Dr Tom Anderson shortlisted for prestigious international fiction prize

Dr Tom Anderson from our Department of Chemistry has been nominated for the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History. The awards recognise the best in alternate history fiction from English language writers from around the world.

Tom Anderson

Dr Anderson was one of four writers nominated for the Short Form award, with his short story N’oublions Jamais, co-written with Canadian friend Bruno Lombardi, receiving the nomination. The winners will be announced later this month at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California.

The Sidewise Awards for Alternate History were established in 1995 to honor the best alternate history genre publications of the year. The award takes its name from Murray Leinster's 1934 short story "Sidewise in Time", in which a strange storm causes portions of Earth to swap places with their analogues from other timelines. To be considered, a work must have either first English-language publication or first American publication in the calendar year prior to the year in which the award is to be presented. Previous winners have included Stephen Fry and Philip Roth.

Dr Tom Anderson’s day job is Departmental Senior Tutor in Chemistry. Originally from Doncaster, Tom has always had a dual interest in both science and writing from a young age. His chemistry focuses on biological and supramolecular chemistry, but he remains interested in a wide variety of topics across the sciences. As a writer, he focuses on the genres of science fiction, historical fiction and their hybrid, alternate history (or AH, also called counterfactual fiction). This genre considers the consequences of history having turned out differently from a change in events or decisions in the past, often a very small one. Most of Dr Anderson’s literary work is published by the UK-based publisher Sea Lion Press, but the story which has been shortlisted for the Sidewise Award was published in the anthology Altered Europa by US-based Martinus Publishing.

Tom Anderson covers

We caught up with Tom to discuss the awards and his writing

Congratulations on the nomination. How does it feel to receive this recognition for your work?

I think it's fair to say I was pretty bowled over to hear I’d been nominated. I was aware of the awards but had never dreamed of ever being nominated, in part because these awards are usually focused on American writers.

Tell us about the genre?

Alternate History or AH ‘holds a mirror up to life’, and reminds us that everyday certainties, such as the names of the elements in the Periodic Table, are the result of decisions that could have easily gone the other way. The city of Portland in America was so named because of a coin flip in 1845: if the coin had come down the other way, it would now be called Boston.

Recent television examples of AH include Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle” and the BBC adaptation of Len Deighton’s SS-GB, both concerning the very dark consequences of the Allies losing the Second World War. However, AH also considers more nuanced questions, such as whether a political leader really was the great man he is popularly known as, or if he simply happened to be in the right place at the right time, and would have been remembered as a disaster in a different context.

Tell us about the story for which you’ve been nominated?

This story involves an alternate version of the First World War, in which the (very arbitrary and ever-changing from year to year) alliances were different at the start of the war. Thus, in this setting, Britain is allied to Germany against France—which causes conflicting loyalties for one young French-Canadian soldier.

You can find out more about the anthology as well as purchase a copy here.

How long have you been writing for and what has inspired your to write about AH?

I’ve been writing fiction for over 20 years now, having started when I was at school. I was a big reader as a child and loved fantasy and science-fiction works including The Lord of the Rings and novels by Timothy Zahn.

I was first introduced to the genre through the video game video game Command and Conquer Red Alert.
When I was a University I took modules in the history and philosophy of science as part of my degree which enabled me to explore theories relating to AH. I think it’s fascinating to re-examine history and pose questions about what could have been, helping us reassess our present and remind us that events and outcomes aren’t always inevitable.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve got a new novel coming out in the next year or so. It’s called The Surly Bonds of Earth, and was in part inspired by the “Festival of 10 Billion” student exercise recently held at the University of Sheffield, which considered the problems that the people of the world would face later into the 21st century. The novel is set between the 2050s and 2070s, and at one point includes scenes set in the Sheffield of the year 2063. You can look out for it on the Sea Lion Press website.

Excerpts from Tom’s stories

Tom has included an excerpt from his nominated story N’oublions Jamais and his new work The Surly Bonds of Earth.

N’oublions Jamais

(A French soldier has taken the protagonist Joseph Bell prisoner).

“You’re an Englishman,” he repeated. “I don’t care if you were born in Montréal or wherever—”

“Saskatoon,” Bell said. Pierre had never even heard of that before. “My grandfather was from Montréal though, and his father came from here. France.”

Pierre jabbed the finger of his other hand at Bell. “You wear that uniform, you’re an Englishman. What would your ancestors think of you now?

