that they are quite different genres. But even though certain elements of this book may be categorized as sci-fi, those elements weren't so "sci" that I felt the fantasy was out of place. On the contrary, I liked the book better for it.

But it's interesting to hear your thoughts, and I'm glad you liked it overall!
Nentuaby do
5. blythe_hope
I didn't enjoy the book, for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Thank you for putting my very muddled thoughts into words. I couldn't avoid the feeling that Davidson wanted to have her cake and eat it, too. That her readers could be skeptical and scornful of spiritualism and simultaneously accept its results.
Jeff Soules
6. DeepThought
I'm going to side with those who don't see a necessary irreducible conflict between fantasy/magic and science fiction. They're closely related fields (as Clarke's poor overused quotation demonstrates) and have even been combined by such acknowledged Sci-Fi masters as RA Heinlein.

I wonder if my greater acceptance of mixing the two comes from growing up with Japanese video RPGs, which are totally comfortable creating a world where steampunk tech can do things we can't do, but there are still spirits that grant magical powers to people living in the world...

That said, I do agree that for a book to be believable, the impact of both fantasy and science-fictional elements has to be carefully thought out. SF elements have the excuse that they didn't have to affect the entire rest of the historical timeline, because they're essentially *new* developments instead of just alterations in how the world works, so guess what? *Their* cavemen didn't have space flight either.

If we're talking direct communion with the afterlife, well, that's a dramatic, *permanent* alteration to the nature of the world. Something that would have affected tribal herders just as much as modern research scientists. And that's something that a good fiction book (particularly alt-history) will have to deal with.

OTOH (without having read The Explosionist yet), I am given to understand there may be other things to object to in Davidson's alt-history -- specifically, the idea that a Europe-wide Napoleonic empire would evolve into a totalitarian state, I find rather far-fetched. N himself actually wound up liberalizing most of the lands he conquered (he was overthrowing absolutist monarchies, after all), so if anything I'd think his state (and successors) would have tended more towards a Roman Empire-style state with a powerful executive, but a lot of countervailing interests, too... not to mention that the linguistic diversity of such an empire would make it very difficult for mass media to bring about true totalitarianism. But, well, that's speculation, and I'll have to read the book before I'm really qualified to have an opinion.
Liza .
7. aedifica
I'm not sure I have the history background to best appreciate the book, but your description makes me want to give it a try anyway, despite the flaws you mentioned.

By the way, I think the Sayers book you were thinking of is Strong Poison--at least, if you meant the one with the subplot in which Kitty Climpson visits an old woman's country house? (Being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers.)
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Aedifica: is it? I could have sworn -- I didn't check. You could well be right. That's certainly the scene I was thinking of, with the nurse and the will -- yes, it is Strong Poison! Oops. Thank you.

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