Questions from Gary Oswald
This Interview is with Tom Anderson who is one of the most prolific writers for Sea Lion Press, both on this blog and in terms of books.
Hello and thanks so much for talking to us.
Thank you for inviting me!
First of all, how did you get into Alternate History and what appeals you about writing in that genre?
My first real exposure to the idea of Alternate History was the video game “Command & Conquer: Red Alert”, whose core premise (told through an atmospheric opening sequence) is that a time-travelling Einstein from 1946 kills/erases from history Hitler in the 1920s in the hope of averting the Second World War. However, as his parting words “Time will tell” fade into a rising drumbeat, we discover that eliminating Hitler only led to an even bigger war between Western European allies and the Soviet Union. While nowadays the whole ‘killing Hitler could actually make things worse’ idea is quite passé, back then it was very striking to young me. So was the idea of time travel creating a changed timeline, not merely as ‘something we need to fix by the end of the Star Trek episode’, but as a setting worth exploring in its own right. I then became more familiar with AH in general due to reading Philip K. Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle” after it was mentioned in one of the Science of Discworld books, and then devoured much of Harry Turtledove’s back catalogue in the days when it was a major fixture of British bookshops’ science fiction section.
As for what appeals to me in the genre, I’d say it’s that same ‘makes you think’ factor that the Red Alert opening sequence first awoke in me all those years ago. So much of the world around us we take for granted, when it often rests on a single, trivial moment of historical happenstance. The idea of ‘but what if...’ can also be explored through traditional science fiction with alien races, or even between different human cultures here on Earth. For instance, most westerners are shocked to learn that the idea of finishing a meal with a sweet dessert is not a universal thing, but derived from the obsolete mediaeval medical theory of the four humours. But AH offers perhaps the purest way to depict something familiar, yet utterly different in a thought-provoking way. A classic example is an obscure technology from our timeline (OTL) being dominant or vice versa; the stereotypical one is airships being everywhere, but I also like subtler cases such as Amazon still being called Cadabra, or your MP3 player being made by Iomega rather than Apple. Really, the possibilities are endless. I pay tribute to Tony Jones (of SLP’s “The Plague Policeman”) whose online AH worldbuilding works really opened my eyes to the potential of this.
Your main AH work is the 'Look to the West' series which you started writing more than 15 years ago and the sixth book of which is due out this year. Was it always intended to be such a mammoth series and is there anything from those early days that you regret being stuck with now you've evolved as a writer?
I always regarded “Look to the West” as something of a self-indulgent side project to my science fiction/future AH setting, whose stories are now becoming published as the “Surly Bonds” series. For example, I even used to write its chapters straight into a forum text post box – before losing a draft taught me otherwise. Even though LTTW has grown enormously, I still have a bit of that attitude of not being as invested in it as one might imagine. However, it is true to say that the tone has grown a bit more serious over the years, and as such there are a few bits of quirkiness or silliness in the early parts that go a bit far in hindsight. There is also the factor that I’ve tended to take a strict approach to the ‘butterfly effect’, but one will notice I only really start applying it properly from the late 1700s onwards, even though the timeline diverges in 1727. This is simply because I originally intended it to diverge around 1759, and didn’t update my ideas enough when I changed my mind. However, I do appreciate that the setting of LTTW has been expansive enough to let me try out all kinds of different what-if ideas without being mutually contradictory. Some critics have praised the LTTW series for feeling ‘balanced’, that generally no nation or interest is seen as becoming overly dominant, and a golden age is often followed by a decline or vice-versa. I would like to claim this is me having a profound commitment to realism, but often it’s just that I want to try something different!
'Look to the West' started as a piece of amateur writing on Alternate History.com and wasn't first published until 2016. Has your approach to it changed in the last six years with the awareness that this will now become a book or was that always the plan?
