Most fans of fantasy and science-fiction literature are familiar with the concept of alternate history—tales that spring from such speculations as “What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War?” or “What if the Roman Empire had never fallen?” and so forth—but less well known is the niche of secret history (sometimes referred to as “shadow” history).
Unlike their cousins of alternate history, tales of secret history are designed to mesh with reality and history as we think we know it. Rather than posit changes to major events of the past, stories in the secret history subgenre speculate what might have happened behind the scenes, or in the shadows, of the past or present that we all take for granted.
Authors of secret history have to know how to add details to reality without contradicting it; they must be able to build conflict and drama within the context of recorded events without running afoul of history’s myriad tiny details. It is a fine line to walk.
There have been many great tales of secret history, in both fantasy and science fiction. The list that follows is by no means an exhaustive one. That said, here are five works of secret history that I’ve enjoyed. I look forward to learning about other readers’ favorites in the comments.
Declare by Tim Powers
Powers, who has authored several works that qualify as secret histories, earned several major awards and nominations for his epic novel of Cold War superpowers wielding supernatural forces as weapons. The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion between the 1940s and the 1960s, and it focuses on a struggle between agents of the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R. Among its many compelling elements are mysterious, seemingly immortal entities living atop Mount Ararat; a deity that feeds on human misfortune in return for protecting Russia from foreign invasion, as part of the rationale for the Soviet gulag system; and a deep historical perspective that traces the roots of this magical struggle all the way back to the 19th-century contests of the British and Russian empires to control the people and resources of Central Asia.
Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars, Vol. 1 by Greg Cox
One of the key skills of a media tie-in writer is the ability to fit new narratives into tight spaces between the known events of a series’ canon. One of the best examples of this art is found in Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars, Vol. 1 — The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh. Crafted as the secret history of Khan Noonien Singh on Earth through the end of his rule in the 1990s, this re-imagining of real history seeks to explain how Khan’s reign could have been part of our own history, even though none of us seem to recall him being the absolute ruler of more than a quarter of the world’s people. (Hint: It might have something to do with intervention by an Aegis agent named Gary Seven. But you didn’t hear that from me.)
The Proteus Operation by James P. Hogan
The most closely guarded secret of World War II wasn’t the D-Day landing—it’s the fact that the Allies lost the war the first time they fought it, and the Nazis seized control over most of the world. The only people who know this dark and chilling truth are Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt…and the handful of time-travelers who have risked everything to journey back to 1939 to warn the Allies about where, when, and how they went wrong. Will Roosevelt and Churchill believe these strangers who claim to be from the future? Or are they doomed to repeat the greatest tragedy in history?
The Time Patrol series by Poul Anderson
This book is a collection of several previously published works: one short story, five novelettes, three novellas, and a short novel, all featuring Anderson’s heroes of the Time Patrol. Its chief mission is to prevent others from meddling with the past. Such tasks are often heartbreaking, because humanity’s history is steeped in cruelty and suffering. While the patrol’s agents often sympathize with those who wish to mitigate the effects of evil, they can’t allow that to happen. My favorite of these tales is the novella “The Sorrow of Odin the Goth,” in which Carl Farness, a Time Patrol historian, tries to study the 4th-century Goths only to become accidentally revered as a deity and give rise to the myth of Odin/Wodan—a fate that leads to a tragic result for the ancient folk Farness has befriended and come to care about.
The Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch
This enormously popular series of contemporary fantasy detective thrillers was built upon a firm foundation of secret history. Its reconceptions of the past include the idea that Sir Isaac Newton, in addition to being a brilliant scientist, was also secretly a powerful wizard who codified the principles on which magic has been practiced ever since. It posits that Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Nazi Germany all fielded wizard-warriors during World War II, and that magic has been an essential component of warfare throughout the centuries, from the Colonial era of America through the U.S.-Iraq war as recently as 2009. All of this, however, serves merely as background for the mysterious adventures of Peter Grant, a detective (and apprentice wizard) with the secret supernatural-events division of the Metropolitan Police Service in London. The series, which began as novels, now includes original graphic novels, and is still going strong.
The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
Gabaldon’s massively popular, #1 New York Times bestselling series (now a hit television series from Starz) blends historical fiction, historical non-fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance. It follows a married English nurse named Claire Randall, who, in 1946, by way of a ring of enchanted stones (known as a henge) in the Scottish Highlands, is transported back to the 18th century. There she is forced to flee her husband’s sadistic lookalike ancestor and seek sanctuary with a clan of highland Scots—the price of which is her marriage to one of them, a strapping fellow named Jamie Fraser. Torn between her love for Jamie and for Frank, the husband she left in 1946, Claire must navigate the terra incognita of the past—and resist the temptation to alter the course of history, even when such restraint puts those she loves in mortal danger.
David Mack is the multiple award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty-six novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. The Shadow Commission, his new novel of dark fantasy mixed with secret history, set in the week after the assassination of President Kennedy, is available now from Tor Books.