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 Bruce Munro, a veteran maker of AH maps, who can be found at deviant art.
Hello Bruce. So first of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. For those of our readers who don't recognise the name, you're a prolific producer of Alternate History Maps. So how did you get into Alternate History in the first place and what do you think is the appeal to you?
I was a science fiction fan from the early 80s, and I developed a certain degree of interest in alternate history as a sub-branch of the field, but, like many other people, I think I became an alternate history "fan" thanks to an author many consider the standard-bearer of the field, Harry Turtledove. Novels such as "Agent of Byzantium", "A Different Flesh", and "Guns of the South" inspired me to look for other specifically alternate history books, and by the early to mid-90s I was throwing my net quite widely. Also influential were SM Stirling's original two Draka books, and Gregory Benford's "What Might Have Been" series.
(I have since grown a bit tired of Turtledove's ticks (excessive parallelism, bloated series clearly just cranked out to pay for his kid's college education), but I remain indebted to the man for getting me into AH).
I suppose I was somewhat predisposed to enjoy alternate history, since regular history has been an interest of mine since I was quite young, and I have always been predisposed to ponder on how things might have gone differently. I also have a certain sense of the tragic when it comes to history, and I can feel some genuine sorrow over the misfortunes of past nations and peoples: it pleases me to imagine things going better for the losers and victims of history (losers which didn't really deserve the loads of anvils history dropped on them, that is: there are too many stories about victorious Nazis as it is.) I've also always been fond of full bodied, imaginative world building, a part of my appreciation for science fiction and fantasists such as Tolkien. I love a detailed, fully realized alternate world, and am always annoyed by a shoddily constructed alternate history. (If you don't put effort into your alternate world, you're going to need one hell of a story to keep my attention).
You've been involved in the online AH scene for many years. What do you think are the biggest differences between that community now and that community when you first encountered it?
Well, it's certainly grown over the time I've been following AH online. I started out on soc.history.what-if around 1999 or so, when I attended the State University of New York and attended for the first time an institution where access to the internet was free and pretty much unrestricted. It was a smaller world with fewer people, and quite unmoderated, which led to a lot of heated arguments and trolling, Indeed, the trolling by holocaust deniers and worse and arguments got bad enough to drive off a lot of people - a pity, since some quite creative work was done there. I eventually bailed myself and went to AH.com, a site owned by another refugee from soc.history.what-if.
Several other alternate history sites have come and gone over the years, but AH.com has remained something of a solid and reliable bastion of alternate history over the years, although of course it has undergone changes of its own. The art and maps have become much more professional, in part due to evolution in online graphics programs, in part, I think, due to professional graphic artists getting into alternate history. Standards for world building and timeline construction have always been fairly high, but I think overall those have gone up over the years as well. The community has always been fairly diverse, and there are members from around the world, although of course most are from the Anglosphere: alas, it has become somewhat less politically diverse, the increasingly sharp political divide in the US leading to the departure of many right-wing members unable to deal with the fairly liberal point of view of the moderators (this precedes Trump's presidency, and we had a considerable exodus as early as 2011). Some went to create new sites (whether booze and hookers were involved is unclear). Ironically, the main problem in recent years has been that the moderators are considered by many members to be insufficiently liberal, which has led to another round of conflicts and expulsions.
AH.com remains the largest alternate history site on the web, and has expanded well beyond purely alternate history interests, and has extensive discussion areas for politics, movies, science fiction, etc. Indeed, I tend to enjoy quite a few of the non-AH threads...
AH online and AH art has also benefited, I think, from video games, which do include a fair number of AH scenarios, and concept art of all sorts is an inspiration.
Mostly when I talk to people about their creative AH projects, it's prose but you mostly make graphics and maps. What advantages are there of that format in terms of expressing ideas and what draws you to them?
I am a very visual person, and I started drawing alternate history maps well before I was on the internet, making copies of blank maps and filling in imaginary countries (and also drawing on maps in books of mine: I used my books roughly when I was younger, to a degree that now embarrasses me). I did do some short scenarios and threw out alternate history ideas in my first decade or so on the internet, but over the last decade I have become increasingly map-focused.
This is partially due, I think, due to a lack of self-confidence: I am so blown away by those who, in their spare time, mind you, write detailed narrative timelines as long as big fat books, with all the detailed research that this requires, often across a range of disciplines. I have trouble seeing myself as coming anywhere close to these efforts, especially those timelines which involve clever selections from imaginary books, and lengthy conversations between alternate history people, and poems! (When I try to do conversations, everyone sounds a bit too much like me.)