I certainly had no intention of LTTW becoming a book when I first started writing it, or for years afterwards. Besides initially being seen as something of a side project, I also had no awareness of publishing, and the format of the series did not seem amenable to it. The ‘academic history book scrapbook’ style and format of most of LTTW (other than the upcoming Volume VI) was primarily inspired by Jared Kavanagh (of “Walking Through Dreams”) and his unpublished but influential “Decades of Darkness” timeline. As far as I am aware, the only successful ‘mainstream’ attempt to publish such a work is Robert Sobel’s seminal “For Want of a Nail: If Burgoyne Had Won At Saratoga” from the 1970s. (Of course, “For Want of a Nail” also shares many themes with LTTW; I actually did not read it myself until recently, precisely because I wanted to avoid subconsciously stealing ideas). What Sea Lion Press has shown is that, in fact, there is a significant market for people who want to read the ‘scrapbook academia’ style of AH work, whether it be LTTW, Jared’s “Walking Through Dreams” or Ed Thomas’ “Fight and Be Right”. I would not say my approach has significantly changed since LTTW started being published, except perhaps to be more conscientious about making chapter and volume lengths more consistent!
One of the things I've always admired about 'Look to the West' is the attempt to create a genuinely alien feeling world and one of the best ways you do that is different scientific and technological advances, where as often AH changes the politics but views scientific advancements as much more inevitable. Your day job is as a Chemistry University Teacher, how much do you think our current scientific understanding is dependent on what we research and could be missed versus 'those are the facts and so someone is bound to work that out'?
I studied History and Philosophy of Science as part of my undergraduate years at Cambridge, which was an eye-opening subject as it revealed just how much of the seeming rigid inevitability of science and technology is subject to the same trivial happenstance as politics or popular culture. Even if one accepts that the underlying reality is the same, the way in which it is framed and the narrative of discovery can be very different. For example, in our timeline we usually say that the phlogiston theory of combustion was ‘disproven’, whereas Newtonian gravitation was ‘surpassed’ by Einsteinian relativity or similar; there is no really objective way to say why this is presented differently, and in LTTW phlogiston theory is ‘reformulated’ into oxygen theory rather than being ‘disproven’ by it.
There is that level of argument, and then there is the more meaningful point that an area of research might be neglected or focused on for years because researchers are human and subject to human factors like funding, patronage and office politics. I also like to use this in LTTW; for example, the study of electricity lags considerably behind OTL because the Volta-Galvani dispute never happened, so Volta never developed the voltaic pile (a.k.a. the entire basis of batteries and usable current electricity!) purely to prove Galvani’s animal electricity theory wrong! Similarly, mechanical computers move more swiftly in LTTW than in OTL due to the wider adoption of semaphore communications (rather than them remaining government monopolies like OTL) and therefore there is a greater demand for mass encryption methods.
Another good example of ‘history is unrealistic’ concerns electromagnetic theory, another pillar of our modern world. Our nineteenth century had Scotland’s James Clerk Maxwell, one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever seen, who developed equations capable of describing the behaviour of light in a work so elegant and comprehensive that it did not even need correcting for the discovery of Einsteinian relativity! A seemingly minor implication of Maxwell’s theory was that it would lead to the existence of invisible, long-wavelength electromagnetic waves; fellow physicists promptly busied themselves trying to find them, with a prize being offered. German physicist Heinrich Hertz successfully found them – when asked of their practical use by journalists, he said there was none, it was purely to prove or disprove Maxwell’s theory. It took the commercial genius of Italy’s Guglielmo Marconi to realise that this ‘radio waves’ thing might have some money in it – and hence, the world of wireless communications we take for granted came into being. Now think, just for a moment, of all those steps, all of them resting on the decisions of individuals. The ‘Great Man’ theory of historiography is rightly criticised – in another timeline, another scientist, anonymous to us, might have come up with the same discovery a week later and got the credit. Yet to relegate all this to an anonymous tide of historical inevitability, as though it would all happen on schedule without the vagaries of human personality and decision, is equally misleading.
Aside from 'Look to the West', you've written a bunch of other books for SLP. 'The Unreformed Kingdom' is somewhat similar to Look to the West in that it posits a very different UK emerging from the 19th century but instead of us following the changes year by year, the narrative is set in the modern day, with the effects shown more than the causes. What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of the two styles are as a writer?
