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.
Hello Brent, first of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. So you're a general writer of speculative fiction who wrote a passionate defence of the alternate history genre for this blog last May, when and how did you first encounter Alternate History fiction?
I blame Harry Turtledove. It was his short story “The Green Buffalo” in The Ultimate Dinosaur (editor, Robert Silverberg) that led me to a library to check out Turtledove’s books among some of the other authors. The only one on the shelf was Issac Assimov Presents: A Different Flesh. I read it, loved it, and moved on to A World Apart and then eventually, skip ahead a few years, I devoured the WorldWar books and Timeline 191 as they became available. I remember being in chemistry class and having my book confiscated because I couldn’t be bothered to listen to the lecture. It’s probably why I took history in college, as I don’t remember much from my math and science classes…
My favorites of the AH genre are Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.” Ward Moore’s “Bring the Jubilee” and Turteldove’s Ruled Britannia.
I also read Phillip K. Dick, S.M. Stirling, Ray Bradbury, and everything by the great spec fic author Michael Crichton, whose breezy prose and techno-horror plots I aspired to in my own formative writing. And of course, I read Tom Clancy because I’m just old enough to remember nuclear drills and young enough to believe that I would grow up to see the end of the world.
Yet as dark as those days were, the fiction I read created Orwellian worlds worse than our own. Strangely, Fatherland. SS-GB, Red Storm Rising. Movies like The Day After and Terminator traded-in real-world horrors for fictional ones.
I guess because of those dour tomes, I chose to take my own writing in the opposite direction. Spurred on by the optimistic qualities of SF, SF Fantasy, and re-runs of Star Trek, I spun youthful stories that were less gray and more technicolor.
Banging the keypad of my 386 computer (we had just upgraded from a Commodore 64, thank you) and some DOS word processing program, I sent the X-Men to space and turned paleontologist into commando-style spies to dig deep past enemy lines to discover that Evil Scientists were creating dinosaur armies! (this was before Jurassic Park, mind you).
I like my writing to get dark, certainly, but I also like some measure of hope and redemption to surface. I favor AH that carry those same themes. Timeless is about friendship and the interconnection we all ultimately share. Much of Turtledove’s work is about finding the hero in yourself no matter the world you inhabit. AH allows us to bend the mirror to see our world just a bit differently. And all that I am as a writer of AH is to blame because of Turtledove and his damned green buffalo.
In that essay you make much of the genre making it to the small screen in a big way of late. Why do you think it took so long for a relatively simple impulse to get that kind of representation?
TV budgets. Budgets kill shows like Timeless with relative ease, no matter how amazing it is. Why? Cause you’re not re-using sets. You’re moving locations every week. You’re costuming your cast in historical clothes that take time to tailor. And, of course, special effects. With the rise of streaming services, however, a company like Netflix can be more flexible in both their wallets and filming schedules.
You also have this generation of kids like me that have been inspired by stuff like Sliders, the mirror-verse of Star Trek, and all sorts of these cool books that would look great on screen for the first time. It’s the perfect confluence of streaming-services-meet-talent that grew up as fans of people like Margaret Atwood and the Wildcards of George Martin and the works of Turtledove. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see airships full of dinosaur-like creatures blowing up WWII Panzers?
One of the areas of History you keep coming back to in your fiction is the American Revolution. How much of modern USA do you think was formed by the choices made then?
Yeah, this is a delicate question that I’m not likely to tip-toe around. Simply put, we had too much of the Puritan dogma in our melting pot from the beginning, and we’re still suffering from that to the moment of this writing.
Yet, ideas such as the separation of church and State and our system of checks-and-balances have held as strong pillars of our foundation. I consider them to be ‘good things’ that served as an example to other would-be republics, things that we deliberately ‘revolted’ from.
However, we also chose to imbue our early founding documents with the sins of slavery. And we held in place this weird puritanical belief that this was somehow God’s Country, which made possible terrible ideologies like Manifest Destiny that resulted in the genocide of the Natives. This is a country permanently and irreparably scarred from our early devaluation of human life. And we’re still de-valuing human life today on a scale that our descendants will look back and argue that we bordered on barbarism. In short, at our conception, we put too much emphasis into our violent delights.
