Interviewing the AH Community: Carlos Arturo Serrano

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 I try and interview 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 is Carlos Arturo Serrano, whose book 'To Climates Unknown' was reviewed on this blog and who can be found on twitter.

Hello Carlos. First of all, thank you for talking to us. You've been open elsewhere that you're not a massive reader within the Alternate History genre, what made you choose to write a story in that genre and what do you think is the appeal to you of writing that kind of story?

I didn’t first decide to write an alternate history and then look for an event to play with. I started with things I wanted to say about the US as a concept, as a mover of history, as a force in the world, and then realized that its presence is just so massive that the most effective way to explore what position it occupies was to have it vacate that position and show what kind of world resulted.

It’s true that I’m a newcomer to the specific niche of alternate history, but I view myself more broadly as a fan of the speculative genres. I consume fantasy and science fiction on a regular basis, which may have helped it feel more natural when I set out to try my hand at one of the subgenres under the speculative umbrella. Besides, I am also a huge fan of historical fiction, which is the other half of the recipe. So I never had any feeling that alternate history could be a remote or forbidden territory.

That being said, I’ve found it difficult to try to integrate into the alternate history community. I participate in alternate history forums only very occasionally, because the discussion is overwhelmingly dominated by wargaming scenarios, and that topic holds no interest for me. So I haven’t found a place for myself in the fandom, and as long as battle simulations remain the loudest topic, I’ll probably stick to the margins.

'To Climates Unknown' is a story about a world without the United States as we know it forming. Obviously that means you grapple with American exceptionalism, American radicalism, American imperialism and other thorny political issues. Was there a world view you wanted to impart through this book?

Yes, the worldview I impart is exactly the opposite of the ideologies you enumerate. There is much to love about the US (I myself married a US citizen), but what neocons have done to the national consciousness is alarming and deserving of close examination. I was born after the Vietnam War, so my chance to grow disillusioned in the American myth had to wait until my adulthood coincided with the invasion of Afghanistan and everything that ensued.

I quickly learned how frustrating it is to be a pacifist in a world where the US exists. The continuous dropping of my jaw at the awfulness of the Bush Jr. administration did not prepare me for how destructive Trump turned out to be. So writing this book was, in a big way, an exercise of exploring my feelings about the US. It may sound out of place for a foreigner to have this particular interest, but what that country does has consequences that affect everyone on the planet. No one is untouched by the decisions made in offices in Washington, and it should not be viewed as normal. We should not be so accustomed to this state of affairs. It’s a disturbing anomaly that one single country gets to be so influential and omnipresent. It became an obsession that I could only grapple with through storytelling.

What I offer at the ending of my novel is a hopeful dramatization of the motto E pluribus unum, the founding idea of the US, which, in different wording, is also the motto of the European Union. It's a beautiful principle that neocons and worse of that ilk would prefer to forget, so I couldn’t leave it out of the story. I was briefly tempted to end it with nuclear war and revenge fantasy, but that wouldn’t have come from my deepest self. I needed to be able to simultaneously comment on what I find objectionable about the US (the hypermilitarism, the push toward theocracy, the hubris it takes to make choices for other countries) and what I find admirable about it (the repudiation of monarchy, the openness to newcomers, the creation of a space for all cultures and traditions to meet and enrich one another).

'To Climates Unknown' is a hugely ambitious story, looking at the entire world over a period of centuries. It's very difficult to do something like that and still produce an actual focused story that isn't the longest book ever written. How as a writer do you choose what gets on page and what gets left out?

I’ve certainly struggled with that question. When Edward Rutherfurd visited the Bogotá Book Fair in 2019, he held a Q&A session, and I asked him how much research was enough research. He said that about one-tenth of what he researched ended up in his books, which, if you look at their size, gives you a dizzying picture of how much material he accumulates. He added that the story itself tells you how much background explanation and description it needs. So I treated my book primarily as a story, more than as a history lesson. I’m very aware of the temptation to infodump; in fact, the early drafts of To Climates Unknown had long speeches full of factoids I was too fond of. What kept this book from being ten times longer was, first, my self-imposed deadline (I wanted to have it published by the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s settlement in Plymouth), and second, my sense of theme.

