Traditional alternate histories are centered around a point of divergence — i.e., a single event in which history as we remember it changes, which then ripples down the timeline. Generally the story must balance the more drastic effects of this change with familiar similarities, so that the fictionalized timeline remains recognizable no matter how strange it becomes. The audience gets to enjoy the surrealist thrill of seeing their own world depicted through a glass (often) darkly, both author and reader get to indulge their history-geekismm, and a fun time is had by all.
I’ve never liked traditional alternate histories–that must be why I love the Temeraire series so much. Because in her latest book, author Naomi Novik goes completely off the alternate history rails.
That’s a good thing. Though Novik focuses on the familiar world of 19th-century England during the time of Napoleon’s wars, the point of divergence is not so much a point as a broad science fictional swath: in this world, humankind exists alongside a second sentient species. That species happens to be dragons, which makes it fantasy — just. However, since the Temeraire novels are far less science fictional than they are a pastiche of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey and Maturin novels, the full implications of this momentous divergence don’t become clear for some time. Book 1 introduced us to this world through the eyes of Captain William Laurence, a naval officer who unexpectedly bonded with Temeraire, a newly-hatched dragon of indeterminate heritage who quickly turns out to be special in more ways than one. Everything up to this point remains firmly in traditional alternate history territory, exploring the complexities and inequities of familiar Regency British society in exhaustive detail, just sticking a dragon into the mix. But by book 2 of the series, we begin to realize that a world with two sentient species can’t possibly be anywhere near as much like our own as it initially seems.
And this, for me, is the fun part. I love the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, a buddy story that crosses social/cultural as well as species boundaries. Laurence is a man of noble birth in a time when noble sons are expected to pursue only honorable professions; partnering with a dragon is frowned upon, to put things lightly. Yet Laurence never regrets his relationship with Temeraire even though it costs him his standing in society, his fiancee, his ship, and more. This is the stuff of great romance, in the epic literary as well as modern genre sense (because I just know that somewhere out there, fanfic writers are slashing Laurence with Temeraire despite the, er, logistical difficulties). It’s the kind of stuff that’s kept readers riveted since Gilgamesh and Enkidu; this is as close as adult relationships can get to unconditional love.
They’ll need it to survive in a world as fantastically strange as this one turns out to be. Among other things, we learn that China is the dominant military power here, protected against Western imperialism by its superior dragons (of which Temeraire turns out to be one of the most superior), who are counted citizens and granted all the rights and responsibilities thereof. A similar situation exists in southern Africa, where the Tswana treat dragons as living manifestations of their ancestors, part of the family — a part which just happens to weigh fifty tons and have very sharp teeth. Contrast these examples with England, in which dragons are chattel, used as an expendable biological air force. Curiously, this England, unlike our England of the time, is a frail and isolated thing, still possessing the formidable British Navy under Nelson yet barely able to keep Napoleon at bay. This is because in Novik’s world, partnership with dragons rather than dominance of human beings has become the deciding factor in the global economic and military competition.
Thus colonialism in this world has virtually failed, since in “partnership” nations dragons thrive, growing in numbers and specialization and serving as a formidable military presence in their own right, while in “chattel” nations dragons are big but not much else. This levels the playing field between cultures which in our world became the victims of colonialism, and the European powers; where technology fails, dragons make the difference. So here the Incan Empire still thrives, having soundly thrashed Cortez; here the Dutch settlement at Cape Town, South Africa has literally been chased off the continent. This accounts for England’s strange weakness, especially once France begins investing in a more egalitarian partnership with its dragons. The message of Novik’s world is hard to miss: fairness and diversity aren’t just morally better than oppression, they’re better strategically as well.
That message got driven home at the end of book 4, in which Laurence and Temeraire made the fateful decision to turn traitor. That’s because the British government, on finding a cure to the devastating plague threatening to wipe out all of England’s dragons, decided to strike a decisive blow against Napoleon by sending an infected dragon to continental Europe. Laurence and Temeraire, refusing to become accomplices to germ warfare and genocide, took the cure to Napoleon, then returned to England to face the music.
