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Panel Discussion: Guns and Butter - Part 1

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

By Alexander Wallace, Liam Connell, Arturo Serrano, Colin Salt and Alison Morton

This is an experiment: a panel discussion, modelled on live in-person panels at science fiction conventions, to discuss a particular theme. That theme is Violence, Power, and Alternatives in Alternate History. In his recent interview with Sea Lion Press, Arturo Serrano said:

“My pacifism is a big part of my writing. Americans are bizarrely comfortable with violence, which is another key theme of my novel. You can see in 'To Climates Unknown' how I deliberately steered away from military content, which is why, over several chapters, world events build up to a huge world war that I then skip, because war is boring, so I jump over a century of history to tell what happens after the war. That’s also why I go out of my way to have a character explicitly say that war is the least interesting part of human history (and I posit that it’s the least interesting part of alternate history). What draws me to alternate history is not the scorekeeping of who wins and who dies, but the meaning of the story. And, on a more technical level, I am opposed to the use of violence as an aesthetic object. Violence is what happens when humanity fails.”

This is a position that asks potent questions about a genre that has so often depended on war as a driver of its plots. We are a hobby that owes a lot to wargaming, virtual and physical. That is, however, not the only thing that can be done with, as Serrano’s novel To Climates Unknown shows, as well as other works, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.

The title of this panel comes from a thought experiment in economics used to explain the concept of opportunity cost: when an economic actor, from an individual to a government, invests in one course of action, the opportunity cost is the benefit that could have been gained in an alternative course of action. That, there, is the topic of this panel: in focusing so much on war, what has alternate history as a genre lost? What should we do in the future?

I, Alexander Wallace, will act as moderator and the four panellists are:

Arturo Serrano: reviewer at the blog Nerds of a Feather and author of To Climates Unknown.

Alison Morton: author of the Roma Nova series and a piece on a similar subject on the Alternate History Weekly Update.

Liam Connell: Graduate student in history at the London School of Economics.

Now, I turn the discussion to the panellists for their opening statements, and ask: should alternate history writers beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks?

SALT: A very interesting discussion, glad to be part of this. By all means, I should be representing the pro-violence side of this debate, because I love reading trashy action novels and wrote two for SLP, including one where the hero tosses someone into a trash compactor and turns it on. So I can say with full confidence that yes, violence sells and can make compelling fiction.

However, my most recent novel, and the one I'm most proud of, The Sure Bet King, was deliberately done to have no violence worse than boxing matches. And since violence is a means of perpetuating power, I found it interesting to write about my main character Eddie Ross, a con artist who relishes in power, but is not a violent person. It was actually refreshing and good to do that.

I’m also an avid wargamer, and so feel somewhat obligated to defend my hobby. Thing is, people have different interests, and alternate history is such a broad field that I’m not really sure if an opportunity cost is really there. Is someone who plays tabletop American Civil War/World Wars/198X Conventional WW3 games the biggest target audience for Rice and Salt-style highbrow fiction? And if they are, I just can’t see the connection with “Ok, because I liked this 1980s wargame, I’ll go check out this work of social fiction.” It’d be liking two things separately.

That being said, even in the “trash-action” subgenre itself, I do there’s important points to share. As you might have known, I once thought there was a massive, overstuffed glut of conventional World War III fiction, to the point where I made the “Iceland Scale” for it. Turns out it was in wargaming alone and one small internet boomlet. The world of online AH is a giant anomaly compared to written fiction.

So a part of me wants to say: “If it turns out the AH community gets a lot of military writers, so be it. That’s how it shakes out, that’s how it is.” Not everything is going to appeal to everyone, nor should it. Trying to force it, well-just look at the political scenes in Tom Clancy novels to see what that would probably be like…

But another part of me, the part that has experienced such joy from branching my reading and blogging out into all kinds of fiction, would love to see horizons broadened. The Sure Bet King is inspired by the “pop epics” of Sidney Sheldon, a lowbrow writer but not a white-knuckle one. I had never read him when I started my blog.

So what has it lost? I’d say audacity. Just shuffling winners and losers and dates and battles and wikiboxes around makes the setting feel small and artificial. But something like Rice and Salt’s layout makes it feel big and genuine. What should they do? There’s no harm in expanding your horizons.

