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Alternate History: S,T,U

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.

S - Screws and Wanks

World map by Alice Hunter representing Human Development Index categories (based on 2019 data, published in 2020)

In our reality, it is hard to ignore that some countries have done better than others. The UK, the USA, Norway and the like have all had a pretty good time of things, all things considered. Others less so, it has not been particularly fun to live in Haiti, Lebanon, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Afghanistan at pretty much any point over the last 300 years.

One of the core tenets of Alternate History is that nothing was inevitable. Life in the UK could be as miserable as that of the average Haitian or life in Lebanon as blissful as that of the average Norwegian.

Thus, in the jargon of the AH community, you can screw a country, so that it has a series of bad breaks, or you can wank it, so that it has a series of good breaks.

I have written an unabashed Liberia wank, where instead of their leaders making the stupid short sighted greedy decisions they did in OTL, they instead mostly make smart, selfless decisions that improve their country. Is that realistic? Honestly, not really. Those short sighted decisions made sense given the genuinely dreadful position they were in, they'd have to also get very lucky for those long sighted decisions to not backfire in the short term.

But if I'm writing about Liberia, I want to write about them doing better cos like otherwise why bother. You've got to have some hope. There's no joy in writing about a wall of corpses around Monrovia, when that is what happened in real life.

Screwing a successful country, can equally result in a compelling story both in terms of the 'what if it happened here' element and in terms of shaking up the status quo by removing one of the big boys from the board.

But screwing and wanking can be very one dimensional, if every move works or doesn't work, you have no tension. It's best to have all countries have some successes and some failures, just so it doesn't get repetitive. Not a full screw or a full wank, just life.

There is also the complication that screwing and wanking are relative. This is true in terms of starting position, a wanked Haiti is likely to still be poorer than a screwed USA, and also in terms of what is or isn't success. Three different people might have three very different views as to that a wanked version of their country would look like, is it global influence, lack of inequality, number of billionaires etc?.

The question as to whether OTL Cuba has been wanked in the 20th century or screwed is a political one and two different people will give you very different answers.

T - Turtledove

Harry Turtledove, photographed here in 2005 by Szymon Sokol and shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 licence

I said in an earlier entry that many younger AH fans first got into the genre through Paradox games. Older AH fans mostly got into it instead through the works of Harry Turtledove.

I have interviewed 61 AH creators on this blog, including Turtledove himself, and the first question I always ask is how did you get into the genre and the most common answer I have got is Turtledove.

Turtledove is not only the most successful AH writer in the world, he is one of the most successful speculative fiction writers in the World. In 2007, Eric Flint argued that he was one of only 22 speculative fiction writers that every American book shop devoted a decent amount of space to, because they knew he would sell. You walked into a Waterstones or a Barnes and Noble or even a library and in the Sci -fi and Fantasy area, you found Tolkien, you found Asimov and you found Turtledove.

Worldwar, Southern Victory, Guns of the South, Agent of Byzantium, these were ubiquitous.

In a lot of towns these were the only AH books you could find and buy at all, and because they took up a shelf next to the like of George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman and Robert Heinlein, a lot of sci-fi and fantasy fans only discovered this new form of Speculative fiction through Turtledove.

You can criticise the man's writing certainly, he has not written any of my own favourite AH books, but his influence is unmatched. So many of my own favourite writers would not be writing AH without him. He built the foundations, which others live in.

U - Utopia

This Blog has devoted an entire article to Utopian AH before, written by Brian Click.

It is the opposite of the Dystopic fiction discussed earlier. A portrayal of a setting that completely agrees with the author's ethos. It's an expression of the author's hopes and desires for the world. By its nature it is both escapism and didactic.

What is a utopia is by nature personal and ideological. Thus one of the pitfalls of utopian writing is that it can easily veer into screeds. As Brian Click put it in that article "Since alternate history examines what might have happened in our real-world past, utopian alternate history setting is thus inherently more nakedly tied to real-world political issues than utopian fantasy or sci-fi settings are, so getting your point across without either boring or infuriating your readers is an even harder row to hoe."

This is a trap many have fallen into, Louis-Napoléon Geoffroy-Château, a French republican disenchanted by the Bourbon Restoration, wrote ‘Napoléon Apocryphe’, in which Napoleon wins the Napoleonic wars and ushers an era of peace, prosperity and scientific advancement. Castello Holford, an American Progressive, wrote ‘Aristopia’ in which Virginia is founded on what we would recognise as Georgist principles with the state owning all land and private wealth being limited. The result is North America forms a united utopian state.

This unsubtle preaching of ‘what if the people in charge had followed my political principles? Well everyone would happy’ is common in alternate history fiction. Early USA is often the subject, with the new country being seen as unmoulded clay which could have been formed to reflect the writer’s biases. In ‘The Probability Broach’, it becomes a libertarian paradise wherein the Whiskey rebellion overthrew Washington and the power of the government is scaled back. In Charles Felton Pidgin’s ‘The Climax’, it’s Aaron Burr’s vision of the country that gets put into practice with Federalism discredited and a much more aggressive military focus leading to an early conquest of Canada.

Utopia doesn't have to be absolute of course. You can have positive visions of the world without it being unrealistically pleasant. Some of the best AH I have ever read, such as 'Everfair' or 'Malê Rising' are unapologetically optimistic stories, in which the world is a better place.

But the problem with that is you need to personally buy into the ideological consensus of those stories (at least while you're reading it) to believe that those results would be better. You can easily look at another man's utopia and decide its actually dystopic.


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


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