Alternate history and steampunk - settling the ambiguity


Steampunk themed photo: Kyle Cassidy

When people ask me about my books, I say ‘Thrillers – alternative history thrillers.’

‘Oh, steampunk, then?’

I gnash my teeth, but put on a pleasant smile.

‘No, actually, they’re adventure stories set in our world, but where history evolved alternatively.’

‘Oh, steampunk, then?’

’No, that’s more fantastical and based on Victorian technological ideas.



My alternative history world exists in the 21st century based on the difference caused by a small dissident Roman colony surviving from ancient times.’

‘Oh, not steampunk, then?’

‘No, steampunk is a separate sub-genre of science fiction with steam-powered machinery, inspired by industrialised society of  the 19th century. Recently, it’s expanded from the Victorian period into  American West or post-apocalyptic-themed, sometimes off-world.’

’So it’s not alternative history?’

‘In a way, because it’s one version of a possible historical development, but often with fantasy elements such as fairies and other planets which tip it more into fantasy or science-fiction proper.

FatherlandAlternative history, on the other hand, can include every period where the time-line changed but isn’t fantasy. Favourites are what if the Spanish Armada had succeeded in invading England or if the Nazis had won the Second World War as in Robert Harris’s Fatherland.’

‘God, it’s complicated!’

Conspiracy of Alchemists‘If you want a great example of steampunk that really defines the genre, read Liesel Schwarz’s Chronicles of Light and Shadow. Here’s the first one – A Conspiracy of Alchemists.’

‘Okay, good tip.’

She picks up INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS and hands over 22€. I smile and wish her happy reading.

She turns and asks, ‘So when are you going to write a proper steampunk story?’

I collapse on to my chair and weep.

 Much more detail here on what alternate history is really about.


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, and PERFIDITAS. Third in series, SUCCESSIO, is now out.

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