SERRANO: The question is formulated in terms of “should,” and that opens a separate minefield. It’s very difficult to argue for “should” in art. I, for one, would like to see less enthusiasm for war stories, but it would be ridiculous of me to try to turn my preference into an edict. The fact that so many fans of AH (and fans of almost every literary genre) are writing about war is a signal that war obviously continues to worry people. So I wouldn’t go to the length of actively asking authors to stop writing military novels, if they’re writing them to explore their obsessions and their values and their worldviews and not simply writing to cash in on a popular publishing trend. So I don’t want to tell artists how to do art. But I do want to analyze the strong pull that military history has in AH.

That so much of AH is military fiction suggests to me the confluence of two tendencies, one about the way we think of history and another about the way we think of narration. The first is the tendency to assume that history is primarily decided by war, and that to speak of the course of history is to speak of the results of wars. The second is the undeniable appeal of spectacular violence in popular media, which reinforces the choice to keep writing stories where dramatic conflict evolves into physical conflict. Even more than in standard historical fiction, these two movements have found a fertile meeting place in AH, where the perennial Confederate and Nazi scenarios would be just a special case of a more general phenomenon: the tacit acceptance of the position that changing the direction of history is a matter of changing the direction of war.

All this brings us to our current situation, where the most popular art forms are first-person videogames and superhero movies, and both use a clear narrative format that requires combat to resolve the story. But this has permeated entertainment for centuries. Chess? Combat simulator. Tag? Combat simulator. D&D? Combat simulator. Pokemon? Combat simulator. Paintball? Combat simulator. Polo? Literally invented to train cavalry. Risk? Oh boy.

So we should not jump to blame writers for the weight of violence on stories. War was the method to decide political questions for almost all of human history. It wasn’t until the 20th century that states made a serious effort to form a world alliance to prevent wars (and it took two attempts to build that world alliance), and it took many more centuries before that for states to go from a mindset of “this particular war does not look in my favor and it benefits me to avoid it” to the still very new mindset of “war in itself is an evil thing regardless of where it happens or to whom it happens and therefore all of us should avoid wars on principle.” So it’s very difficult to think outside of the conflict-equals-violence box. In the other speculative genres (fantasy, horror, adventure, dystopia, superheroes), we still find, time after time, a big climactic fight as the narrative tool of choice to resolve the plot. Perhaps what I’m hoping genre writers will try to do is take a look at the more literary side of books and learn the variety of structures and endings that can be used to resolve dramatic conflict besides the same old big flashy battle. Some fans of Disney have complained of recent entries like Moana for removing the hero/villain dynamic and saving the world without combat. I say: let’s have more of that. It opens fascinating new avenues of creativity.

MORTON: I write a series of thrillers set in a tiny remnant of the Roman Empire in central Europe. The first strand of four books are set in the present day; the second four in the late 1960s to early 1980s. A bit of backstory to the alternative timeline: in early AD 395 in the dusk of their empire, Romans loyal to the old gods stood in danger of execution when the Theodosian decrees suppressing non-Christian religious practice were more strongly enforced. Over four hundred ‘pagan’ Romans trekked north out of Italy to a semi-mountainous area similar to modern Slovenia.

Led by Senator Apulius and his four daughters, twelve senatorial families established a colony based initially on land owned by Apulius’s Norican father-in-law, Bacausus. The newly arrived Romans stayed true to their values and defended them with strength and determination. Over the centuries, by purchase and alliance, Bacausus’s ancestral lands grew into Roma Nova.

Ancient Roman attitudes to women had been repressive even though towards the later Imperial period women had gained much more freedom to act, trade and own property and to run businesses of all types. Roma Nova survived by changing its social structure; as men constantly fought to defend the new colony, women took over the social, political and economic roles, weaving new power and influence networks based on family structures.

Given the unstable, dangerous times in Roma Nova’s first few hundred years, eventually the daughters as well as sons had to put on armour and carry weapons to defend their homeland and their way of life. Fighting danger side-by-side with brothers and fathers reinforced women’s status and roles. And they never allowed the incursion of monotheistic paternalistic religions. So I don’t think that it’s too far a stretch for women to have developed leadership roles in all parts of Roma Novan life over the next sixteen centuries.

