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Interviewing the AH Community: Alex Burcher

Questions from Gary Oswald

Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a large and healthy online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result there are a lot of people involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion with a counter factual focus. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on what else is out there.

This week it's Alex Burcher, the writer of 'As Ant to the Gods' who can be found on his website and twitter.

Hello Alex. First of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. You wrote the Alternate History Novel 'As Ant to the Gods' published by Elsewhen Press. So how did you get into AH?

I think the first AH book I read was the superb Pavane by Keith Roberts, set in a 20th century Britain in which the Spanish Armada won and the Catholic church rules. It’s written as a series of novelettes that build up an immersive picture of the society and the lives of the people in it. Apparently Roberts was very bitter that his talent was not more widely and sufficiently recognised, which it certainly deserved to be. From then on I sought out AH novels and short stories. I like AH to be credible, so I’m not so keen on aliens turning up in historical settings or AH involving time travel.

It’s surprising how many mainstream writers have written AH – Stephen Fry, Kingsley Amis, Owen Shears, Michael Chabon, Phillip Roth. It’s said that Roth didn’t know he had written AH until he was awarded the Sidewise Prize; he had never even heard of AH. I tend to find such authors write the best AH --- or write it the best. The last AH novel I read was Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan.

I also read the serious historical stuff, the counterfactuals. I’m lucky enough to have a copy of If It Had Happened Otherwise with essays by the likes of Churchill. And Niall Ferguson’s Virtual History is a very good read.

I enjoy the task of looking up the historical facts. For As Ants to the Gods I had to learn a lot about the Moors in Spain and Arab science. Many of the people mentioned in my book were actual Arab scholars. I like to get the details right so that events before my point of divergence are correct.

I was surprised to discover how many Arabic and Norse words have entered our language. From Arabic we get admiral (amir al-bahr, chief of the sea), alcohol, algebra, and algorithm, to name just four. From Old Norse we get, for example, ransack ( rannsaka, house search), berserk, egg and husband.

Any favourite AH books you'd recommend?

Pavane I’ve already mentioned. Read it if you haven’t already! The Alteration by Kingsley Amis has a similar theme --- Britain is Catholic. The Difference Engine by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson is set in a Victorian Britain supercharged by the use of Charles Babbage’s invention. West of Eden by Harry Harrison envisages a world where dinosaurs have evolved intelligence and bipedalism and are the dominant species. Resistance by Owen Shears is set in a Britain that the Germans have invaded and looks at the effect on a remote Welsh farming community. Wonderfully written if a little slow at times. Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, in which Hitler goes to the USA after WW1, is often overlooked. Another book that is rarely mentioned but might qualify as AH is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. If not AH, it is certainly Alternative Reality, with subtle horror. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon has the state of Israel collapse in its early years so the USA gives the Jewish people a homeland in Alaska. Those that go there are called the Frozen Chosen. The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth is very clever. Charles Lindberg, an anti-semite, is elected president in the early 1940s.The narrator is Jewish, looking back on his childhood at the time. Maybe the best AH novel of all.

'As Ants to the Gods' is set in a world wherein the Muslim Conquests are more successful and Islam is the dominant religion of Europe, what inspired that setting, have you long had an interest in Islam?

None at all. I am very agnostic. As a liberal agnostic my first instinct was to write about a plucky band (Hurray!) working to bring down the empire of the Moors (Boo!). But that’s a bit obvious. So it’s the opposite. The plotters seeking to bring down the empire--Taifa ta Hattum, the Cult of the Death of Hope-- are the baddish guys, their opponents – Hafiz al-Munir, the Keepers of the Light -- are the goodish guys. I say baddish and goodish because neither are completely bad or good. Same with the characters—none is perfectly good or evil. The main character, Laqua, has some good points but you come to realise he is also arrogant, egotistical, selfish, short-tempered, unfaithful, and willing to give up his family if it suits him.

So the plot is not motivated by my having any religious or political message, it’s just what worked well in the book to ramp up the conflicts, just a fictional device. The book has no religious message. One of the characters says “It was never about religion, or not religion as we know it.” Also the two main religions – the Belief and the Creed – are not supposed be exact equivalents of any in our world.

I wanted a point of divergence that had not been tackled before so chose the Battle of Tours between the Moors and Franks. Whether had the Moors won, as they do in my book, they could have gone on to dominate Europe is a subject for debate. The Franks, under Charles Martel, were reputedly the strongest military power in Christian Europe at the time, so with their defeat an enlargement of the area governed from Cordoba is not implausible.

You warn about challenging the orthodoxies and assumptions of Western culture in the blurb, what do you mean by that?

That was suggested by the publisher for the blurb. It is said that Western culture is based on Judeo-Christian values, but in the book the culture that has overtaken Europe is clearly different. In some ways it is more enlightened and advanced. Had the result of the Battle of Tours been different would the consensus among Europeans be that such an outcome was a good thing? The quasi-Christian Creed of the Son is not painted in a good light, nor its founder. There also some metaphysical speculations in the book that some might find disturbing.

What's the title a reference to?

It’s from a modified quote from King Lear, which in my world was written by a Hamia Shaklans. I changed the word kill to tease and flies to ants. It encapsulates the overarching metaphysical ideas in the book. If that makes the book sound dry, obscure and philosophical, believe me that is certainly not the case. It’s packed with action and pace, but occasionally there are subtle interventions, entirely compatible with how the world actually works, that give you an inkling that maybe there are some unseen players taking an interest in events.

There are certainly no fantasy elements in the book , no sorcery, dragons or faeries.

