SF that starts out as realism/historical fiction and ends up somewhere else?
September 19, 2012 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Speculative fiction about historical gradualism: I'm looking for SF stories which begin in the real historical world (past or present) and then gradually diverge from it, without any single decisive turning point.

After reading Samuel Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which begins in the present and follows its characters in their everyday lives eightyish years into the SF future, and Terry Bisson's Any Day Now, which begins as a strictly realistic historical novel set in the Fifties and slowly, sneakily shades into an alternate-history version of the Sixties, I'm getting interested in the idea that there might be a niche or two I haven't previously thought much about within SF, that narratively represents gradual historical change. So I'm looking for other book suggestions that share this characteristic.

Criteria: The story must start in a purely realistic present or historical setting and diverge from it only gradually, without any clear single moment of transition, turning point, etc. I'm NOT interested in anything that just jumps into the future via a narrative break/flash-forward/prolepsis; also NOT interested in the more common kind of alternate history that's about the consequences of a single or a small number of decisive "what if" changes. Ideally I'm looking for things that might read like pure realism for quite a long time, until eventually the reader pauses, surprised, and realizes that they haven't been reading about the actually existing world for some time.
posted by RogerB to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (one of the funniest books ever written) initially seems to be set in the thirties, but then she starts dropping in completely unexplained references to an Anglo-Nicaraguan War, TV phones, air–taxis and the degradation of Mayfair into a slum district.

I realize this does no more to answer your question, but as further encouragement to anyone who might want to read the book, I include its wonderful first paragraph:

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.
posted by ubiquity at 12:52 PM on September 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

A Visit from the Goon Squad does this, more or less. Each chapter is told from a different person's point of view, and the stories aren't arranged in a linear fashion, but it does progress sort of past to future, and doesn't "just jump into the future."
posted by librarina at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2012

Mary Gentle, Ash, A Secret History. To say too much would be a spoiler, but so very much this book.
posted by bonehead at 1:13 PM on September 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

KSR's Years of Rice and Salt is set in a world where Christianity never gets really established because the Black Plague is slightly more virulent. What's neat is that since the book's narrative isn't really following Europe, this isn't a huge huge blip imo until about 150 years later, when the Age of Colonization would have occurred but doesn't in the same way.
posted by spunweb at 1:31 PM on September 19, 2012

James Michener's Space. A typical Michener-style (Hawaii, Alaska, Chesapeake, etc., etc.) retelling of a historical era or setting--in this case, the US space program from World War I to the unmanned probes of the 1970s--mixing real and fictional characters ... except, in this case, there is a fictional midwestern US state, an entire fictional class of astronauts, and two fictional Gemini and Apollo missions.
posted by ylee at 1:58 PM on September 19, 2012

1Q84 is a fantastic (but very long) story that does exactly what you want.
posted by larthegreat at 2:52 PM on September 19, 2012

I'm going to second 1Q84, but I thought the book sucked, honestly.
posted by greta simone at 4:02 PM on September 19, 2012

The Plot Against America, by Phillip Roth, is an interesting and realistic take on what happens if the US didn't get into WW2. Yes, it hinges on a major plot point, but the book is nuanced and sneaky in unexpected ways.
posted by msali at 7:54 PM on September 19, 2012

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds should fit the bill; no "single event" occurs. Rather, little bits of divergence kind of added up and sometimes catastrophically blocked certain technological advances that had/would-have-had happened. To say more, though, would be spoiler-ey.

Fun read, great characters - Reynolds is a mass market bestselling author but he's leagues better than when Crichton tries his hand at speculative fiction.

Harry Turtledove is the acknowledged master of the alternate history genre. Of what I've read, it's entertaining and generally well thought out. The quality of the 'romance' scenes are abysmal though, even for this general genre.
posted by porpoise at 8:43 PM on September 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the diverse answers so far — even the near misses are interesting. I'd still love to hear any other suggestions.
posted by RogerB at 12:19 PM on September 20, 2012

i'll second or third 1Q84 (depending how you look at it) - i suspect many many readers did not think it sucked, myself among them!
posted by messiahwannabe at 8:20 PM on September 20, 2012

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