Roma Nova’s continued existence has been favoured by three factors: the discovery and exploitation of high grade silver in their mountains, their efficient technology, and their robust response to any threat.

Twenty-three years before the action of the first book, INCEPTIO, set in the early 21st century, Roma Nova was nearly destroyed by a coup, a brutal male-dominated consulship and civil war. A weak leader, sclerotic and outmoded systems that had not developed since the last great reform in the 1700s and a neglected economy let in a clever and ruthless tyrant. But with characteristic resilience, the families fought back and reconstructed their society, re-learning the basic principles of Republican virtue, while subtly changing it to a more representational model for modern times.

Ancient Rome was a martial society; this tradition continues in Roma Nova. But although a robust response to threats is required and exercised, it is not an aggressive ‘whole society’ response, nor does it use war as a method of expansion. Indeed, Roma Nova was criticised for sitting out the Great War of 1915-1925 as neutral in their timeline. Political, societal and economic solutions are preferred and the rule of law is followed. Perhaps the gender-bias of women leading has something to do with it. The stories rest more on intelligence operations, their challenges and solutions, and on personal development and relationships, especially of the heroines of each generation, Carina and Aurelia. While the thrillers have a logical resolution, often involving some action, war or wholescale violence is not necessary to conclude a tense and exciting story.

CONNELL: I confess that I haven’t read the Roma Nova books, but your description intrigues me principally because of that comment about the changing role of women in that society. I think that one of the contributing factors to the ‘staleness’ of violence in alternate history is that so much alternate history is just an exercise in imagining ‘who would win?’.

You see this, obviously, in video games and increasingly in ‘mods’ for video games: World War 2 strategy games where the fanbase has added the Confederacy, or games whose plots exist so that Vikings can fight Samurai, or what have you.

In the online world, many timelines are just ‘map-painting’ exercises, fantasies in imagining an endlessly expanding empire. The USA picks up Canada, Britain keeps the Empire, Japan expands out into South East Asia early- and these stories again and again feature descriptions of ‘The Battle of Plot Point,’ often written in the style of a textbook or a wikipedia entry, that describes the bloody deaths of tens of thousands of people in exactly the distanced style of a textbook or wikipedia entry.

It seems to me that whether the work is light entertainment such as a thriller describing a war that never was, or if its a novel whose true interest lies in human relationships (I’m thinking, by way of example, of Roths’ The Plot Against America,) alternate history has a responsibility to be aware of the consequences of violence. Imagined confrontations are not simply a scorecard - half-way to the Rhine, are the Soviets up and the Americans down?

That brings me back to my point about Roma Nova’s changing society. Alternate history too often thinks that violence only changes the map. Violence changes society on every level! From the destruction of families and the ending of individual lives, right through to broader ideas of what ‘normal’ violence is- so often alternate history imagines endless war and brushes it off with a remark about ‘warrior cultures’ without thinking seriously about how the constant erosion of the population of able-bodied adults in conquest would actually affect a society. It’s not only ‘would women fight?,’ (Tabling, for now, the discussion of how women have always fought, at least to some extent). Violence affects the structure of society. Sparta has been idealised and despised for thousands of years and the idea of 'The Spartan Super Warrior' is popular, but in actual fact Spartan society was defined not by war but by the constant fear of the largest class of enslaved people in the antique world. That’s violence, violence of the worst kind- but brutalising helots features less in alternate historical fiction than worryingly aryan hoplites overcoming Persia.

MORTON: I spent six years in the British army in a specialist communications unit deployable clandestinely. Men and women were trained and operated equally and I know that women would fight, and effectively. However, with a very few exceptions, most soldiers do not want the tense situations to become ‘hot’. The best operations are quick and surgical. ‘Get the job done and get home.’ Of course, there are many examples of the opposite especially when mission creep becomes mission gallop.

What I’m coming round to is that many fictional accounts in AH novels are heavy with geopolitics where whole armies are thrown into a situation when a company of soldiers could do the job. Sometimes, these armies never rest, never use the loo, rarely eat and often get drunk. Little mention is made of logistics and communications, let alone medical services and casualty evacuation and rehabilitation. There is often little nuance and little reflection of the alternative society they are living in and the effects of war on them.

When violence is depicted as hand to hand combat or close quarter confrontation in fiction, some of the fights go on forever. In reality, after ten to fifteen minutes, you are exhausted.