Bell shrugged. “What would any of our ancestors think of us?” He kept his hands above his head but still managed to wave them in such a way to take in the battlefield. “What’d they think of all this? Do you think they’d be proud of us?”

Despite himself, Pierre took his eye off the Englishman—the Canadian—long enough to look around. He saw the hellish landscape, the mud and corpses and barbed wire and ruin, as though for the first time. “Perhaps not,” he allowed. “But what can we do?”

“We could just…stop,” Bell said. “Did you ever hear about that football match at Christmas a couple of years ago? I heard stories that the French came out of the trenches and played football with our boys—the British soldiers, I mean.”

Pierre winced at that last. “I heard. It was a lovely story, but it couldn’t last. We can’t just stop, or all the blood and sacrifice will have been for nothing.”

“What was it for in the first place?” Bell asked sardonically, stumbling as he climbed over a half-buried remnant of a blockhouse destroyed in an earlier bombardment. “Some German communist takes a shot at Franz Ferdinand on his visit to Munich, kills his wife instead and so we have to send the world to hell?”

Pierre hesitated. “Our alliances…”

“Are a historical accident,” Bell snapped. “They told us you Frenchies are monsters just because one of your lunatics shot King Edward when he came here thirteen years ago. We didn’t have to go to war then, so why now?”

“I don’t have answers,” Pierre said. “Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die—that’s one of your poets, isn’t it?”

“About the Charge of the Light Brigade, yes,” Bell said. “But I prefer what one of your people said about that – it’s glorious, but it’s not war, it’s stupidity!”

The Surly Bonds of Earth

(A French physicist and his American wife are travelling to Sheffield to speak at a conference).

The view was certainly magnificent, once she had gotten over the slight sense of vertigo. Sheffield seemed an eclectic mix of buildings from the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries, with little of the twentieth in between. Old Victorian squares rubbed shoulders with a hyper-modern swimming pool complex; an ornate old theatre sat alongside a futuristic one; the cathedral had a neo-Gothic core with a modernist, though not clashing, extension. Colourful towers of student housing, which had once loomed over the city, had been extended upwards to mesh with the Cloud Villages, as had some other buildings. As not all the Cloud Villages were raised to the same height, Kim could see the solar panels and wind turbines atop them, while cleverly-layered screens on the underside (save where the buildings rose up to meet them) showed the cloud-strewn blue sky that the people below would have seen if the Villages weren’t there, with big lamps ensuring nobody’s house would be cast in shadow. A few dead pixels in the screen slightly ruined the illusion, but it was a nice thought.

The Hypertram ride was really too fast for Kim’s tastes; she’d wanted to see more. However, the suspended tram brought them along its cable to a higher Cloud Village than the one they had left, its motor working hard to drive it against the force of gravity. Signs around the Hypertram station at the edge of the large circular platform showed the coat of arms of the University of Sheffield, not to be confused with Sheffield Hallam University near the station. Other signs, in multiple languages, read “WELCOME TO BROOK HILL CLOUD VILLAGE”.

Kim’s main objection to the Cloud Villages was that they were too cramped. They felt safe—the cables alone could have held them up even if the pylon was destroyed—but there were too many people up here. Student accommodation had literally mushroomed from the tower blocks that interfaced with the bottom of the Village, and the narrow streets were full of young people in a hurry to get somewhere. “Now I know we’re old,” Kim said ruefully to her husband, “I just thought of students as ‘damn young people’.”

Pierre laughed sardonically. “It comes to us all. Um, was that a sign there? My portable app’s a bit confused by being up here.”

There was indeed a sign. Pierre had booked them into an Accor hotel, which for once was probably not due to the chauvinism he adopted when travelling to the UK—it was just very convenient for their destination. The hotel sat uncomfortably in the midst of the student accommodation, probably intended precisely for academic and related business visitors such as themselves. They checked in, got changed in their small room—Kim found the view from the window breathtaking but a bit disturbing—and then, after a quick and foul instant coffee, headed off to find where Pierre would be speaking later.

“That’s it, I think,” Pierre pointed at a building which looked different from the student accommodations around it. “The Dyer Building, that’s the new Astronomy one—see the telescope dome on top?”

Kim nodded. “It’s one way to beat light pollution, I suppose. That’s where you’re speaking?”

“No, they weren’t very clear about that,” Pierre admitted, “but I think the Dyer Building interfaces with the old physics one, the Hicks Building, if you go inside. Want to try?”