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Alternate History: D,E,F

By Gary Oswald

This series will cover 26 topics related to Alternate History, as a beginners guide to the genre, through the format of the A-Z.

D - Dystopia

Dystopic fiction is the portrayal of a setting that completely disagrees with the author's ethos. It's an expression of the author's fears and worries about the world.

Obviously Alternate History is a genre ripe for dystopia. So much of the most popular versions of it are dystopic in taste. Nazi victories, CSA victories, nuclear wars, enduring slavery, the Draka. A lot of published AH is about exposing the horrors that could have been unleashed had humanity not dodged certain bullets.

The same is also true within amateur fiction, many of the most celebrated amateur AH stories such as 'What If Gordon Banks Had Played', 'Decades of Darkness', 'A World Of Laughter A World of Tears', 'The Revolution Will Be Live' and 'Fear, Loathing and Gumbo on the Campaign Trail '72' are dystopias.

Dystopic fiction is always an expression of an author's worries and the worries of their time ('1984' is about the totalitarian regimes Orwell saw rise in the 1930s and 'Handmaid's Tale' is about the rise of the religious right) but in AH it can also be a puncture of exceptionalism. The idea that 'it cannot happen here', that wars and dictators are things that happen only in the news, in far away places. Much like 'War of Worlds' attempted to bring the horror of imperialism into the English countryside so too does dystopic AH.

There is also often a sort of comfort to Dystopic AH, a sense of patting our own reality on the back and saying well it could have been worse. At its worst Dystopic Alternate History such as 'If Israel had lost the War' can even become an exercise in contrasting imaginary crimes with real ones to make the latter seem better in comparison. The British Empire did a lot of bad things but they didn’t boil people alive and eat them like happens in my fictional French India, so in real life people should be grateful the UK won Plassey.

Dystopias are valuable. Good fiction makes you feel and good dystopic fiction makes you feel the perils of letting the worst of us create their own world, but dystopias can also become uncomfortably voyeuristic, torture porn in which those of us who have lived relatively comfortable lives get to imagine life if we weren't.

One of the things the genre is currently grappling with is how to make the weight of victims of a Nazi victory or a longer enduring slave trade be felt and be heard in those scenarios without glamorising the world view of the monsters we depict as having won.

E - Eurocentrism

Most AH writers, in the English language at least, are WEIRD. They are from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic countries. This is true of the average internet user (of English language sites) but isn't true of the average person in the world.

As such SLP has had writers from the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland and France. But none living in China or Nigeria or Argentina.

And people tend to know more about the countries they grew up in. And they tend to write about the countries they know the most about.

Historical fiction requires knowledge of a country's history and culture and that knowledge is more easily acquired about a country you live in and whose language you speak. The result is that a group of writers primarily from Europe and North America, write primarily about Europe and North America.

AH is therefore often Eurocentric, overly concerned with European history and ignorant of equally important events in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

This is to speak in generalities of course, there has been some excellent AH written about non European societies, from writers like Jonathan Edelstein and Jared Kavanagh, but within both SLP and larger English speaking AH spaces these are exceptions, not the rule.

So should the aim be for that to change?

Well I'd certainly like more variety, I've really loved a lot of AH written about areas outside Europe like Everfair or Axis of the Andes but only if people genuinely do have the knowledge and desire to do so. If you don't know enough about China to write an AH story set there, then don't, that's fine. Writing a story to tick a box when you don't have that knowledge is worse than not writing one. Variety is great but if the 99th story about Nazi Germany is well written then that is still going to be more interesting than a poorly written 1st every story about the Comoros Islands.

Which brings us to another question. Should we even try to write outside Europe at all? Fundamentally someone from China, who can read and access Chinese sources and knows the country will have a better insight then we do, so why not just try and promote their voices rather than taking up airspace with our own less informed takes?

This is the argument expressed by some of the 'own voices' movement in some indie circles. I have talked to writers who would be reluctant to write something which too prominently featured people from other cultures as a result, in case they were drowning out work from those people.

But this is still a relatively niche viewpoint. Most would agree that everyone should try and write about everyone else, you should just do it sensitively. For example, Arturo Serrano hired sensitivity readers from different cultures when writing a book set all over the world, to make sure he wasn't being insensitive but he still wrote it. And if you're writing about a society from 500 AD, you probably have less in common with your ancestor, in terms of shared culture, than someone from the other side of the world in the 21st century, anyway. Historical fiction requires empathy for alien viewpoints, anyway.

The problem with white writers using the 'own voices' movement to stick to white characters, is while I think we should try and promote as wide a series of voices as possible so we can get fiction from as any many angles possible, fundamentally everyone in AH is competing for the same space. European writers only writing about Europe are still drowning out African writers writing about Africa as much as European writers writing about Africa are, only they're also selling a smaller less interesting world view.

And, well it's perfectly reasonable to try and promote a Liberian writer's Liberian AH over a British writer's Liberian AH but that rather requires there being Liberian writers doing that. Sometimes there isn't and often, in practice, your choice is between someone with decent intentions and some knowledge and someone with a Rhodesian flag in his house who never doubted for a second his right to write it.

F - Future History

'The Surly Bonds of Earth' is a book that came out in 2019. It is set in 2052 and it, and its sequels, show Earth discovering faster than light travel, colonising other planets and meeting alien races for the first time.

It is also set in a world where the World Trade Centre still stands, the UK is part of a centralised EU and Al Gore was president. It is AH, only one that depicts an Alternate Future rather than an Alternate Past. Because the Author first dreamed of the idea in the 1990s and when he came to write it decided to keep a lot of the assumptions that he had back then. Surly Bonds is a story about the future people though would happen in the 1990s without any of the shocks to that, that happened in the 21st century.

This is Future History, and like a lot of History, it tells you a lot about the times of the person writing it.

Sea Lion Press has published six Future History novels in total, two of which are Surly Bonds and its sequel. has an entire sub forum devoted to future history.

What I have always found exciting about that, compared to regular sci-fi is that this can mean two things.

Say there's an election, as happens quite regularly. If you watch that and then wake up the next day and feel inspired, you could go out and write a future history covering the first four years of the winners term and guessing what it would be like, but you could equally go and write that same story about the loser's term. And both are future history, only one is future history of something that had already not happened.

And five years later, both will bear little resemblance to actual events but will reflect the fears and hopes of the time.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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