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Alternate History: X,Y,Z

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.

X - Xenofiction

Xenofiction is a term for fiction which explicitly is written from the point of view of an alien mentality, a non human, and tries to minimise the way that creature is anthropomorphised. Watership Down is xenofiction in that it attempts to make its rabbit protagonists feel like rabbits and not humans. Likewise Sci-fi and Fantasy which has alien, robot or monster protagonists who feel unlike humans and who operate on very different motivations is also xenofiction.

John W Campbell said xenofiction was the highest form of speculative fiction and that the aim of Science Fiction was to "write a creature who thinks as well as a man or better than a man but not like a man". Admittedly, Nicole Rudick was correct to point out that a woman also fits that definition and Campbell would never print a story about one of those, but I think Campbell was right that that’s an admirable goal.

And AH fiction at its best produces societies that work as well as our current one but do not work like our current one does. The creature that does not think the way you think could well be you, if the tenets of your society were different.

I realise there is a long and awful history of societies unlike us being deemed non-human and so fit to be massacred and I don't want to give credence to that at all. Humans are Human.

Nonetheless as the world becomes increasingly entangled and everyone shares more and more cultural markers, good AH can still act as a sort of xenofiction. Worldbuilding based on different technologies and values can create human protagonists who feel alien to us.

One of the things linguists and behaviourists often complain about with sci-fi is that alien races like Klingons are more familiar to a modern western audience than other societies to form on our own planet. AH can aim for societies based around entirely different principles which are less like the average reader than most fictional alien races they encounter are.

Y - You Wake Up As

The nature of Alternate History is to some extent 'fix-it fic' for real History. Who hasn't read about some particular Historical figure and gone 'wow, he made a lot of stupid mistakes, I would have done better'.

'You wake up as' is a subgenre of stories where that bluff is actually called. A self insert of the writer wakes up as Lenin in 1910 or Hitler in 1939 or Moctezuma in 1505 and must use their hindsight and knowledge of the future to try and lead their countries to golden ages that the real figures never did.

To a large extent it's a culture clash angle wherein you want to explore how someone from modern day Europe/USA would cope with being in some past civilisation, but politically that's adding another person from the dominant culture and whose experiences are well explored in fiction.

And well in literary terms, it's often deeply unsatisfying. The joy of an everyman protagonist in a strange situation is that they are a window on a world they know nothing about but a self insert written by a wannabe historian is often well read about that area and so isn't that. The result is you just have a guy who knows everything and understands a culture he isn't a part of better than the people who live there. And that's very dull because there's no tension or sense of jeopardy, he just wins and keeps winning.

I'm sure there's intelligent and interesting ways to do a 'You wake up as' story but I mostly find them self indulgent mary sue stories and I'm glad they seem to be less popular now then they were several years ago.

Z - Zeppelins

Andy Cooke wrote a series of Articles for this blog about Airships, so ubiquitous are they in AH. I can only quote him in the first article from that.

"When it comes to signalling that the reader is in an alternate history, airships are superb for the purpose.

Whether Harry Turtledove's The Two Georges, Michael Moorcock's Warlord of the Air, Tabac Iberez's A Century Turns, Jared's Decades of Darkness, or Ed Feery's Zephyr Brigade, if you see an airship, you know you're in an alternate history.

Disused in our history following the Hindenberg disaster in 1937, their presence in the sky telegraphs to the reader that this is something different. Something changed in history - maybe something innocuous, maybe something with farther-reaching effects."

It is a strange quirk of our genre that lighter than air vessels, not always named after Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, have become such a symbol of the alternate routes technology and so society could have gone. It feels like any number of other pieces of technology could have served that purpose instead.

But they have become the genre's mascot and no A-Z of the genre's tropes could possibly be complete without them.


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


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