Alternate History at the 2020 Hugos

By Alexander Wallace


Hugo Awards through the years as photographed by Markku Lappalainen and shared under the CC BY 4.0 licence.

As this article goes to press online voting for the Hugo awards is still open. It will close Wednesday 22 July 2020 at 23:59 Pacific Daylight Time (UTC-7)/Thursday, 23 July 2020 at 18:59 New Zealand Standard Time (UTC+12). This Article looks at some of the Nominees, many of which can be described as AH.


It is only with my joining of the Washington Science Fiction Association last November that I have really begun to start paying attention to awards in the field. As part of its biweekly meetings during the summer, WSFA has been doing discussions of the Hugo Award-nominated fiction for this season. As I have been doing this reading to participate in the discussions, I have noticed a good deal of alternate history, most of which has not been discussed much in online alternate history circles. I write this article to rectify that.


In the novellas, there is the fantastic The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark, set in a world in which magic is discovered in Egypt in the 19th century, allowing Egypt to throw off the yoke of foreign rule decades before it did in our history. The story itself revolves around one of Cairo’s tram cars being haunted by a spirit of unknown origin, juxtaposed with the fight for Egyptian women’s right to vote in this world’s early 20th century.. If I had to compare this book to any book that an alternate historian might be familiar with, I would choose The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump by Harry Turtledove; they share that combination of the supernatural with the modern in a way with a significant degree of levity, albeit Turtledove is more humorous than Clark in his writing. Overall, it’s a fantastic supernatural alternate history that is well worth reading.


In the novelettes, there is Omphalos, by Ted Chiang, which was published in his short story collection Exhalation. This is a world where the cosmology of the 18th century is observable reality: there are a finite number of stars that has been entirely catalogued, the sun revolves around the Earth, and the moment of creation can be discerned by looking at tree rings. The story revolves around an archaeologist in this world having a crisis of faith, which culminates in a damning indictment of religious dogmatism. To say more would be to spoil the magnificence of its scope, and I highly recommend reading the entire collection. Fans of that will also be pleased to know that, in his other collection Stories of Your Life and Others, there is another fantastic alternate history story entitled Seventy-Two Letters.


In the short stories, there is And Now His Lordship is Laughing, by Shiv Ramdas. This set in the aftermath of the Bengal Famine just after World War II, in which a woman that lost her child in the famine makes functioning automata. The British, in their imperial haughtiness, come up to her and demand an automaton for the Governor-General of India. Likewise, I’ll avoid spoilers, but it deserved the nomination. Another historically informed short story from that slate of nominees which uses fantastic elements to change and comment on an historical event is Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island by Nibedita Sen, about an indigenous group in the Andaman Islands being contacted by the British and the events that ensue.


In the Dramatic Presentation category, there are two episodes from the HBO Watchmen series, which I watched when quarantine in the Beltway was a new thing. I will admit that it builds off the original graphic novel in a way that I found to be strange; I never would have expected Watchmen to be turned into something about American race relations. That is not to say, however, that this series is bad. Far from it. The series provides a fascinating look into the ramifications of the squid attack of the graphic novel, and the more paranoid, authoritarian America that was born in that catastrophe.


Those are the five definite works of alternate history among the nominees, but there are three more that, while not having a concrete point of divergence, are historically themed and as such are of interest to the alternate historian. Two of these are the products of Rivers Solomon; they have one short story, Blood is Another World for Hunger, about a slave in the antebellum American South who murders her masters and then attracts the attention of the supernatural. In cooperation with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, they also wrote the novella The Deep, about an underwater society of descendants of the unborn children of pregnant slaves cast off from ships during the height of the international slave trade. Both are well written and worthy of your attention even if they are not strictly alternate history per se.


Additionally from the novels, there is Alix E. Harrow’s historically informed The Ten Thousand Doors of January, about a brown girl in early 20th-century Vermont reckoning with her identity and with the stories she reads in adventure pulp magazines of the day, and their relevance and implications. This one, I feel, is a very powerful book about the importance of storytelling, and it will resonate with the writers among us.

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