Questions by Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a relatively tight-knit 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 a lot of our members and writers are involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion either with a counter factual focus or not. 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 the rest of this community.
This week we're talking to Alex Wallace, a stalwart of the AH community, and one of our regular Article Writers.
Hello Alex. So first of all thank you very much for agreeing to speak to us. You take a role in running two of the major Alternate History discussion forums online, the alternate timelines.com forums and the Alternate History Online Facebook group, where you're the main Admin. What sparked your interest in Alternate History in the first place?
I grew up reading the many, many science fiction paperbacks my dad had from the sixties to nineties or so, and that’s what made me an SF fan. One day I was looking at Wikipedia searching for more titles (this was in 2011) and stumbled upon Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar series. The idea of aliens invading during World War II struck me, a precocious and introverted fourteen-year-old, as something bold and different from what I had read previously. I zoomed through that series and then Timeline-191, and the rest is history.
And how did you end up helping run these two sites?
To paraphrase Barack Obama, I didn’t build either of those. As I entered college I had gotten to know Matt Mitrovich, and had done a few articles for the Alternate History Weekly Update while that was still a thing. Eventually, real life caught up with Matt and he resigned the administratorship, handing the reins over to a small group of trusted users, myself included. I’m not strictly the ‘head administrator’ per se, but I’ve done most of the official posts and am in charge of vetting new members.
I joined Alternate Timelines in late 2015, and rapidly became one of the most active users by virtue of it being a rather small site. Eventually, their administrator Roel Hendrikx needed some help and I volunteered, and I’ve been in that position ever since.
Additionally, I had a brief stint as a moderator on Endless Worlds, which ended when the site closed down.
Obviously the AH online community has changed a lot over the years.
I started being involved in the community in late 2011, for context.
What do you think are the most profound differences between the community now and the community when you first joined?
What really strikes me as different some nine years later is that the community is so much more decentralized. Alternatehistory.com simply is no longer the titan that it used to be, relatively speaking. In late 2015 I predicted that that site’s dominance would not last the decade, and I was somewhat right. Alternate History Online has grown, Alternate Timelines has, as some have said, taken CF.net’s place in the community, SufficientVelocity has opened up its War and Peace section, and of course we have the Sea Lion Press forum.
AlternateHistory.com’s premier status in the broader community will never go away simply by virtue of having such an obvious name for a forum of that nature, but the momentum is elsewhere.
The community is also far more willing to accept involvement with the broader world than it was when I joined. This was before The Man in the High Castle on Amazon Prime opened the floodgates to alternate history in the mainstream, which in 2011 was absolutely unthinkable. Now, the community is relatively more welcoming to mainstream attention, which is most obviously seen in the foundation of Sea Lion Press. SLP has made it so much easier to read alternate history not from major publishing houses, and has also made so many classic online alternate history works (Festung Europa for example) can be read on places other than fora. It’s that sort of thing that solidifies my impression that the most innovative work in the genre is coming out of SLP.
As an administrator are there any topics, whether that's the American Civil War or Israel or whatever, which when they come up you're dreading a bit, because you know this is what the nastier arguments often start over?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a perennial thorn in my side, but one that only pops up every so often. It’s a minefield because there are so many emotions involved, and as a college friend once said, “no matter what you say, it’s the wrong answer.”
The American Civil War isn’t that hard to moderate by virtue that the truly unpleasant people tend to make themselves very obvious, and the rest of the community is generally in concordance regarding the morality of the conflict. It draws out insects, sure, but they can be easily swatted.
In terms of American conflicts, I find that moderating the Revolution is more irritating. It lacks that broad concordance in terms of the morality of the whole thing. You have the American nationalists thumping their chests and portraying the Founding Fathers as demigods, as you’d expect, but you also have this hostility to the American cause that makes no sense in relation to the professed views of the people making that case. You have a certain sort of poster who’ll gleefully tar the patriots as slavers and genocidaires, while forgetting that the British were making money hand over fist from Caribbean sugar plantations, or that many of the slaves that Britain took from Southern planters were sent to slavery in aforementioned sugar plantations, or that Jeffrey Amherst fought in the name of the Crown, or that Australia did to its Aboriginals much the same that America did to its indigenous, and yet the former remained part of the Empire.
There are also the questions about political issues that are thinly veiled attempts to grind axes regarding current politics, by the commenters if not the original posters. Healthcare and gun control are the two big ones; I will admit, though, that the former gave me an idea for a story that in my opinion turned out quite well.