A comprehensively annotated map creates a solid and detailed world and covers up any weaknesses in the backstory: you don't have to build a comprehensive timeline to lead up to it.
Besides being something that plays to my strengths, I do simply enjoy making maps: it appeals to my artistic impulse (I have always liked drawing and sketching), and there's something about the aesthetics of a good-looking map with nice borders and colors when I completed it that gives me a distinct sense of satisfaction. Indeed, sometimes rather than doing original maps or commissions by others I take existing maps and redo them to create a more handsome, more detailed version - it's an activity I find rather relaxing, like other people find, I dunno, knitting. Filling in stuff other people leave out of their maps and scenarios can be like filling in the missing pieces of a puzzle.
And what advice would you give to someone trying to make AH graphics and maps who is less experienced?
Well, to start, assuming you want to do maps online, you first need a graphics program: I use basic paint.net, indeed an older version than the current one, which is missing some functionalities the older one had which I like. You may want to start with something fancier, like Photoshop or Gimp (which is, admittedly, a bit non-intuitive), since you will be able to do fancier effects than I do (I keep telling myself to do maps in Photoshop, which I used to know something about, but I'm terrible lately about putting time into learning how to do something new).
Then you need a basemap. There are a lot of maps available online, blank or detailed: whether you can easily edit them depends on the graphics system you use and the image type. Basic paint likes .png image files and dislikes .jpeg files, for instance: you can edit .jpeg, but they pixellate and look bad when you save then. Fancier programs can do things like layers, so you can add or subtract layers of detail atop existing detailed maps without wrecking stuff.
Then, some a good detailed atlas, preferably one that shoes both rivers and provincial divisions (topology is also good), and some historical maps, for which atlases and books can be found with a little looking around on Amazon or other book sites (they exist!). It's a lot easier to do maps if you know what things used to look like and how they relate to current borders. A lot of borders have changed a great deal over time, so any alternate historian should be aware that current borders are fairly contingent and, say, African borders today are unlikely to be duplicated in a "Rome never falls" timeline. On the other hand, some borders do tend to be fairly stable due to geography: Spain and Portugal, surrounded by sea on three sides and bordered by mountains on the north, have remained the same, pretty much, for half a thousand years.
For instance, a common error in the AH mapper just starting out is the German-Polish border. The current eastern border of Germany is historically atypical of the last six centuries: it's a result of Stalin, Smasher of Nations, pretty much moving the whole country of Poland well to the west, both to punish the Germans and to get the Poles out of Belarus and the Ukraine.
Once you get started, the best thing to do is just jump in with both feet and practice drawing lines that curve and bend realistically. Straight lines are atypical, save when drawn through largely "worthless" or very thinly inhabited land: rivers, mountains, even river basins are more common for establishing borders between nations. (And you aren't going to find them in any case save in fairly advanced nations, since surveying a straight line hundreds of miles long is _hard_). Lines that are too thick or irregular will not be appreciated: a one-pixel line is good, although you can move beyond a lot of manual difficulties if you move up to fancier vector stuff.
Practice, practice, practice. Don't let slow progress get you down: pay attention to useful criticism, and ignore merely mean-spirited criticism or hazing ("Ow, my eyes!") There are a lot of existing fine AH maps online you can find to get an idea of what can be done, but don't get discouraged if you can't imagine matching some of the fancier stuff: Rome wasn't built in a day, and you can make nice maps and garner praise with even simple Paint maps (I should know. )
Ah.com has a map wiki which has a lot of useful stuff.
You post a lot over at Deviant Art. It's not a place I think of when I think about the AH online community, but there's a lot of AH content on there. Do you find that the people who post that content there mostly also take part in AH discussion and writing elsewhere or is it its own ghetto?
Oh, there are quite a few alternatehistory.com map makers that also post on Deviantart, and indeed there are quite a few AH.com exiles who put maps up there, too. We keep track of each other to a fair extent. Many of them are timeline writers as well as map makers. Of course, all of us alternate history fans on Deviantart are but tiny plankton floating in the vast sea of video game, anime, and My Little Pony art.
Are there any other Map creators you particularly admire?
And the insanely productive rvbomally.
This is by no means a complete list.
