By Alexander Wallace
This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles highlighting authors of alternate history whose work has gone unnoticed by the mainstream alternate history community. Some of these authors are well-known in broader science fiction and fantasy circles but whose work is not typically marketed as alternate history in the way that Harry Turtledove, S. M. Stirling, or Eric Flint are. The goal of the series is to bring these authors into the consciousness of the alternate history community and that their works can be appreciated by more readers.
Starting off the series is a profile of P. Djèlí Clark, the pseudonym of Dexter Gabriel. He has been nominated multiple times for various genre awards, like a 2020 Hugo nomination for best novella (which I covered briefly in another article for SLP) and a 2019 nomination for best short story. He has also won a Nebula for best short story in 2019 for his historical fantasy story The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington.
What defines Clark’s oeuvre is an emphasis on the histories of non-European peoples, what Antonio Gramsci would call the subaltern. Clark’s work is most definitely an example of the noticeable subgenre of post-colonial alternate history, which has been growing in recent years and stands in counterpoint to a previously white-dominated genre. This is shown in his very pseudonym; “Djèlí” is a French term for a griot, a West African storyteller. In making this connection between pre-modern storytellers and modern science fiction and fantasy writers, he echoes a sentiment put forth by Eric Flint:
This article will focus on the two novellas and one short story that are clearly alternate history. These are The Haunting of Tram Car 015, A Dead Djinn in Cairo, and The Black God’s Drums.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and A Dead Djinn in Cairo are set in the same universe, one in which, in the late 19th century, a magician in Cairo unleashes the supernatural, creating an Egypt where the paranormal is common and the country is independent from the British and the Ottomans decades ahead of schedule. In a manner reminiscent of Fatherland, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, or Resurrection Day, the plots of both works are mysteries, but this time involving the supernatural, continuing a tradition of mysteries in alternate history. His main characters are detectives working for the Cairo city government in a version of the Roaring Twenties, and his villains go deep into the underworld, both magical and otherwise, that such a city would naturally have.
His other work of alternate history is The Black God’s Drums. This story is set in a New Orleans where the United States has fallen apart during its civil war, and where the Haitian revolutionaries were able to harness the power of native African magic to fight off European armies, going so far as being able to attack European capitals. The story concerns an outlaw getting involved in a terrorist scheme by white supremacist former Confederate soldiers angry at their former government’s withdrawal from New Orleans. The setting is also an interesting take on Steampunk, with one of the characters being an airship pilot. This is a New Orleans where black culture is thriving, slavery is abolished, but yet where the spectre of white supremacy is a constant threat.
The Black God’s Drums feels like, at times, a riposte to a certain trend in alternate history that projects suffering, especially those of historically oppressed groups, to be a brutal inevitability. Particularly, it can be read as a response of the likes of Turtledove’s Timeline-191 series, one of whose culminations is a Confederacy that subjects its black population to an industrial genocide clearly modeled after the Holocaust. Clark’s work more generally portrays alternate histories where the world turned out better for the world’s oppressed peoples, providing a needed alternative to the dystopias that dominate the genre, like the latter parts of Timeline-191 or Festung Europa. In a genre where brutality and death is the norm, optimism is radical, and that, I feel, is one of Clark’s great contributions to the genre.