“The Unreformed Kingdom” is a short-form piece whose content was heavily inspired by me reading Lady Antonia Fraser’s book about the 1832 Great Reform Act, “Perilous Question”. The style, on the other hand, was more inspired by Tom Black’s “Zonen”, which pioneered the ‘journalist travelling around’ model of short-form AH. This was a nice contrast to the higher-stakes ‘spy thriller’ model (e.g. Graeme Shimmin’s “A Kill in the Morning”, or arguably Harry Turtledove’s “The Two Georges”) which similarly gives one an excuse to depict many places and talk about their background without it feeling unnatural.
By contrast to LTTW’s relatively strict commitment to the ‘butterfly effect’, I took a much more deliberately slapdash and populist approach to plausibility in “The Unreformed Kingdom”, with familiar figures like ‘Jeremiah Clarkson’ appearing. Another advantage of the ‘modern narrative’ style is that one does not have to think through the history of the entire setting, but merely drop hints. For example, someone asked me what Scandinavia looks like in this world, and I truthfully replied “I don’t know.” This is a refreshing change after the comprehensiveness of LTTW!
'The Twilight's Last Gleaming' is probably my favourite of all your work and is a 'disaster movie' esque book about the consequences of a giant meteor hitting earth in 1886. Why in particular did you want to tell that story in the late Victorian period?
“The Twilight’s Last Gleaming” was inspired by a forum conversation in which I thought this would be an interesting period in which to have a major disaster and nations responding to it. Set in the American-dominant modern day (like “Armageddon” or “Deep Impact”) the message is of all nations lining up behind the US to protect the planet. Earlier, in the Cold War détente period of 1979, there was “Meteor”, where the message is that the mutually-suspicious US and USSR have to admit they both have illegal space-based nuclear weapons and use them in concert to deflect an asteroid, while splinters of it rain down in locations across the world (perhaps a metaphor for Cold War proxy wars). But what if a similar scenario happened in the nineteenth century, when our modern world is emerging, nation states are beginning to solidify in which the welfare of ordinary people is at least considered, yet international relations are a game of ruthless opportunism and brazen realpolitick? How would the Europe that launched the Berlin Conference react to a global disaster that threatened a new Ice Age? How would a rising America respond to a strike at its heart?
The other advantage of writing in this period is that we know a lot about it. Many of the players in the novel (such as US Senator John Sherman) appear precisely because they left detailed autobiographies and memoirs that allow one to know just what they were doing in April 1886 and how they would respond to a crisis. For an African viewpoint, we even have accounts of President Obama’s great-grandfather and namesake. That level of detail allows one to add a note of realism to the writing – which also means one can play with the reader’s expectations by the use of humour and in-jokes as well.
And as someone who has written about so many different period, which do you prefer in writing in? Is it a relief to write a book like 'The Curse of Maggie' or 'Not an English Word' set in the modern day and thus have to do less research or do you really enjoy a deep dive into another era?
That’s a good question! I would bring it back to a point I mentioned in my last answer – how easy or difficult is it to get information on the period in question, and how detailed does one need to be? Writing in an era where we don’t have detailed information on what historical figure A was doing on January 17th, 1525 can be liberating. Paradoxically, though one would expect writing in the recent period like “Not An English Word” would be easy, I found myself paranoid about missing some connection between contemporary MPs I was unaware of, a scandal I had missed that people should really be discussing in November 2011, etc. Later LTTW comes with its own liberation that we are now well past most traces of the history we know, which ironically means less research! – though I do still have to remember disasters like earthquakes that would still presumably happen on schedule. Finally, I would say I do enjoy the opportunity to show off research when I’ve done it, as one can certainly see in “The Twilight’s Last Gleaming”!