And then there are mappers who mainly or entirely post on Ah.com: BobHope, who has a unique style: Aurantiacis, who does amazing historical maps: Catetette: TsarofNewZealand: TheKutku: Beedok: AlexRichards: pischinovski: and older ones such as Atom, and Diamond, gone a decade now, but once a king among mappers and many of whose maps I have saved in my collections.
Your maps are a mixture between your own scenarios and illustrating the global situation in other people's AH content. Which do you prefer doing?
I generally prefer having a pre-existing scenario, at least in outline, to work with: it can be a bit frustrating to come up with all the details of a world myself, given that I often worry I am not being creative or original enough. (Making South America interesting in non-South-America-centered scenarios can be stressful).
Is there any map you're particularly proud of?
To some extent that's like asking a parent what is their favorite child, but I suppose among my more recent (and better) output I gained some extra degree of satisfaction in completing this fairly detailed world map of the world in Robert Silverberg's Gate of Worlds (and it's multi-author collaborative sequel, Beyond the Gate of Worlds)
The Gate of Worlds Swings Wide by QuantumBranching on DeviantArt I was also pleased by the following, in part because it was a successful move outside my comfort zone to do something a bit different: a map of a world of Underworlds.
Your style of maps, a big picture focus with slightly arch commentary, has become standard for a lot of the community in terms of being used to illustrate their timelines. Often commentators request a map like that in a new story to make it easier to read. For you personally if you're reading a story without a map do you find it harder to follow without being able to reference the changes against a visual hint?
If it's a complex global scenario a map certainly helps avoid confusion, and it is especially helpful if it's a centuries-long timeline in which there are many changes to keep track of. If it starts early enough in history, the story will eventually lead to a really divergent world where the names of countries and peoples are all changed around. (Indeed, it can be a bit frustrating at times when the author, say, gives us an in-timeline account of the wars of the Karians and the Bumpodites over the Hippoasiatic trade routes, and the information to figure out who and where is scattered over the last twenty pages. I know this is supposed to encourage reading the whole TL, but you don't always have the time!) 20th century divergences are less of a problem and you can easily keep up with maps online or in that handy dandy atlas I mentioned (useful for writing timelines as well as for alternate history maps!)
Of course, some people do put up a map for their timeline...and then don't provide a key or any notes or even names of countries. Sometimes they have the excuse of using some existing color scheme ("Well, it's RGB 119, 0, 119 - clearly, it's the Byzantine empire!"), but sometimes they use their own idiosyncratic system and when you complain about not knowing what all the colored blobs are they just tell you to read the timeline or ask you what specifically do you want to know . (And apparently "all of the countries" isn't a good response.)
Really, I wish many alternate history writers (online amateurs  and professional for money writers both) would stop and do at least a crude map to, so to speak, keep themselves honest and avoid obvious blunders. One occasionally runs into some geographical absurdities, such as one Stephen Baxter short which has both a modern world power Byzantine empire and an opposing Ottoman empire - never mind that their historical core areas entirely overlap!
 A word that should be taken cautiously, since some of the unpaid and unpublished amateurs create much fancier, historically plausible, and more detailed worlds than most published writers. (And now with the emergence of online e-book publishers such as Sea Lion Press, the distinction is getting blurrier...)
So you have at various points sold prints and done commissions. Is there a potential paying audience for AH Art do you think or is too obscure for that?
Oh, there definitely is: several other people do paid commissions. But I don't think individual commissions are the way to go about it, since the time it takes to make a good map really doesn't make it competitive as a profession when you are measuring $/hour. If I take ten hours to make a map and get $30 for it, that's only $3/hour, well below minimum wage. Prints of existing maps might be a better idea, although then I'd have to end my "hey, it's fine for you to use this - just credit me!" policy when it comes to maps I have on my Deviantart account and put watermarks or something on them so people can't just copy them. To make actual non-starving-in-a-garret wages with alternate history art, you need to do something which you can sell to multiple people: I have though of putting together a book of alternate history maps, but I'm not sure how well original alternate history maps would sell compared to ones based on existing books, comics, etc., and with those you would need to worry about copyrights.
I actually put together a book of maps some years ago, but in the end decided that I needed to get replace those maps which flew too close to the copyright dragon, and a few years after that I had improved my map game enough that the maps I had made for the book looked sort of cruddy. If I try again (which would require me to improve my motivation and energy level: I've been having trouble getting much done artistically the last couple years, alas) I might go with some sort of collection of themed maps, say "the 40 most popular AH scenarios" (start with "Nazis win" and work my way down. ).