The introduction of the Shaklans character enabled me to bring in some humour in chapter three. My playwright puts a scene in Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare might have written if he had dared. Perhaps another reason for the warning on the blurb. Even though, as I say, I toned some passages down, the publishers still say it is strictly for adults only.

The book is set in the 17th century, centuries after the point of diversion but also prior to the modern day. Why did you choose that time period?

I wanted to allow enough time after the point of divergence for the empire of the Moors to grow and become established and for technology and science to have become sufficiently advanced. Yet I also wanted it to be an early industrial age.

I also liked to play around with some of the characters from that era— hence “Ren”, “Naunton” and the main character’s bawdy friend “Peppin”

Some may say that in eight centuries the world would have diverged from ours more than I have described. Maybe. We cannot really know. In my book it is a pretty different world anyway. Central Lundun (London) looks utterly different, most of Europe speaks Arabic, Scandinavia has been blockaded for centuries, there has been a furious invasion from the East, the Industrial Revolution has come early, the settlement of the New World is completely changed, prisons are unknown, women already have the vote in some places and there is almost universal education.

Ah is more of a setting than genre, how would you describe the tone of the book, as a thriller?

Agreed. As well as the setting you need a story, with a strong plot and absorbing characters. I would say that as well as AH it is an epic adventure with vast conspiracy and with metaphysical overtones. A thriller ? It certainly has all the elements of a thriller, and more. Suspense, action, threat, plot twists, high stakes (the fate of all civilisation, no less) , memorable locations, and characters who, according to one on-line reviewer , you care about. I suppose you could call it a thriller plus. Do classifications matter? What counts is whether a book is good or bad. I meant mine to be original, inventive, absorbing, well-written . The reviews so far make me think I’ve achieved those goals.

Lets ignore classifications then, how would you describe your writing style?

I am perhaps too close to it to be objective. One published author described it as evocative and dense. I hope dense is a compliment. I think they mean I pack a lot of information in few words. I certainly do not like to ramble. A typical sentence would be The trees had undressed slowly for their slumber, leaves surrendered in the shortening days. Or Gloves tomorrow he thought, feeling the hungry stone draw warmth from his painfully whitening fingers.

I also change my writing style to suit the subject, time and place. As Ants to the Gods is set mostly in the 17th century, which allows me, almost makes me, use a perhaps rather flowery style. You could not have a character today or in the future say “He wears an ostentatious cloak of self-regard, cut too capaciously for his talents” or write A huge laugh escaped him. Sensing sanction in his fugitive guffaw, the crowd applauded.

I also have a penchant for the occasional unusual word, though I think I make them clear from the context. For example in a bloody battle I write of the slaughter on the haemic hill. I like the alliteration and the number of syllables gives the sentence the right rhythm. The rhythm of the writing is important to me. I think the reader will get the sense of the words, especially if they know the word haematology. Some writers are an excellent source of useful, handsome words: Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov for example. The latter also wrote what might be thought of as alt history – Ada or Ardor - which, while it has no stated point of divergence, is set on an Earth different from ours, called Antiterra, at least in its political geography.

How was your experience working with Elsewhen Press and how did that come about?

Excellent. Very much enjoyed. I saw they were taking submissions, sent in the synopsis. They asked for first three chapters, then the book. All a bit nail-biting. Delighted to hear they really liked the book. I thought the length of the book might put them off, but clearly not. They just wanted me to tone down or shorten some of the more explicit passages, which I was happy to do.

The book is not long because of wordy descriptive passages where nothing much happens; far from it. It’s because a lot happens.

I quite enjoyed the to and fro of the editing and proofreading. Now I know what some of those obscure word processing functions are. We had some discussion about where the maps and glossary should go. In the end they followed my suggestion. We also had some banter about the possessives of names ending in s and this time I conceded ( although I’m still not convinced Boris’ government would sound right)

It was their idea to put a reading by me of chapter two on the internet. They suggested that chapter because it’s fairly self contained and only takes eight minutes to read. They incorporated the maps from the books. I was very pleased with the result.

One of the advantages of working with a small press publisher like Elsewhen or Sea Lion is the cover art which is often a weak point for self published books. We have Jack Tindale, here, Elsewhen have Allison Buck, who I think has done a great job on your cover. What guidance did you give as to what you wanted the art to look like?

The publisher suggested the wax seal on the cover, since the Seal and the Scroll it authenticates are central to the story. The background colour is similar to that of the vellum it is on. They were careful to incorporate the falcate moon described in the book. They made the three maps for me, based on my rough drawings. The Lundun map was hardest for me to do, as I had to get the buildings in just the right spot to comply with the book. No doubt if on the map Gahwa Gamida was not on Street Stevanico behind Theatre Bijea as specified in the book not many readers would notice, but I like to get the details right.

Obviously as a Healthcare professional, you're having a busy time at the moment, do you have any plans for more creative works in the future?

I’m working on a novelette/novella and some short stories. I would say they are SF and speculative fiction because not all the stories are perhaps exactly SF, just weird. The main story is about the individual and social consequences of a treatment that delays ageing. Other stories include: the effects of viewing a video of your own dreams; what happens when you think your world is vast yet is just 50 km by 50 km; a planet with carnivorous plants; an AH short story (or is it?); a Victorian vivisectionist neurologist; the heat death of the universe will annihilate heaven and all those there; explorers find a new creature that raises philosophical and moral dilemmas. Probably about twenty stories in all, provisionally entitled The Slowed, and Other Delirium Dreams.

When it comes to SF I tend more to inner space than outer space and, probably because of my training, biology rather than physics. I like to write on SF themes not done before.



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