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Historical fiction and science fiction might at first seem like completely antithetical genres. After all, one looks to the past while the other looks toward the future. The origins of science fiction, though, are rooted in science and experiments and imagination: writers are always looking at the past and present to inspire their ideas about what might come about in the future. Even science fiction that was cutting edge at one time, like Jules Verne or Arthur C. Clark, now seem rooted in the historical ideas that inspired them to think about the future at that time. Science fiction, then, will always become enmeshed in history eventually. But what about science fiction that actually explores history or reimagines it?
This sub-genre of science fiction, historical science fiction — sometimes a subset of alternate history — features stories where science and sci-fi concepts play a pivotal role in a historical setting. Retro-futuristism is a great example of this, and several of the books on this list fall under that category. Think Disney’s Tomorrowland, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of retro-futurism as a concept. You might also be familiar with steampunk, which can overlap with historical science fiction. All of this to say, there’s a lot more to historical science fiction than you probably imagined. So let’s look at ten great examples of what historical science fiction can be.
The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
After a meteorite destroys much of the eastern United States in 1952, humanity’s efforts to reach space reach a fever pitch. Earth won’t remain survivable for long, and colonizing space seems like the only option. Elma York is a part of that mission, joining the International Aerospace Coalition as a calculator to help put a man on the moon. But why does it have to be a man? Elma is just as qualified as anyone — more than most, actually, as a former WASP pilot and mathematician. Can she defy misogynistic societal conventions to become the first lady astronaut? And will she be able to bring others up with her?
The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling & William Gibson
The Industrial Revolution is interrupted by the Computer Age when Charles Babbage perfects his Analytical Engine a hundred years early. Steam-driven cybernetic engines are now the backbone of society. When three people — a paleontologist, a spy, and the daughter of a Luddite troublemaker — come across a box of punched Engine cards that someone is willing to kill for, their lives are thrust into the middle of a race to control society’s rapidly-changing technology.
Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee
Phoenix Extravagant blends together science fiction, fantasy, and history to create an incredible world inspired by Korean history. When the occupying government blackmails a young painter into joining their war efforts, Jebi is forced to help bring a mechanical dragon back under control. But as Jebi grows closer to Arazi, the defense ministry’s dragon, and a master duelist, they begin to realize that failing to take a side is little different than joining the wrong one.
Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente
In an alternate version of 1946, the daughter of a filmmaker begins traveling to planets across the solar system in search of content for her documentaries. But a film featuring the diving colony of a watery Venus will be her last. Though her crew will make it home and her story will be preserved by Venus’s last survivor, Severin will never return from this expedition. Enmeshed in a world of silent films and old-school science fiction, Radiance is a story that feels utterly out of time.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl
In a reimagined version of events, British socialists and African Americans band together to purchase a swath of Belgian Congo land from King Leopold II. The area, renamed Everfair, is set aside as a utopian safe haven for the native people of the Congo and African Americans fleeing slavery. The inhabitants of Everfair stive to keep this place safe, but even with endless determination and steam technology to at their disposal, keeping this land free and safe from outside hands is a constant struggle. Even so, the possibilities for what is to come for the people of Everfair are endless.
Machines like Me by Ian McEwan
The intentionally uncanny cover might make you cringe, but it’s also a gateway into what’s going on in this novel. In an alternate version of 1980s England where Alan Turing lives long enough to make a breakthrough in artificial intelligence, a man in love with his mysterious upstairs neighbor, Miranda, spends his inheritance on one of the first synthetic humans ever to be created. Along with Miranda, Charlie designs Adam’s personality. Soon, the three find themselves in a strange love triangle, confronted by what it means to love and be human in a fast-changing world.
Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum
Three generations of women face the ripple effects of the Chernobyl disaster when, on the night of the meltdown, Anna Berkova is ripped through time to discover her estranged daughter, Molly, dying from a gunshot and begging her to stop the disaster, save Molly’s daughter, Raisa, and change the course of their family’s troubled history. Decades later, Molly, adopted and in America, draws a comic that will one day change the course of her daughter’s life. When an old woman shows up claiming to be her biological grandmother, Raisa must solve the equations her mother left for her in the comic book to find the answer to time travel, possibly preventing one of the worst nuclear disasters in history.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Inspired by The Island of Dr. Moreau, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s retelling follows the daughter of an esteemed — and eccentric — scientist who’s been creating strange animal-human hybrids in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula. But first a stranger and then a band of violent men upend Carlota Moreau’s once peaceful life forever. Now, it’s up to her to handle her father’s science experiments — even if that means turning against him.
The Spare Man by Mary Robinette Kowal
The second Mary Robinette Kowal novel on this list, The Spare Man is a retro-futuristic pulp mystery set on a spaceliner. Tesla Crane is enjoying her honeymoon when her spouse is arrested by incompetent security guards on suspected murder. Tesla had been enjoying traveling in anonymity, but if it takes revealing herself to get back to their rudely interrupted honeymooning activities, then Tesla will just have to rip off the Band-Aid and solve this murder herself before they reach Mars.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
In P. Djèlí Clark Dead Djinn universe, history, sci-fi, and the supernatural come together to create an alternate turn-of-the-century Cairo like you’ve never seen — or imagined — it before. With tram cars and automata traversing the city alongside suffragettes and supernatural creatures, it’s up to the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities to keep Cairo running smooth. But when a tram car starts malfunctioning due to what appears to be a run-of-the-mill possession, that job gets a whole lot harder for two agents who soon find themselves in over their heads.