What is historical science fiction? Fairly obviously, it’s science fiction set in a past historical framework. In some ways, it’s much more satisfying to talk about a future that never happened than a future that might or might not happen.
How does it differ from alternative history? Good question – we could claim that any fiction set in the past is alternative history, because it describes a past that never happened, but really, what we mean by “alternative history” is something more than just a description of imaginary past events – it is a story based on a deviation from the timeline that we know which has caused a “butterfly in China” effect.
So far, I have produced three historical SF books: two set in 19th century Paris, and one set in an early Renaissance Italian city. All have been great fun to write, and I look forward to producing some more.
The Untime; a mysterious and dangerous state, beyond our powers of conception. In the Paris of the 1890s, Jules Gauthier, a young journalist, enters the Untime with its discoverer, Professor Lamartine. What they find there could be the end of our Universe as we know it.
When Lamartine disappears mysteriously, Gauthier, together with Agathe, Lamartine’s daughter, and Lamartine’s rival, Professor Schneider, must brave the terrors of the Untime, journeying through time and space.
Though the plot of The Untime was very interesting and evocative, my favorite thing about it was the writing. As usual, Hugh Ashton exhibits a wonderful command of language, and this time there is a new twist — the characters are supposed to be speaking French. So, added to the usual punctilious Victorian turns of phrase, it is possible to pick up a hint of Gallic flavor as well! I also liked that the plot had me scratching my head a couple of times, but what I thought was an inconsistency was resolved almost on the following page. Can you read my mind?
On his return from the Untime, described in the previous book in this series, Jules Gauthier, 19th century Parisian journalist, marries Agathe Lamertine, daughter of Professor Lamartine, the original discoverer of this mysterious state beyond time and space. Has Agathe really lost her father?
An outbreak of nightmares in Paris, leading to madness of the dreamers, persuades Jules and Agathe that Lamartine is still alive, trapped in the Untime together with monsters intent on taking over our world. Summoning all their courage, Jules and Agathe, accompanied by the faithful Louis, and supported by Professor Schneider, return to the Untime to seek Lamartine and defeat the horrifying creatures that exist there.
But all is not as it seems…
(the two titles above bound together in one handy pocket-sized paperback volume)
The Untime is a state beyond space and time, discovered by Professor Rémy Lamartine in the 1890s. His daughter Agathe, and her beloved Jules Gauthier, a reporter on a Paris magazine, become concerned when Lamartine goes missing.
Inside the Untime, they discover horrors beyond our imagining – hideous creatures which can destroy the sanity of their victims, and which seem intent on ruling our world. Accordingly, they reluctantly return from the Untime and destroy the mechanism that enabled access.
A year or so later, Gauthier and Agathe are married, but a strange outbreak of lunacy is reported. The newly-weds make their way back to the Untime, where they discover more surprises, and more dangers in this mysterious bridge between space and time.
Gauthier tells his story in Gallic style, and while he is not a scientist, he provides explanations of the principles of the Untime as they were explained to him by Lamartine and his friend at the Sorbonne, Professor Schneider. A captivating series in the tradition of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, with a dash of H.P. Lovecraft stirred into the mix.
If Hugh Everett III had postulated his many worlds interpretation a hundred years earlier, then Jules Verne might just have ended up writing The Untime books. They read as a period piece, but are full of modern ideas – as well as parallel universes, the delicate girlfriend turns out to be far smarter than the men around her, while the monsters prove that you cannot judge a book by its cover. It’s great fun from beginning to end, but leaves you with plenty to think about. Highly recommended.
Gerardo, formerly Bishop of the city of Nessuna in medieval Italy, writes his memoirs as he listens to the muezzin’s call to prayer in the city of Lamakan. Exiled by his boyhood friend, Pietro, who has risen to power in Nessuna, Gerardo knows details of too many things that Pietro would sooner remain hidden.
Gerardo’s friends tell him of the arrival of an angel in Lamakan, expecting him to be overjoyed, but he fears for his life, believing the angel to be Azrael, the messenger of death. The truth is even stranger.
Angels Unawares tells of treachery, deceit, and a man’s growing comprehension of his place in creation.
Hugh Ashton has to be one of the most versatile writers out there. I first got to know his superb Sherlock Holmes pastiches, then his thrillers, then his alternative history, such as “Under Grey Skies,” then his “Tales of Old Japanese,” and even a few children’s books.
The novella “Angels Unawares” represents yet another departure into a genre that might be called historical fantasy. Two boys in a town in what is apparently Renaissance Italy grow up as best friends, with one going into the Church and the other into local city government. Yet the book opens with the bishop Gerardo evidently banished to some city in the Middle East, all because of some secrets that Pietro, the government Prefect, does not want revealed.
Through a series of flashbacks and scene shifts, we learn the reason for the estrangement of these former best friends and the apparently evil nature of the secrets that Pietro wants to keep hidden.
Ashton shows a deft ability to create the worlds of both Renaissance Italy and the Islamic culture that was contemporary to it. I wonder what he’ll come up with next.