By Alexander Wallace
At four P.M, Eastern Standard time on December eighteenth, 2021, a large number of fans of the alternate history genre congregated in the Forum Room of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington D.C. (where the Beatles stayed for their first American concert, Manuel Quezon lived when the Philippines was occupied by the Japanese, and Bill Clinton played the saxophone) at DISCON III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention. It was the fourth day of the convention. We had all come to hear a discussion of the genre, and perhaps more pressingly, the announcement of the winners of the 2019 and 2020 Sidewise Awards for Alternate History. Due to the pandemic, the 2019 awards had been delayed, and the whole room was masked, myself included.
I sat in a corner, pressed to the wall, in a room where every seat was occupied; this was rare for this convention (or conventions generally, in my limited experience of them). In front of the seats was a convention table, with five speakers on the panel. They were:
Steven H. Silver, the founder of the Sidewise Awards, and an editor, writer and pillar of the community.
Jo Walton, author of many alternate history works like the Small Change trilogy and Lent, winner of the Prometheus, World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Tiptree, British Fantasy, Nebula, and Locus awards.
Alan Smale, NASA scientist, member of the Chromatics a cappella group (who performed at the convention and were amazing - I love their song about Galileo), and alternate history author, including a story in Tales from Alternate Earths III.
Yasser Bahjatt, the author of Yaqteenya: the Old World, the first alternate history novel written in Arabic.
And Olav Rokne, journalist and photographer, co-editor of An Unofficial Hugo Book Club Blog.
The topic of the panel as listed in the program book was ‘New Alternate Histories,’ but the panelists had decided that there was a more interesting discussion to be had. The new topic was about explaining unfamiliar history to audiences when writing alternate history.
It was a discussion that would be familiar to most members of the Sea Lion Press forums. There was talk about avoiding the dreaded infodumps or ‘as you know, Bob.’ From there, there were a variety of ideas, from the non-narrative expository clippings (a very common practice in internet alternate history) to simply writing the story in such a way that you can follow it without deep knowledge of the history in question. There was much talk of Harry Turtledove, as well as some of Walton’s novels. There was also talk of how, when hewing close to historical reality for a time, some historical ignorance can benefit the reader, for suspense can be maintained in a way that would not apply for a historically informed reader. Yassir Bahjatt discussed this concretely in terms of explaining Arab history to Westerners in his alternate history novel.
What struck me so much about this talk was how little intersection there was with the online alternate history community; I can’t remember Walton’s work ever being mentioned on alternatehistory.com or any other forum. Likewise, a similar discussion online would have had much more discussion of online works, like those of Tom Anderson or Jon Kacer. There’s a very real gulf between the two that became apparent to me when in the audience for the panel (although, in a conversation I had with Silver, he said that he had read a number of SLP books and articles). Another part of it, I think, is that many online AH fans, and SLP forum dwellers in particular, are not regular attendees at science fiction conventions.
Then it was on to the awards. This is when we were all waiting for the decisions to be made. One by one, the winners were announced for all four categories. I was particularly ecstatic that Matthew Kresal had won the first Sidewise for a work published by SLP (for his story Moonshot, in the anthology Alternate Australias edited by Jared Kavanagh). I had read Harry Turtledove’ story Christmas Truce when it had come out in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and I thought it was an earned win. Unfortunately, I had read neither of the winning novels.
It was an enervating, if somewhat strange, experience to be in a room filled with those whose actions have so many effects on the forum communities I post in, but were still very much a separate sphere. It was also thrilling to hear alternate history discussed in person among a group in a way that the majority of my personal friends simply don’t do. If any Chicagoan alternate history fans can attend next year’s convention there, a visit to the Sidewise room is a must.