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Originally published Friday, June 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Science Fiction: Three novels look back at historical events and ask "what if ... "

"Alternate history" is sometimes, though not always, considered science fiction. That's because it takes the standard science-fiction question...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Alternate history" is sometimes, though not always, considered science fiction. That's because it takes the standard science-fiction question, "what if ... " and applies it to the past instead of the future: What if the Nazis had won WWII? What if the Hindenburg had never burned? Three recently published novels illustrate the ways these two genres connect, either weakly or so strongly and smoothly that the seams at which they are welded all but disappear.

"Pashazade," by Jon Courtenay Grimwood (Spectra, 356 pp., $12) is set in a Middle East that diverges historically from our own, most noticeably in the early-20th century. Colonialism has had a much tougher time in this world. Those European powers who do have influence in the region are swapped about, so that instead of the English sipping tea in Egypt's Alexandria, the Germans fight Heidelbergian duels there.

The title refers to the hero's putative position: ZeeZee, aka Ashraf "Raf" al-Mansur, is forced to "escape" from a U.S. prison so that he can masquerade as the son of a Pasha and a member of the still-extant Ottoman Empire's ruling class. Which Raf may very well be; it's hard to tell, given his mysterious past. It gets even harder to tell when the woman who imported him into the corrupt and ancient Egyptian political scene is murdered — and Raf becomes a prime suspect.

A doubly exotic setting — a foreign country with an imaginary history — gives spice and piquancy to this familiarly noir-ish plot. Enigmatic even to himself, yet wholly sympathetic, Raf is joined by a cast of equally entertaining and largely likable characters. Though it's the first book of a trilogy (the second in the series, "Effendi," is due out in September,) "Pashazade" is an exhilarating, satisfying read on its own.

Just as briskly paced as "Pashazade," Ben Jeapes' "The New World Order" (David Fickling Books, 435 pp., $15.95) offers a more complete explanation of the relationship between our own reality and the variant depicted here.

Into England's Civil War, the 17th-century conflict between King Charles I and Parliament, Jeapes introduces the "Holekhor." The Holekhor are both technologically advanced and physically much stronger than normal humans. They travel to the world of the novel through two interdimensional "gates," bringing with them zeppelins and machine guns.

The novel focuses on a father-and-son team: Holekhor General Dhon Do, who converted to Christianity and was baptized as John Donder, and the illegitimate half-breed offspring of Do and Englishwoman Anne Matthews, Daniel. The author nicely depicts the various tensions between Do and Daniel; Do and his adopted religion; and Do and his Holekhor King, and makes the surprising turns his plot takes seem inevitable in retrospect. The author's postscript puts his alternate history in neat perspective.

"Order" is being marketed as a young adult book, and it's certainly suitable teen reading material. But it's also an engaging read for adults.

With Chris Roberson's "Here, There & Everywhere" (Prometheus, 285 pp., $25) we come to the place where alternate history and science fiction completely overlap.

Replete with references to Visser wormholes and Wheeler's "many-worlds" theory, "Everywhere" illustrates one way of resolving the paradoxes inherent in time travel. There are millions upon millions of possible worlds, and you can visit the past or future of any of them — except your own.

Roberson's heroine, Roxanne Bonaventure, a scientist's daughter, discovers an odd artifact while walking in the woods one day. It looks like a bracelet, but when she slips it on her wrist, it acts to take her into what she comes to call "the Myriad." The worlds within the Myriad include the Mesozoic, the year 30,000 B.C., the fictional lives of Sherlock Holmes and Elizabeth Bennett, or anywhere else she desires to go. An introductory section in which a reporter catches her changelessly cruising through decades of Beatlemania explains the book's title as well as the reason for the chapter headings ("Day Tripper," etc.), but does nothing to make the book cleave together as a whole.

And Roxanne's musings on her failure to find an enduring feminist-Utopianist timeline ("In the vast majority of instances ... the only power that men possessed was simply that which the women allowed them to have") make it obvious that Roberson-via-Roxanne is not speaking for any victims of rape who may read this book. He does, however, provide an intriguing glimpse into the twists and turns of one of science fiction's favorite forms.

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