I do wish there was more cunning and negotiation, more recognition of co-operation in fiction and more wit.

The other important thing is memory. Terrible events e.g. the Second World War for my parents, remain in personal, generational and wider societal memory until that generation dies out. It was the formative experience of their lives. Fiction writers of AH need to consider the effect of past events on their current characters’ lives. For Aurelia in my Roma Nova books, the Great Rebellion of her younger days has scarred her emotionally and this is reflected in her behaviour and attitudes even in her seventies.

SALT: You make a good point, Alison. Even as an armchair enthusiast who knows I couldn’t do anything except get killed in an actual battle, I know enough that there’s an inherent dilemma about battles where it’s “it can be exciting or realistic”. It got to the point where I deliberately made a fight scene (even) less realistic on purpose for the sake of spectacle. And even in the most basic, spherical cow rivet-counting “what’s the name/designation of this weapon”, you’d be astounded (or not :p ) how rare it is that thriller writers can get even the absolute basics right.

That being said, that’s a subject for discussion of fiction in general. For alternate history, if it’s “AH as a setting”, then any critique of general fiction will also apply. IE, you can criticize Robert Conroy for his inaccuracy just the same way you’d criticize a contemporary thriller writer.

For “AH as a genre”, I think it gets trickier. The first issue is that one list of changed names and maps looks basically like any other list. It’s the kind of thing that has essentially no appeal outside of the fanbase, or even people within it who aren’t into that topic. The second issue is that the internet has made it a lot easier to get broad information, but not so much to get deep information. You want to know the names of every formation in the Fulda Gap? You want an obscure figure you could insert in? Check. You want to know how that formation looked, fought, and acted? That’s a lot harder.

WALLACE: In regards to Alison’s point about cooperation - we all too often tar nonviolent means of conflict resolution or activism as being impotent. There’s one particular film that this reminded me of - Hidden Figures, and the fan condemnation of what was perceived as ‘white saviorism,’ which I interpreted more as the black computers in the film seeing a potential ally and intelligently using his goodwill to further their own ends. In social movements like this, that ability to strategically compromise is very important, and can lead to compelling drama. Trade unions run on it.

SALT: This is why I think The Sum Of All Fears is far and away my favorite Tom Clancy novel. It involves Jack Ryan nonviolently working to defuse an inherently unwinnable nuclear exchange. A different perspective that’s actually daring from a thriller standpoint and one that couldn’t be more distinct from the later books where he gloats while assassinating someone on live TV.

CONNELL: I wonder if some authors don’t really believe that non-violent- or less violent- resolutions are interesting to read, or at least that they lack the confidence to write them. Set aside entirely non-violent stories for now- in other genres, it is possible to write even about violent institutions such as state espionage services in an exciting and engaging matter with a minimum of actual violence. John Le Carré stories often feature comparatively little violence compared to other spy stories, yet they are gripping nonetheless. Scenes where characters maneuver their way through a tense meeting, sneak documents out of an office, try to convince a stranger that their identity card is genuine: all that is gripping, and most of it does not actually carry even the threat of actual violence.

And the reason I chose that example is because spy fiction often features exactly the sort of areas that many AH readers enjoy- political stakes, specifications for exotic technology, the fate of countries- and yet it is, in the main, much, much less violent than most other types of thrillers. It can be done as AH- SS-GB, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, etc. But I think that the online fanbase hasn’t responded as much as the general public has.

Maybe the path away from ‘all war, all geopolitics’ AH is to focus more on these smaller, tenser stories rather than trying to carry the audience to ‘civil society alternate history’ (as it were) in one bound.

SERRANO: Over the years, I've met people of every political persuasion, and it has been regrettably more common to hear that nonviolence is too naïve or too impractical than the reverse position. That sounds to me like lack of imagination, and that's where writers are supposed to excel. It doesn't matter if your ideology considers nonviolence impossible: it’s still the preferable way. And once you've imagined it, it becomes a little less impossible.

