Lord of the Rings-loving Sheffield chemistry professor up for ‘alternate history’ literary prize

Dr Tom Anderson
Dr Tom Anderson
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A Lord of the Rings-loving chemistry professor from Doncaster has been nominated for a global literary prize focused on ‘alternate history’ fiction. Chris Burn reports.

From Robert Harris’s Fatherland, set in a universe where Germany won the Second World War, to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, which imagines Franklin D. Roosevelt was defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by ‘America First’ candidate Charles Lindbergh, stories that consider what life would be like if historical events had turned out differently has been a favoured fictional device among many celebrated authors.

Now a chemistry professor from South Yorkshire is joining such illustrious company after being nominated for an international prize celebrating the best in alternate history fiction from English language writers from around the world.

Dr Tom Anderson is one of four writers nominated in the Short Form category at the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, 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. Previous winners have included Philip Roth and Stephen Frry.

His story involves an alternate version of the First World War, in which Britain is allied to Germany against France - causing conflicting loyalties for one young French-Canadian soldier.

Dr Anderson, who is originally from Doncaster and works for the University of Sheffield, says he has been writing fiction for 20 years, dating back to his time 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,” he says. “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.”

While he focus on biological and supramolecular chemistry in his day job, as a writer his concentration is on the genres of science fiction, historical fiction and their hybrid, alternate history. “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,” Dr Anderson says.

“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 alternate history 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.

“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.”

Dr Anderson is currently working on a new novel, due to published in the next year or so. Called The Surly Bonds of Earth and set between the 2050s and 2070s, it was partly inspired by a recent University of Sheffield student project which considered the problems that the people of the world would face later into the 21st century.