Feature: Precise Dates in Alternate History

Unseemly Science, the second novel in Rod Duncan’s Gas-Lit Empire series which began with The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, has recently been published by Angry Robot Books. As Duncan explains, the series is set in an alternate world – but one with very close ties to our own. And as to why he specifically chose to set the second book in 2009…


Unseemly ScienceThe precise year is important, though readers will not be aware of that yet. I also keep track of the day and time through the story. That means consulting astronomical charts to be sure of the times of sunrise and sunset and the phases of the moon. It is likely that no one will ever check that kind of detail, but if they did, hopefully they would find everything consistent.

The fall of the Gas-Lit Empire is set in an alternate history, which split from our own history a couple of hundred years ago. I’m going to be a little bit vague about the precise point of divergences. That is still a secret. The answer will be revealed in book three.

But it is clear from the story, and from the additional information included in the glossary at the end of each book, that there was a revolution in Britain early in the 19th century. The revolutionary war lasted three years, achieving no decisive victory for either side. The result of the armistice was the division of the country into two parts, a Republic to the north and a Kingdom to the south. The border bisects the city of Leicester, where the book begins.

I don’t want to get into a long (and possibly boring) alternate history lesson here. So I will cut to the present day – which in Unseemly Science is the spring of 2009. Time has moved on since the revolution, but society has not advanced. International agencies have been brought into being to make warfare impossible and hold back the progress of any science deemed “unseemly”. As a result the world looks very much as it did a century before.

TheBulletCatchersDaughter-144dpiThe Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm coined the phrase “the long 19th century” to describe the period between the French Revolution and the beginning of the First World War. But in the alternate history of the Gas-Lit Empire the First World War has not happened. Thus, the long 19th century is still going after more than 200 years.

But how long can laws and treaties hold back the tide of history? And is it a good thing or a bad thing that they do? These questions bubble under the surface of each story in the series.

As to why I am obsessed with the precise date and time as I write – it is because of a ticking clock. We are drawing inexorably closer to the year and the month in which the Gas-Lit Empire will finally crumble.


The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter and Unseemly Science are now both available from Angry Robot.




No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: