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Alternate History: J,K,L

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.

A lot of this article is inspired by discussion on the SLP forums, my thanks to anyone whose arguments I am paraphrasing.

J - Jargon

Jargon is language used by a particular group of people, which most other people do not understand. All professions and hobbies have their own Jargon, that can make understanding communication within those groups difficult for outsiders.

AH communities obviously are no exception, that jargon is part of what this series covers. The sentence 'Nah, I wasn't too fond of that timeline, the POD was ASB and the AH was less interesting than OTL' is difficult to parse unless you're within the community.

But that isn't what I'm talking about here. Because, for writers of AH, there is the fact to grapple with that each reality should also have its own Jargon. So many common phrases used in our language are context dependent. As one example, the saying 'Bob's your uncle' comes from nepotism in early 20th century British politics, in a timeline with changes to the UK in the 19th century that phrase will be replaced by something else.

This poses a quandary for an AH writer. Do you handwave this and use modern Jargon or do you lean into it?

You can lose yourself in the weeds of trying to track down whether a Duffle Bag would have that name or whether a Car would and changing language too much can veer into extraneous fantasy language that makes the work difficult to read and makes them hard to enter into.

If you, as a reader, are constantly encountering words and phrases you do not understand, it makes reading a difficult experience. It becomes almost work having to remember that this word means Tank and this one means Molotov cocktail, etc.

However there is a place for relatively intuitive changes, in terms of selling this world as different. First Citizen rather than President, Lesbosist for Feminist or Corpsmaster for General are all easily understandable in context for instance and makes the AH feel more immersive. And throwing in an occasional saying that isn't recognisable at all is fine, readers will like the exoticism but because its rare don't feel like they're lost, in the same way they might skip over an untranslated French phrase.

And, on the other hand, readers will sometimes notice if a phrase should not be used and this will break their suspension of disbelief. They probably won't think too much about whether an Anglo-Saxon England would still use the words copper or beef but they definitely will notice if, in your world without Christianity, somebody swears by saying 'Jesus Christ'.

Ultimately using alien Jargon in moderation can really help sell that this is a slightly alien world but care must be made that the story is still readable.

K - Kuhnian Incommensurability

Thomas Samuel Kuhn (July 18, 1922 – June 17, 1996), American historian and philosopher of science (Photographer: Bill Pierce)

In Thomas Kuhn's 1962 book 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions', he described Incommensurability as the idea that the same word could be used to describe multiple different theories. As he put it 'two theories that are incommensurable means that there is no neutral language, or other type of language, into which both theories, conceived as sets of statements, can be translated without remainder or loss' and yet Einstein's Gravity and Newton's Gravity are Incommensurable theories which happen to share the same name.

Whether a scientific theory is 'proved right, then refined' or 'proved wrong, so superseded' is essentially arbitrary.

Was Newton right? Well not entirely, his ideas of Gravity have been rejected and altered but he was right enough that we still call it Gravity.

Was Galileo right? Well, no he felt the sun was the centre of universe and that heavenly bodies moved in perfectly circular orbits, he was just more right than people before him.

Same can be said for Darwin, who didn't grasp the molecular means of transferring genetic information. We accepted and refined these theories, but we easily could have proved them wrong and superseded them instead, with a change in name.

In Tom Anderson's epic book series 'Look to the West', Phlogiston theory, the idea that combustion happened because of the existence of a fire-like element called phlogiston, is accepted then refined. The theory is that substances that burned in air were said to be rich in phlogiston; the fact that combustion soon ceased in an enclosed space was taken as clear-cut evidence that air had the capacity to absorb only a finite amount of phlogiston. When air had become completely phlogisticated it would no longer serve to support combustion of any material, nor would a metal heated in it yield a calx; nor could phlogisticated air support life. Breathing was thought to take phlogiston out of the body.'

In 'Look to the West', Phlogiston is refined as carbon and phlogisticated air as Carbon dioxide. The theory itself is therefore never rejected.

In our world it was and Lavoisier's Oxygen theory superseded it. But Lavoisier was also wrong, he thought Oxygen was an important part of acids, which it isn't and didn't realise it was something with a weight and other such properties. It's just his theory was refined and Phlogiston rejected, whereas in 'Look to the West' it's the other way around.

Thus what you would think are unalterable bits of Scientific theory, Oxygen theory will always win because Oxygen theory is right, are much more alterable than that and different universes can reach different scientific conclusions.

L - Lists

Not all Alternate History is written in a format that easily translates to publishing. On Online forums, there is often a large amount of micro fiction.

One of the most common forms of micro fiction is a list of people, who hold a specific position, sometimes with a paragraph explaining the background, sometimes by itself.

Like most micro fiction, lists like this work by implication. It hints at a broader context which the reader must work out.

So if, for instance, a list of Managers of the England Men's National Football Team included Johnny Marr, the reader could work out that his trial at Manchester City youth team was successful and so the Smiths never formed, if it included Duncan Edwards, the reader could form the conclusion that the Munich air Disaster never happened. And from the dates of the managers, they could deduce which had been successful and which had not. Such a format implies rather than states, but can still paint a picture.

Likewise, if that same list has the England team shut down for several years due to war, change its name or be merged into another team, that hints at broader political happenings. And in many ways, it's more effective to have those darker implications expressed indirectly through a sports list which doesn't directly mention it.

Micro fiction like this always runs the risk at being throwaway due to lack of space. With all due respect to Hemingway, few people prefer "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." to his actual novels, but it can be powerful and it can be written and consumed much quicker.

It can also be an idea that can later be expanded on, many of SLP's novels are based around ideas first expressed in that kind of list. Once you have thought up a world, you can then explore it in much more traditional narratives.


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

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