It is an odd feeling when you discover how little you know about a subject.
I first learned of the alternate history genre at around the age of 10. Or at least, I think it was the age of ten. I might’ve been two or three years older or younger. All I know is that I was in a cool and musty used book store, and I found this hefty paperback with a picture of Stalin, Hitler and Truman standing in front of a ray gun straight out of the Golden Age of science fiction. The blurb on the back said this was “alternate history.” From what I remember of my emotions at the time, I found the whole idea silly. Still, the notion of playing with past events stayed with me, despite my skepticism about the genre.
At the time, I believed alternate history—fiction taking place in a history divergent from our own—to be a new sub-genre of science fiction. That is not accurate. Alternate histories have been around for a long time. According to Wikipedia, one of the earliest works in that category is Tirant Io Blanc, a 1490 epic by Joanot Martorell that tells a version of recent history in which the titular hero repels the Turkish invasion of Constantinople. According to the same article, alternate history novels and stories appeared in the mass market in the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the 30’s being a pivotal decade for the genre. During World War II, alternate history tales also served as a means of propaganda for Allied countries. (Wikipedia, 2013)
For that matter, while alternate history can overlap with science fiction, it doesn’t have to. The earliest examples, mentioned above, were written before science fiction became a discrete entity. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is an alternate history, and has no science fiction elements to speak of. (It does, however, feature idiosyncratic, Tarantine dialogue.)
Oddly enough, when I conceived of the idea for my forthcoming Rosaria of Venice, which is an alternate history, I hadn’t read or seen much in the way of alternate history. I still haven’t. The only work I have seen and can honestly categorize as such is the animé Full Metal Panic. It is a lack of experience that I ought to fix. The idea for Roaria, however, didn’t come from that animé, despite some odd parallels. It came from a little device called the antikythera mechanism.
The antikythera mechanism, as the Wikipedia article explains, is a mechanical computer designed to calculate the positions of heavenly bodies at particular places and times. Such a device would be invaluable for navigators in the 1st Century BC—when it was likely developed. Comparable machines would not appear for another fifteen hundred years. (Wikipedia, 2013)
Learning of this device led me to wonder, much as Carl Sagan did, what might have happened if the civilization which produced this machine—that of the Greeks and Romans—had survived past the 3rd Century AD. From this thought, the first prototype of Rosaria of Venice arose: a version of the 5th century (or thereabouts) AD where, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Greece nonetheless survived as a burgeoning technological remnant. They had steam power, more advanced computers, and all sorts of useful mechanical devices. My protagonist, at that time, was a former slave boy applying for an education in Athens who became caught up in some intrigue involving the government. There was also a time-travelling girl from our version of events who popped in and out, and was somehow connected to the whole intrigue bit.
While the premise held some interest for me, the characters felt too bland, and so the idea went underground. It stayed there for several years. Then, while listening to the latest album from my favorite band, an idea struck me. How about taking the “musketeer” archetype and gender-swapping it? That idea quickly merged with the antikythera-inspired scenario. I switched the setting to Renaissance Italy (but with steam power!), dropped the time-traveling girl, and switched my protagonist to a swordswoman and scientist of that era. Rosaria was born. The character stuck with me, and so I stuck with the story.
It is an odd feeling when you discover how little you know, but it soon becomes fuel for the imagination.