As well as ''Look to the West', you also have the 'Surly Bonds of Earth' series, which is a sci-fi future history about space travel in a world where the political and cultural assumptions of the 1990s held true. What was the inspiration behind that choice and as a writer what are the challenges and rewards of writing an alternate future as opposed to an alternate past?
“The Surly Bonds of Earth” and its sequels are derived from the science fiction I started writing in the late 90s and early 2000s while still at school. Thus, the AH ‘90s paleofuture’ aspect started out as quite incidental! I remember having developed a rough backstory for stories set in the mid-twenty-fourth century, only for the September 11th attacks of 2001 to happen and send history down a different track to what I had imagined. Rather than constantly change my ideas (and lead to problems like Star Trek struggling with the Eugenics Wars and throwing in references to Elon Musk) I decided to make my setting explicitly an AH one – but a recent AH. As this isn’t the main focus of the stories, I enjoy playing with readers’ expectations and throwing out little hints, which may surprise a casual reader. For example, in “Well Met By Starlight” an American character can’t remember which president a famous quote was said by – “was that Carter or Gore?” I also try to keep the exact divergence as vague as possible – I once planned it out in detail, but then decided that would miss the point and be unnecessarily limiting.
Probably the biggest challenge I’ve had with the setting of late is that I have portrayed Russia as successfully reinventing itself and making the CIS work after the end of the USSR, which I have continued to emphasise precisely because it’s so different to the downward spiral to irrelevance the country has undergone under Putin in OTL. However, this does lead to moments of awkwardness such as Ukraine and Russia being allies in this setting (due to Russia not being run by a genocidal madman), where I need to be careful how I describe things without sounding like a tankie lunatic. Previously, I had thought the biggest challenge would be in depicting the EU as a successful superpower, this idea having been conceived in the 90s when my views on it were rather different. But on the other hand, I think it’s all the more interesting (and less prone to author bias) to write about a setting that includes aspects that are in contrast to one’s own views.
I would also like to make it clear that I came up with the idea of the ‘US Space Force’ literally a week before Trump did and I cannot prove he is not reading my emails.
You've written multiple opinion pieces on this blog about writing choices other people have made. Do you think having written so much stuff yourself helps you have insight into other writers and vice versa, do you think trying to analyse other writers from the fan's perspective, helps you with your own writing?
I would say yes to both questions. One point I always like to make is that, as a fan, one is often surprised to see an author making what seem like basic continuity errors. For example, I remember reading that in the Discworld book “The Truth”, Terry Pratchett initially had the Bursar give his real name as “Worblehat with an O”. Us fans, of course, all knew that Worblehat was the Librarian’s real name (as mentioned in the Discworld Companion), and the Bursar’s name had already been given as Dinwiddie in “Hogfather”. Fortunately, a beta reader caught this and Terry Pratchett changed it in the final draft – albeit hilariously (and yet appropriately) leaving the ‘with an O’ line. As a fan, one wonders how on earth an author can make such mistakes – then, as an author, one realises that all the fan sees is the end product, whereas the author sees all the hidden mass of possibilities and discarded ideas behind the curtain. It is challenging for an author to remember which parts are canon, which are half-formed ideas which may or may not have seen the page, etc. That’s one example of how me being an author myself can give me more of an insight into choices made by other authors.
I would also agree that such analysis helps me with my own writing. It is important to remember that just because a story format or concept has been done before, there is nothing saying that you cannot bring something new to it. There have been a million stories of first contact between humans and aliens before, but I feel I brought something new to the table in “Well Met By Starlight”. A million writers have used time travel as a plot device, but there is a vast gulf in whether they use it as a casual set-up alone, or take the time to pause and reflect on how mind-blowing this would be to their characters, as seen in my recent article about “Prince Caspian”. Seeing what others have done helps one make choices about one’s own writing, without simply slavishly copying the field.
And what are your plans for the future in terms of writing?
I intend to see LTTW through to its conclusion, and I have endless ideas for more Surly Bonds books. Otherwise, I do have some ideas for twentieth-century alternate history involving the Cold War or the 1910s, and my own free time will be the only limiter in pursuing those!
Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.