Unfortunately, genre stories with few or no casualties are simply perceived as less sexy, and therefore less marketable. If you take a look at the seasons each year when literary agents announce to prospective authors what manuscripts they want to receive, you see a consistent yearning for adrenaline, excitement, high stakes. So we as genre authors feel a very strong pressure from literary agents (which might be responding to an equivalent pressure from publishers) to participate in an escalating arms race where, so to speak, points are deducted from your story if it doesn't aggressively hook the reader with an explosive conflict. Even genre writing guides contribute to this attitude of neverending thrillseeking.

In the almost two years I spent trying to query my novel to agents, I found this expectation to be a very common barrier. So we have that on one side: a self-reinforcing selection process where agents and publishers won't bother looking at stories that pause to breathe. And that feeds a process that occurs on the other hand: since genre fans are fed a steady diet of stories that always resolve with violence, an unquestioned assumption emerges that that's how genre stories work. This shapes readers' buying habits and authors' creative choices. Our culture won't consider the chance that nonviolence works, so nonviolent stories are judged as not marketable, so such stories don't make it to the bookstores, so we don't get to see examples of nonviolence working, so the culture won't consider the chance that it works. It's an entirely avoidable vicious cycle, and the way to break it is to risk telling different stories.

MORTON: Well, Arturo has neatly summed up the first nine years of my novel writing career! I’m not puffing myself up, but I have been told from many angles that my work is of publishable standard; reader reviews seem to corroborate that. However, agents who wanted thrillers have said they didn’t want ‘weird alternative stuff’ as they didn’t know how to sell it and agents who wanted AH advised me that although espionage thrillers, the stories were more personal stories with not enough large social changes. I beg to differ as they either refer to or involve betrayal, revolution, insurrection and liberation. However, they are written from the characters’ POV and experience. I believe that courage, self-sacrifice, compromise and the clever way out can be written with the same tension especially if they weave the personal, professional and political together. Thus, I have embarked on an indie journey so that I can write what I want. And I haven’t done too badly. ;-)

SALT: Liam makes a great point regarding spy fiction. This brings me to the “pop epic”, which is similar in some ways. After reading alternate history and reading pop epics (Sidney Sheldon at the low end, James Michener at the high end…) it’s honestly mind-boggling to me why there are so few examples of books with that style set in alternate history.

Pop epics, even when they have scenes/plot points of violence in them, are rarely visercial or reveling in it. Sheldon’s Master of the Game (my favorite pop epic) has the entire later part of the book centered around an heiress trying to kill her twin sister, and yet the tone is completely different from action thrillers. It’s to the point where I’d argue that less direct violence is what distinguishes them from just “thrillers”.

And yet, there’s some Turtledove stuff, The Years of Rice and Salt, Serrano’s own To Climates Unknown, and that’s about it, at least off the top of my head. Which is strange because pop epics are about showing a big, sweeping picture as time passes. The potential of synchronizing that with alternate history should be obvious. But somehow it’s been unfulfilled. Which is a shame.

And it’s not like it’s just stuff with obvious divergences (the Axis/Confederate victory cliche). It’s not even like it’s “backdoor alternate history” where it’s not sold as such. You’d think more people would try the format than they have.

I loved writing my own pop-epic styled The Sure Bet King simply because it represented something in between the trashy cheap thrillers and dry textbooks I normally like reading, which lead to the epiphany that alternate history has that exact kind of bifurcation. It trends towards either “BLOW UP ROBOT STONEWALL JACKSON AFTER HE VOWS TO MAKE THE CONFEDERACY GREAT AGAIN” or “Here’s the Cabinet of President Ted Williams, in wikibox form”, to deliberately turn to the caricature extremes.

SERRANO: And even those extremes, intentionally distorted, are uncomfortably close to the real discussions going on in the AH fandom. Today’s newest topics in include “Would any parts of a victorious Napoleonic France eventually break off?” and “What if the Soviet Union tries to recapture Alaska during the Cold War?” and “Absent Brazil, would a Portuguese Mexico settle the north more than the Spanish?”

My problem is not with the questions in themselves, but with the way the discussion proceeds, which is to say, from the assumption that such questions are neatly solvable. There are hundreds of different possible novels to write about each of those scenarios, and how historically “probable” they are is a concern that falls outside the realm of literary craft. It’s like that perennial question about who would win a fight between Superman and Goku: it’s fun to think about, but you’ve missed the point entirely if you believe there’s an objective answer.

The conclusions the Panel came to will follow in another article.



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