Here there be spoilers
In book 5, Victory of Eagles, we find Temeraire alone and miserable in the dragon equivalent of prison: the breeding grounds, where captainless and spiritless dragons while away long empty days. Laurence, being held out at sea as a hostage against Temeraire’s good behavior, is equally miserable, having endured a humiliating trial and the censure of friends and family in the wake of his betrayal of England. All this changes when Novik handily tosses history out the window: with the aid of the Chinese dragon and brilliant military strategist Lien — Temeraire’s mortal enemy — Napoleon stages a successful invasion, evading the naval blockade and landing thousands of troops on British soil. Laurence escapes to make his own way across the devastated countryside, searching for Temeraire. Meanwhile Temeraire, on hearing rumors that Laurence is dead, marshals the dragons of the breeding grounds into a ragtag troop bent on striking back against Napoleon and Lien.
The pair eventually find each other, and Temeraire accepts a not-quite-intentional field commission to become an officer. What follows is both a hilarious and sobering depiction of guerilla warfare, as Temeraire struggles to command and discipline his fractious draconic “soldiers”, and Laurence struggles with the shame of being a traitor.
There are a lot of firsts in this outing, which impressed me with Novik’s ability to keep the tale fresh even after five installments. For the first time we see war depicted in its starkest, ugliest form as French troops slaughter and rape British civilians; the dragons fight without medical care or food; and Temeraire’s troop is commanded to take no prisoners, pitting dragons against humans in direct combat (with predictably horrific results). Also for the first time, the story is told from Temeraire’s perspective as well as that of Laurence, Temeraire having achieved the draconic equivalent of adulthood by this point. In fact Temeraire becomes the main character in this book, largely because Laurence spends most of it in a very dark place, brooding over his mistakes and — in a painful, powerful moment — regretting his choice to do what was morally right, as he sees the terrible consequences of that choice for his beloved England.
Still, it wouldn’t be a Temeraire story if it got too grim, and there’s plenty of fun to be had as well. The gloriously bloodthirsty fire-dragon Iskierka returns, along with human favorites from books past: the redoubtable admiral (and Laurence’s lover) Jane Roland, Demane and Sipho from southern Africa, Iskierka’s long-suffering captain Granby, and more. I won’t spoil whether Napoleon’s invasion is successfully repelled — which is in question, since this is no longer truly alternate history — but I will say that this volume ends on a surprising and very intriguing note that’s got me hungry to see the next volume right now.
But wait, you ask. If it’s not alternate history anymore, what is it?
Well, a bit of real-world scuttlebutt first: Naomi Novik is also a fanfiction writer, in fact one of the founding members of the newly-formed Organization for Transformative Works. And as any fanfiction author or reader could tell you, fanfiction is fundamentally different from traditional literature in a number of subtle ways. What it boils down to is that anything lit can do, fic can do… not better, but gonzo, tossing aside convention and propriety and sometimes common sense in order to put the story, and visceral reader reaction, before all else.
That’s what Novik has done here. I have no doubt that readers who prefer true alternate history will be disappointed with the direction that Novik has gone. The Temeraire series stopped being “the Napoleonic wars with dragons” a long time ago. Instead it’s become something that I, at least, find more interesting: a none-too-subtle examination of egalitarianism, humanity’s place in the universe, and the interconnectedness of life.
This goes far deeper than ordinary alternate history. A more appropriate term is alternate universe — “AU” in fanfic terminology — but I would posit that the Temeraire books go beyond even that. This is alternate anthropology, alternate ontology, even alternate evolution, as we begin to realize that this is a world where humanity is one half of a codependent pair. Humankind needs dragons in this world; without them we are weak, foolish, lacking in conscience but for the regretful clarity of hindsight. The telling moment is Laurence’s regretful epiphany, in which we realize that without Temeraire, he might consider the horrors of slavery, genocide, and treating women like chattel wrong, but — like similar British gentlemen in our own world — he would do little or nothing about them. Without Temeraire, he would be a much less humane human being.
I therefore propose a new term for fiction like this, since “alternate history” seems wholly inadequate. I propose we call it “gonzo human revisionism”, or maybe “hard alternate universe metaethics.”
…Or maybe we should just call it fantasy. ‘Cause of. You know. Dragons.