I got all ready to go to bed and then I remembered I had one other thing I wanted to post.
I've been reading the March Asimov's, and recently finished Robert Reed's novelette "A Plague of Life." Reed has been doing something fascinating that I think is worth mentioning:
He writes alternate history stories in which the Point Of Divergence (POD) is something that happened a very long time ago, but he presents the world of the story as if it's our own world, doing an extremely slow pull-back-to-reveal that gradually shows just how different things are. He's doing a certain amount of translation—the characters in "Plague of Life," for example, are presumably not actually speaking English (though we assume they are at first), and they aren't living in a place called America (though they are living somewhere in what we would call the Americas). Their buildings and machinery are probably different from the ones we're familiar with, but by using relatively generic terms, Reed translates into something that feels familiar, with (at first) only a hint of alienness.
It bugged me in the last one of his stories I read; in my view of history, a POD a couple thousand years ago that completely changes the world political stage shouldn't result in an exact copy of Hitler rising to political prominence. But I think Reed's view of history in these stories assumes that no matter what you change (and "Plague of Life" makes a really gigantic change going back further than any other alternate history I've seen), most things will retain enough of a similarity that translation into our terms is reasonable. So if you accept that meta-premise, he's doing some fascinating things. And the fact that he's doing this and getting away with it opens my mind to the possibility of other people writing alternate history with big PODs but letting the timeline run forward in ways that more or less parallel real history.
One of the things that fascinates me about these stories is that he didn't have to present them this way. In "Plague of Life," he could have given us huge hints toward the difference, though probably not the exact POD, in the opening paragraphs; instead, we only get subtle things (the fact that cows are used for blood as well as milk (and no, there are no vampires in this story), the fact that people wear armor when walking around on the farm in case of accident, the lack of specificity in place names and ethnicity names), and it isn't until much later that we find out for sure what's going on.
Anyway, interesting stuff. It also reminds me that in my entry about translation I somehow failed to mention Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, which takes the translation thing further than anything else I've seen—which really annoyed me in the opening chapters (come on, an alien city named Princeton?), but later Vinge explicitly discusses the issue and makes it more or less make sense inside the world of the story. Impressive.
Although this is irrelevant to anything above, I can't resist noting one other thing about "Plague of Life": it has some remarkable similarities to Steven Popkes's novelette "This Old Man," published in the January issue. (The issue with Ben's and Mike's stories!) (Um, in case you follow that link, be warned that only part of the story appears on the web page—to read the rest of it, you have to find a copy of the issue.) The stories end up being very different in most ways, but they have a few points of extremely strong similarity. Interesting.