Alternate history as a fruitful genre for re-imagining themes of Liberty versus Power: An Appreciation and Comparison of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and to make clear what libertarian futurists saw in each of our past winners that made them deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation – and an intriguing comparison – of Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny, co-winners of the 2008 Prometheus Award for Best Novel:

By William H. Stoddard

The year 2008 saw, for the first time, a tie between two Prometheus Award nominees for Best Novel: Harry Turtledove’s The Gladiator (in his Crosstime Traffic series from Tor Books) and Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny (in her Small Change series, also from Tor Books).

Ordinarily, each winner would merit its own entry; but there are interesting parallels between the two, which make it especially fitting that they shared the award, and illuminating to examine them together.

Turtledove has been known primarily as an author of alternate history, making his mark with early works such as A Different Flesh (1988), set on an Earth where the Americas are inhabited by surviving Homo erectus, and The Guns of the South, in which South African engineers help Robert E. Lee to victory, with surprising results. The six volumes of Crosstime Traffic are a young adult series about trade between parallel Earths.

Walton’s oeuvre has been more varied, but Small Change is definitely alternate history, set in a timeline where the United Kingdom came to terms with Germany in the 1930s.

It belongs to a subgenre that’s not usually considered science fictional: the cozy mystery, commonly set in a domain of wealthy and privileged people (not very different from the setting of the Jeeves and Wooster stories!) and keeping overt violence and the cruder sorts of crime offstage.

Walton mixes this with a different subgenre, the police procedural, making her continuing protagonist a Scotland Yard investigator. The science-fictional aspect comes from Walton’s careful exploration of the cultural divergence to be expected in her alternate timeline.
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