By Adam Selby-Martin
Alternate History Shorts
Sometimes in my journeys through the highs and lows of the Alternate History genre listings on the Kindle, I come across short stories. Often these are by authors at the start of their careers, or perhaps more experienced writers trying their hand at a new genre. Their length precludes me from writing a full-length review for each short, because their small word count means I would be in danger of comprehensively spoiling them, or saying so little that a review would be almost meaningless. However, when I do come across a couple of promising stories, such as with these two, it's enough for me to create an ensemble review.
This particular short story was the first to catch my attention, and entirely because of the wonderful cover art, creates by the author himself, that I saw as I was searching on Amazon. Against a dark, shadowy background that resembles a circuit board, a single flower casually rests. It's a tulip of course, that much is obvious from the title alone; but closer inspection reveals that it looks artificial in nature, a cold white in colour that is marred by what looks disturbingly like spots of blood. I was intrigued, given the usual poor quality of cover art in the Alternate History genre, and the back cover blurb only further hooked my interest. It spoke of a world controlled by the Dutch Rijk, and this control the result of tulip trading in some manner; then it gripped me further by dangling the prospect of danger and intrigue, as a Tulip Inspector investigated one of the powerful clique of tulip traders.
The best works of Alternate History, in my opinion, are those that shy away from the cliches and stereotyped scenarios so common to the genre. Hitler Triumphant, Dixie Triumphant, the Cold War turning Hot - these have been done to death. Give me something original, something thought-provoking, something different! And with Tulip House, Mr van Rompaye has certainly done that. The notion of the Dutch Empire not slowly declining until it was all but extinguished in the early 19th Century, but instead prospering and encompassing the known world, is a brilliant idea that I've never seen before. The basis of that prosperity is the infamous tulip trade - in this universe it survives the disastrous crash of 1637 - to the extent that the trade of tulips is quite literally the backbone of the Dutch economy - and, is implied, the economy of the rest of the world in turn.
I must admit that, at first, the idea of the tulip trade having that much power seemed rather incongruous to me. But the further the story progressed, and the more I considered it, the easier it became to accept. After all there's very little difference between a gold bar and a tulip bulb, especially if they are both valued in the same way; I'm sure that to a citizen of this alternate timeline, the idea that gold would be of such value would be just as laughable and confusing. Having taken that on board mentally, the rest of the story flowed by easily - aided by the ease and skill with which van Rompaye vividly sketches out this alternate world. The Tulip Traders are all-powerful, wielding incredible economic and cultural influence, but they are balanced out to an extent by the Tulip House, employed by the Monarchy to regulate and investigate the traders as required. It's a deeply engaging and intriguing world that the author has built, and the only real downside to the short story is that it leaves one wanting so much more from it.
For here we have a world that is both familiar and completely alien, despite it being recognisably Earth. The economy functions as ours does, albeit with flowers instead of gold, and computers and watches and other technology exists, even if under other names. But this is also a world where witches are still burnt at the stake, to the baying cheers of huge mobs; where women are most definitely second-class citizens despite a Queen sitting on the throne; and where Catholicism has been firmly suppressed. It's all quietly chilling, and excellently realised by the author throughout the story. Speaking of the story, van Rompaye presents the reader with something that seems initially simple - an audit of a Tulip Trader by an Investigator from Tulip House - but which rapidly becomes something both fiendishly complex and potentially world-altering. It's very entertaining, again only limited by the short length of the piece which ended with me desperately wanting more from this original and wildly inventive piece of counterfactual fiction.
Sons of York is actually a duology from author Ade Grant, consisting of two short stories - the titular piece of alternate history, Sons of York, but also a speculative fiction piece titled Frothbot. Although my interest was primarily in the counterfactual short story, I was actually rather taken with Frothbot once I started the duology. Set in the very near future, it follows a journalist who meets with a senior government official - on the condition of anonymity - to discuss certain issues that have come up with the initially innocuous-sounding Department of Projection and Policy Analysis, or Do-PaPA for short. Despite sounding like a department that a modern-day Jim Hacker might gormlessly run with mild efficiency, Do-PaPA is actually the most powerful ministry in the entire British government - moreso than Defence, Welfare or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office - because it contains the PaPA system. That system is an incredibly powerful Artificial Intelligence, one able to be fed any amount of information and predict results with complete accuracy. Indeed, it’s so powerful that government has almost ground to a halt, and general elections have been cancelled because PaPA is able to predict them with unnerving accuracy.
It’s a distinctly dystopian environment that Grant depicts, especially as there have been some additional near-future tech developments with AI and robotics, including the titular Frothbots that sit in the bottom of a coffee cup and endlessly generate more froth for a latte and cappuccino, and perhaps the inevitable end-goal of the new and terrifying deepfake technology. However, it turns out that there is a significant and wide-reaching problem with PaPA, and that’s why the senior government official has approached the protagonist. I won’t spoil it any further, but suffice to say the nature of the problem is darkly hilarious and entirely appropriate to the nature of speculative fiction, and in only a few pages Grant weaves a hugely engaging and enjoyable techno-thriller.
My enjoyment of Frothbot certainly made me upbeat about the possibilities for Sons of York, and I’m happy to report that it was, if anything, even better than the first story in the little collection. I've never been hugely familiar with the figure of Richard III, any knowledge I had either inferred from a read-through of the titular Shakespeare play at school, several decades ago, or imparted indirectly through military history books that covered his period of history. So I was therefore quite interested to see what the author could do with his character and setting in an alternate history setting, particularly as my lack of familiarity would make it more difficult for me to initially spot any Points of Divergence (PoDs) in the timeline. Grant really has a way with characters, deftly slipping into their minds and mindsets and making their motivations open to the reader without making them glaringly obvious. Her depiction of Richard is rather nuanced, which I enjoyed given how much of a pantomime villain he has become in certain academic and populist circles. An opening scene where he inspects a caged lion, a new addition to the royal bestiary, is subtly effective at demonstrating Richard’s power and dominance over others, but also his conflicted personality - where duty wars with his desire to be elsewhere.
As the story progresses, Grant really gets inside Richard's head, to a fascinating degree, showing us the bitterness that rested inside of him since childhood, of how he and his family were treated, of his quiet resentment of his more successful brother. One almost feels sorry for him, before remembering the foul deeds he undertook to take the throne in our reality. There’s also some lively and quick-witted depictions of the political intrigue and uncertainty that resulted in the aftermath of Edward IV’s unexpected death, We see the results of the burden of ultimate political and cultural power falling onto the shoulders of an unready man, a man with inherent flaws and unresolved issues, and Grant doesn’t shy away from their ugliness or their consequences.
Finally we come to the alternate history element of the story, and here Grant asks a key and deeply intriguing question. What if Richard's resolve had faltered at the last second, and he had acted differently in regards to the Princes in the Tower? And what if his motives in regards to plotting against them had actual, tangible reasons why they needed to succeed, for the good of the country? How, then, might history have changed as a result? The story concludes at the most potentially divergent point, and begs for a continuation - such is the quality of the story in terms of prose, characterisation and atmosphere, I'd readily read a counterfactual continuation.
In conclusion, Tulip House and Sons of York are two excellent pieces of counterfactual fiction, unfortunately hidden away in the dark recesses of the Amazon marketplace. Hopefully this review will do something to bring much-deserved light onto them, and allow them to rightfully flourish.
Adam Selby-Martin also reviews other genres at his blog: The Scifi and Fantasy Reviewer Book Review Blog - Sci-Fi, Cosmic Horror and Alternate History Reviews