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Alternate History: V,W

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.

V - Vignettes

We have two written articles about what a vignette is on this blog already and published over 50 examples.

The reason for this focus is that on the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge for Alternate History fiction.

Contributors are invited to write short stories (short is a loose description, there's no maximum or minimum length) on a specific theme, which is changed monthly. So in one month the challenge might be to write a story about LGBT Alternate History (which led to Roshita Narasimhan's 'Scarlet') and the next the challenge might be to write a story about an Alternate history Apocalypse (which inspired Liam Connell to write 'The Name of God is God Himself').

We have ran over 50 monthly contests in the forums, on themes as diverse as Football and the American Civil War, and produced over 500 excellent short stories. Anyone who joins the Forums can get access to read those stories (they're in the contest sub forum of the writing forum which is visible upon making a free account) and also enter the contests themselves. And SLP has produced many anthologies collecting that work for publication. The form is very much our bread and butter as a community.

So why vignettes? Well a vignette is an old term for a short and descriptive piece of writing that captures a brief period in time. A snapshot of a timeline that never existed. And sometimes that is all you need for AH, an evocative description of a different world. If that's all you have then a short story can be powerful and meaningful whereas a novel would feel laboured and formless.

Philip K Dick said that speculative fiction suits short form work because it just allows you to just describe a situation rather than a plot, and the power of speculative fiction is often the situation and not the plot.

W - Wikibox

In previous articles, we have discussed various micro fictions that have emerged in the amateur online community. A map and a list used to tell an entire story.

The slightest of those micro fictions is the wikibox. An edited infobox from a wikipedia page. I will put an example, made by me, below.

It's classic micro-fiction in that it says very little, but implies a great deal more about how we could have reached this situation. The idea behind it, of the French being invited in by an Irish rebellion and then just not leaving, I have reused in a short story that will hopefully be published next year. The box itself is throwaway.

But that's what wikiboxes are. A type of micro fiction useful for expressing quick ideas, normally of no more depth or importance than a shower thought.

Sometimes people use their wikiboxes as the building blocks of a timeline. A wikibox displaying an election or a battle followed by a description of how that happened and then on the next box. These works are controversial, seen often as low effort compared to traditional narratives because you don't need character work or a point, you just need a collection of set pieces.

Alex Wallace and Colin Salt have said before that they view wikibox timelines often as a symptom that the author views history as primarily the aggregation of bits of trivia, whose own complex interrelationships are neglected. That they reduce the study of history to a collection of trinkets rather than the system of the world that many academics spend entire lives studying but a tiny portion. An election here, a battle here but nothing coherently joining them together beyond these cool trinkets. The nature of the wikibox timeline encourages this broad but shallow outlook.

It's something I'm often guilty of myself, because I do like trivia and often view the broader trends of history as just a place where anecdotes happen as if I'm sat in a pub listening to Abraham Samuel (the galley slave who became a King in Madagascar) go 'you won't believe what I did the other day, marra. So there I was...'. In amateur AH, you often see these anecdotes, names and events that happen for the sake of novelty and trivia but aren't weaved into the narrative. But Historical fiction has to say something, it can't just be pointing at microhistories and going 'look, that happened'. And as someone who kind of loves doing that, it's something I try and keep in mind because I know it's tempting.

And Wikibox timelines often do end up just pointing at various things and saying 'this happened' rather than having a viewpoint they're expressing, because of the nature of the format which often focuses on set pieces, that can be expressed nicely in a box, rather than themes.

And the problem is worse, the more ambitious the work. In many works like this you often see Europe being relatively well thought out and then you get to the rest of the world and the Zulus are conquering Madagascar because something needed to happen there and that's something original and different. The space-filling empire is a classic of that. It's just something to fill a gap because otherwise there's nothing there.

The thing is it's impossible to be an expert on everything and this isn't just an AH problem. Early Simpsons is a superb satire of American life written by Americans who know their country, when they visit Australia and the UK, the satire is shallower and the jokes less clever. Same with Blackadder and France. In Independence Day the USA get the political structure they have and the South Africans hold spears and shields. And so on and so forth. The world outside your focus is just trinkets.

The problem with AH communities is they often deliberately encourage an expansion of focus which inevitably results in you reaching the trinkets. So the standard is to do a world map even when a map of Europe is better suited to your purposes. This is why when people write timelines on Greece, they get told this would effect Persia and so you get 7,000 words on Persia which start with the disclaimer 'I'm not an expert on Persia so let me know if any of this doesn't work' and of course it won't work, you've read 10 books on Greece and one jstor article on Persia.

There is nothing innate to the wikibox timeline that leads to those problems, its more the nature of amateur writers, but the two things are often linked. Partly because to an extent micro fiction like the wikiboxes are ways of expressing ideas about plausible diversions to history without having to write a story.

But inevitably people who don't really care about plausibility adopt those methods because it's easier than actually writing a story with characters and a plot. But because there's no characters and no plot there's nothing to distract you from the lack of plausibility. They've used a method designed to show their historical workings and if the historical workings don't make sense, it focuses on that in a distracting way. Which is why the very worst amateur fiction tends to be in this format, because it focuses on the bones of it, rather than the heart or gloss.

The Man in the High Castle is a story, there are characters and things happening, how we got there is vague and unimportant and it's fine cos that's not the point. If that same story is told as overview summaries of history through wikiboxes 'one on the election of FDR, one on the conquest of the USA' then you're forced to deal with the moving parts. And that's how Wikibox timelines often are.

I don't think they're always bad, I've written similar things myself. I think they can be interesting essays that posit a potential political and historical setting. Its not a story but then I don't think everything has to be a story, I think there's merit in essays, in just chatting about potentials and history. I don't think any format can't be made to shine.

But I think wikibox timelines are very easy to get wrong and often show the worst side of amateur writing.


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

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