The most irritating of those to me, though, is about Washington D.C. statehood. They go on and on about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers and what they wanted the District to be. I’m a native of Arlington, Virginia, just across the river from the District with the Pentagon and the Cemetery. What irks me about these discussions is that they’re used as excuses to debate opinions about the underpinnings of the American political system without the consideration of the local reality. There’s almost no mention of the Virginia retrocession (concerning land upon which I live), or of important people in local history like Alexander Robey Shepherd or A. Philip Randolph or Marion Barry. A vibrant metropolis, the one where I have spent most of my life, is reduced to a staging area for the rest of the country to snipe at one another. It’s something like how I’m irked when someone from another part of the country calls the Cemetery ‘Arlington,’ ignoring how there are some two hundred thousand people calling their home by that name. The city is a land of the living, not just the dead.
You've spoken before about how there's various traditions in AH, from using it as a setting for pulp fiction with no real concern about plausibility to using it purely to talk about history and shed a light on possible divergences, which tend to meet on forums. Do you think the discussion forums you're familiar with tend to be dominated by the latter, to the advantage of good historical discussion but maybe the detriment of the quality of fiction, or the former, which would have the reverse effects?
I think that fora are more prone to the more heady version of alternate history because they’re social things, not simply an author telling a story. The nit-picking happens, firstly, and happens very quickly if the topic arouses enough interest. It’s Cunningham’s Law, writ very, very large; "The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer.”
It’s that indulgence in Cunningham’s Law that can be so hostile to the pulpier sort of alternate history, where an all-consuming desire to correct perceived mistakes leads to the point of the story being missed. The two approaches are at odds in one sense because their goals are simply so different.
In particular what exactly do you think has been the effect of formats like timelines, pseudo history books, wikiboxes, president lists etc, which are ways the AH community use to talk about a counterfactual scenario without having to write a story. There's been some heated debates about how useful they are, with one side saying that they're often crutches that people reach to to avoid having to write a narrative and characters and so are unsatisfactory as fiction and the other saying that they should be viewed more as essays than fiction and are useful in that regard. Where do you stand on that?
I’ll admit that I don’t read much of that sort of thing; I want to see scenarios fleshed out. That, and that the sort of thing that these timelines cover, elections, is something I find to be intensely dull to read about. I concur with AH.com’s rvbomally in that I find the minutiae of politics in a democratic country to be so much like high school cliques that I find it uninteresting; you have to be likeable and play to the crowd. Authoritarian states are where you get the truly interesting, if deranged, people; you don’t have politicians in democratic countries who are quite as fascinatingly demented as Hitler or Mao or Beria. That, and I find endless rows of polling data to be less than compelling as stories.
I think one of the things I find most exciting about online AH discussion is just being able to learn about history and chat about it with other experts. Are there any particular areas of history that you feel like you know more about and have more interest in as a result of counter factual discussion?
The bulk of my intense reading spurred on by alternate history is for when I was on Ben Kearns’ Alternate History Show, particularly the one about nuclear war. There’s an acute difference within yourself between simply knowing intellectually that nuclear war would destroy humanity and reading in sordid detail the sheer omnicidal surreality of people who were absolutely convinced of the rationality and morality of bathing the world in nuclear hellfire. There is something so existentially terrifying about studying the likes of Curtis LeMay, who seem as if they would happily ride an atomic bomb like a horse to their own oblivion. That particular episode led me to read The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg, a harrowing yet intriguing book, which made the very convincing case that Doctor Strangelove was a documentary.
As someone who is also writing and reviewing AH fiction, how important do you think Historical plausibility actually is in that genre? I myself find myself far more generous about plausibility in stories than essays or discussions, do you feel the same way or does implausibility pull you out of the story?
The core of any alternate history story (or speculative fiction generally) is whether the story can successfully suspend the reader’s disbelief. Absolute fantasy can do this well; see any of P. Djèlí Clark’s work, which feels absolutely believable despite drawing so much from myth. I too am far more forgiving of historical implausibility if the story is good; the opposite approach will deny you so much wonderful work that people have come up with, and it is your loss.
I believe you were looking at editing a new anthology of AH stories based on American Folklore? What can you tell us about this project?
The idea came from the fact that the United States is such a young country with a history that is so thoroughly studied by alternate historians, and also has such a rich folklore tradition with so many influences. It’s something of a historical fluke that the country has survived in the way that it has, and as such there are so many ways to alter its folklore in worlds where it remained British or the Confederacy survived or what have you.
Anyone who wants to submit a short story to that anthology should check out this thread on the Sealion Press Forums for the details