The good news is that we could have been worse. Early colonists were fiercely anti-Catholic, which could have led to a more protestant, theocratic government. There was some attempt to create a much stronger monarch-like President (thank you for that, Alexander Hamilton. Yes, THAT Hamilton). If the U.S. had lost the war, then the Sons of Liberty would have continued to spread their terror for generations to come. And still, darker timelines could have emerged at many junctions in the early history of the States. Thankfully, we never reached Featherstone-levels of holocaust toward blacks, like the world presented to us in Timeline 191, but it speaks to our morally unsure footing that the possibility was present from within the fabric of our founding.
Conversely, we could have been so much better. Imagine Abigail Adams in a more visible position of power and the resultant effect for women. Or a nation that honored its agreements with the Natives. What if our founders sought to remove the institutions of slavery from the Nation’s very beginnings?
Since none of that happened, we must, in our day, lean into those things which do make America great: our ability to innovate due to our diverseness, our checks against power, and our Enlightened sense to look to reason, science, and ability to think beyond our own selves for answers, while at the same time acknowledging and fixing our mistakes of the past.
You're a cofounder of Inklings Press which produces speculative fiction short story anthologies, what exactly is involved in setting up a small press publishing company?
In our case, what set up our publishing company was a common love of gaming (RPGs and miniatures like Heroclix) and a common love of writing. Talk about chance: what are the odds that individuals from Mexico, California, Ireland, and a bloke from England would all meet up regularly at a small university in Loughborough for gaming? What’s more, that we all enjoyed writing and were working, in various stages, on our own pet projects?
Fast forward a few years, and I’m now in Italy. The bloke from England is in Finland, the pale Irish guy sunburns daily in The Bahamas, and our friend in Mexico has a doctorate and now writes in-between teaching.
We’d all grown frustrated with our inability to break-in to the writing market. Capturing the inside pages of Clarkesworld and Asimov’s was about as realistic for us as a Heinlein character winning a space-suit and jetting off to the Moon via flying saucer.
This was just as independent publishing was becoming a viable option. And we’d somehow still managed to keep in contact, thanks to social media. So, we thought, “What if we published our stories ourselves, and help others who’ve not yet been published along the way?” There might have been rum involved.
Inklings Press has published 9 anthologies over the years, with a tenth one scheduled for 2021: Alternate Earths 3. The first AE won the Sidewise Award (short form) for Daniel Bensen’s “Treasure Fleet.” Bensen has now gone on to write for Simon and Schuster, with a forthcoming novel, Interchange. Yeah, we’re damned proud of Daniel. Submissions for AE3 open soon, check Duotrope or our website www.Inklingspress.com for further details.
Of course, you don’t need an international cast and a hogshead of rum to create your own publishing imprint, but it doesn’t hurt either.
You write both short stories and novels, I've often thought of them as very different skills, a short story is much more of a snapshot of a situation whereas with a novel you need a full plot, which do you find comes easier and which do you find the most rewarding?
That’s a great question for which I have no answer. There’s a saying that goes something like: “Apologies for the long letter, if I had more time, it would have been shorter.” Writing is very much like that. Poetry instills the biggest emotions in the smallest number of words. Novels, by contrast, have room to breathe: subplots, casts characters, and volumes that spin around the wheel of time.
I like to do a bit of everything. I also write screenplays which are a totally different beast. In a short story or book I can tell you what my character is thinking. In a script, what you see is what you get. Scripts are a collaborative effort. It’s up to the actors and music and lighting and the mise-en-scene to clue the audience into what’s beyond the surface.
For me, it’s about mixing it up the same way you work different muscle groups at the gym. It keeps my writing fresh and less fatigued and I get stronger with every cycle. I have a book, a couple of short stories, and a screenplay on the docket for 2021. I won’t know until after they are done what was easier and the most rewarding (not necessarily the same thing).
Right now, my ‘favorite’ is my next novel. Yet, if the timing of this interview was different, a screenplay, or a short story might have been my answer. And I think it makes sense to be most passionate about what you’re currently promoting. Similarly, don’t ever ask Kevin Feige over at Marvel who his favorite superhero is. It changes by the same measure.
Your most successful books are steampunk takes on various public domain Charles Dickens characters, when writing them how much do you try to keep faithful to the original characters just in different stories versus putting very much your own spin on them?
