Five Books About…

Five Alternate Histories that Embrace Diversity

Human history is fascinating, but as a lesbian I sometimes find books on the subject personally alienating. Too often the representation of queer communities is confined to either a rehash of oppression or the complete erasure of queer stories. (This experience is often magnified for queer People of Color and people with a disability.)

Part of the reason that I wrote the stories in my new collection, The Long Past & Other Stories, was the desire to literally re-write history. For me, the beauty of alternate history, particularly in the form of steampunk, is that it offers historically marginalized people the opportunity to reshape “what has been” into triumphs of “what could be.” We can embrace the romance, adventure and sense of discovery that historical settings offer but on our own terms. Today I celebrate an amazing bunch of other writers who’ve crafted compelling, glorious and inclusive alternate histories for themselves and for the rest of us. I wish I had pages and pages to share all the amazing works that have been published recently. But for the moment I’ll limit myself to my favorite five.

 

Everfair by Nisi Shawl

On the surface this is the story of the peoples of Congo escaping the grasp of Leopold II of Belgium and forging the new nation of Everfair. But it’s so much more! Peopled by a vastly diverse cast of characters this deceptively small book spans decades and delves into issues of colonialism, racism, religion, sexism and gender identities. And it does that all while also building a fascinating new age of steam power. This book was everything I’ve ever wanted steampunk to be: nuanced, expansive and so smart, it could teach an entire class on how to do it right!

 

The Sea Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

This is a wonderful anthology of tales set across the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam. Explosions and revolutionaries abound as does clockwork technology, spider battles, magical realism and volcano-powered flying ships. As with all collections, some of these stories are funny, some thrilling and a few are heartbreaking. But taken all together this is a celebration of steampunk worlds. (I was actually relieved that I didn’t read this collection before completing my own book because The Sea is Ours is just so varied and vibrant that it would’ve been utterly intimidating for me as a single writer to even attempt anything this wonderful.)

 

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

This rollicking read mixes exotic wildlife, refreshing social anachronisms and a revenge story to produce an absolute delight. The plot follows a band of mercenaries—most very much at odds with stereotypes of race and gender roles—on their adventures into a bayou dangerously overrun by feral hippos. Yes, hippos! And assassins, and explosions! (I’m grinning with giddy happiness just writing those words and recollecting all the fun and ingenuity wrapped up in this book.)

 

Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

On top of all the imagination and beauty wrapped up in this story, each of the chapter titles refers to a reggae song—that detail alone filled my heart with happiness. The protagonist of the book, Desmond Coke, is a Jamaican agent who has fled his home to protect a boy, Lij. The two are hunted by a particularly relentless Pinkerton agent and the settings they travel through represent a fabulous re-imagining of America. Fittingly, for a work of alternative history, it’s the stories of the people Desmond and Lij encounter as well as their own histories that imbue of the book with it’s greatest power. They remained with the me long after the last page. And I hope they’ve remained with the author as well, because I would love to read more books set in this world!

 

Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Ballad of Black Tom doesn’t technically fit the definition of alternate history. It’s something much more powerful and brave, a Person of Color confronting the hateful narrative of a historically acclaimed writer and transforming it. With Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle wrenches apart the racist narrative of H.P. Lovecraft’s Horror at Red Hook and not only gives Tom a powerful and moving voice but –in my opinion—LaValle out-writes anything Lovecraft ever penned both in terms of depicting humanity and our monsters. This is simply fiction at its most potent.

 

Award-winning author Ginn Hale lives in the Pacific Northwest with her lovely wife and their wicked cat. She spends the rainy days observing local fungi. The stormy nights, she spends writing science-fiction and fantasy stories featuring queer protagonists. Her most recent publication, The Long Past & Other Stories takes place in an America divided by an ever-growing inland sea. Dinosaurs prowl the forests and a few unlikely upstarts take on magic and machinery to defend their world. Connect with her on her website.

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