It’s a bit of both. When you’re writing someone like Oliver Twist, the collective conscious immediately puts to mind a small boy with a bowl asking for more. Yet, one of my favorite characters to write, Nell Trent, isn’t as well-known now. Since she’s not wedged into a universal image, I have a lot more liberties with the character.
I walk a razor’s edge. You must do something exciting and different with the character, otherwise, why bother? But that ‘difference’ must be rooted deeply in the character’s… well, character. Otherwise it’s not the same person. It’s a similar challenge to writing a historical character in an alternate history setting. The spirit must be there but there’s still plenty to twist into your own story.
Because you tend to work with previously well known characters like Twist and Scrooge or George Washington and Benedict Arnold do you feel any pressure as a writer because the audience has preconceived notions about who these people are?
Yeah, most everyone has this preconceived notion of Washington as a noble, stoic, leader that transcends time. He’s a mythological legend. And I think, rightfully so. Yet, as immensely powerful he is to the American mythos, he’s also immensely flawed, with feet of clay. So, it’s tricky bringing that more accurate portrait of him to life in my books. Someone ambitious and quick to anger, eager to seek glory, but also someone who set aside tremendous power when all was done to return to farming. That takes a huge amount of character, something say, Benedict Arnold, who is every bit the mirror reflection of Washington, simply lacked in this key, cracked way.
A Time of Need really stems from me asking that if this eager, young Washington had been offered a commission into the British ranks, would he have taken it? Of course, he would. So then the question becomes, how does Washington react to the Revolution coming from the other side?
Obviously the Charles Dickens characters are in the public domain but the time in which new creations are under copyright is notoriously long. Do you think this stifles creativity and should be changed or are you happy with being restricted to 19th century characters?
There are so many great characters from the 19th century that the Twist in Time series shouldn’t run out of steam anytime soon.
Copyright doesn’t stifle creativity. Look at the amazing fan fiction and videos stemming out of Star Wars. And I think that’s a great instance when most of the actual ‘sanctioned’ stories aren’t being told by fans. So you still have this base of people who keep the love for these characters alive during the dark times. And that’s so important. Fans have a good sense of who these characters are and how they should be.
That said, copyright laws shouldn’t change. Artists/writers have bare protections as it is, so certainly don’t strip away copyright early. Render to the Mouse what is theirs. What is out of copyright is fair game. Yet, let no one forget the fans that keep the flame of fictional characters alive.
What are you currently working on and what can we expect from you in the future?
We’ve spoken a lot about alternate history, but I’ve taken a point of divergence recently. If Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon was a love child of Turtledove’s damned “Green Buffalo” and Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” then my latest work is a love letter to Michael Crichton’s techno-horrors.
Alyx: An AI’s Guide to Love and Murder is my answer to theme parks of killer cowboy robots and bio-engineered theme-park dinosaurs stalking guests. I asked, “Where do you feel most safe?” The answer is usually in our homes. Our homes are full of the latest technologies designed to make ourselves feel safe and happy and comfortable. But what if that sanctuary, your home, wanted you dead?
I’m over here holding up Alyx like Mufasa on Pride Rock. It’s my favorite project to date and my most radical departure from everything I’ve written. It’s a bit Buffy, a bit Terminator, but it’s also mashed with deeply personal experiences extracted from my life. I didn’t have the best childhood in the world, books were my Magical Wardrobe to escape into Enchanted Lands, but my writing was my door back. I think that’s the way it is for many writers.
Alyx: An AI’s Guide to Love and Murder came out last week on January 23rd!
After Alyx, I’m diving back into the many worlds of alternate history, with a follow-up to A Time of Need. Tentatively titled: Tests of Loyalty.
Ultimately though, what I expect to do in the future is to align myself more with scriptwriting. I’m leaving Europe in about a year to head back Stateside, and it’s my goal to go Hollywood and write for a series like a reboot of Quantum Leap or my own adaption of A Twist in Time. Before then, I’ll need to write and polish a couple of spec scripts to find an elusive agent who *might* find me work making coffee for a writer’s room. It’s a difficult road to find success on, but I’m going to hitchhike it until I make it, or a flying saucer stops to offer me a ride to the moon.
If you’d like to follow my journey, check out my website at www.BrentAHarris.com to find ways to connect with me.