The first chapter gives an ending to the last descendants of the Pilgrims, and I proceed to tell other stories elsewhere. At first, I planned to continue with those same characters, but that ran against my intention to decenter American history. To abandon the Pilgrims and explore the rest of the world is a way to signal to the reader that this story is not going to be about regurgitating the American myth. The structure of To Climates Unknown is something I learned from The Years of Rice and Salt, another book that explores the absence of a culture and of a way of seeing the world. Where Robinson invented a world without Europeans, I invented one without Americans, and I decided to take his example and tell a story spanning centuries. However, I also learned from his example to limit each section to the story it needed to tell and the themes it needed to cover. When you do alternate history, you run into the temptation to compile bloated lists of incidents, and I was not interested in doing that. I was interested in doing literature.

Because it covered the entire world, you ended up hiring nine sensitivity readers to check that your depictions of various cultures weren't offensive. How was the experience of working with those readers and how important do you think that step is for a book like this?

It was easier than it would have been for a regular book of this size. Because each section is set in a different region and has different characters, each reader only needed to see one section. That lowered immensely the cost of the service. Fortunately, most of the readers I hired didn’t find anything harmful or inaccurate. Some unfortunate word choices were corrected; some character motivations were clarified; some places were better named. For the most part, the readers found my efforts acceptable. Only the Chinese reader warned me about the danger of having the Chinese Emperor convert to Christianity and campaign to seize Jerusalem, because (a) Christianity has an ugly history in China, so it may cause offense to present a scenario of successful evangelization, and (b) there’s a longstanding Orientalist cliché about amoral foreigners who corrupt “good” European values. So I reworked several dialogue scenes in that chapter, making it as clear as possible that I was describing a villain ruler, not a villain nation. A point that the reader didn’t know about, because I only sent her the chapter set in China, is that my plot doesn’t single out the Chinese Empire as the enemy. I have three rival empires fighting for control of the world. The colonial system is the enemy. Religious war is the enemy. Monarchy is the enemy. If anything, what I described in that chapter is not a case where an Emperor corrupts Christianity, but the exact opposite: a case where Christianity corrupts an Emperor.

The point of diversion of 'To Climates Unknown' is the death of William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan, which you cleverly use to effectively change the path of all the major continents. It's a very well researched POD, whereas a lot of published AH would just handwave changes to get where they want. How important is it to you as a writer that the steps you took are plausible and sketched out entirely? Do you think the story needs that grounding in reality for the message to work?

I’m a fan of credibility, even when writing the incredible. In science fiction, I prefer hard rigor; in fantasy, I prefer magic with rules. When I read, I view it as the story making the promise that it’s not going to cheat. When I write, I take it as an extremely useful guideline. As a firm opponent of Romanticism, I don’t believe in creative chaos. My creativity works better when I give myself clearly defined constraints. I keep thinking back to some rather peculiar feedback that this novel received. One reader said that my sequence of events did not follow “inevitably” from the initial change, and that each of them was of “low probability.” It takes a strange view of history, and of literature, to think that that is a point against a story. Although I made every effort to ground my plot on fact, within the limits of reality, those limits are way more expansive than we think. This relates back to the wargaming problem with the genre: it treats history as a sequence of chess moves, but history doesn’t work like that. History is full of surprising events, and literature dies if we force it into a mechanical model of cause and effect. The substance of both history and literature is human choice, and human choice is a messy business. The American doctrine of manifest destiny is another iteration of that same narrow view of history, which stems from the Calvinist belief in predestination. You can’t write alternate history without rejecting predestination, without declaring, even implicitly, that no event is necessary. As a firm opponent of Calvinism, I wrote a novel where fatality throws the world astray, but human choice saves it.

You're from Colombia, and you've had short stories published in both Spanish and English before. You've said elsewhere that your first draft was in Spanish but the published version is in English. Was there a conscious choice that this story had to be in English because of the subject matter or was it a more commercial decision? Do you think there is an audience for this kind of book among Spanish speakers?

Science fiction is a minuscule sector in the Colombian literary market, and most of the science fiction found in bookstores here is translated from English. An aspiring writer has a tiny chance of success in this genre. So the decision to write this book in English was an admittedly strategic one. My reports from the Kindle store tell me that someone bought it in Brazil, and someone in Germany, and someone in Australia; that would not have happened if I had gone through a Colombian publishing house.

But also, the topic of this novel is very hard to sell to Colombian readers. The gigantic mythic significance of the Mayflower says nothing to us. The conversation on American exceptionalism and manifest destiny is going on in English, and to enter that conversation, I had to play by its terms.

You're obviously bilingual and you work as a translator for Constelación Magazine. In terms of that process of converting from one language to another, how difficult do you find it to capture the poetry of the prose in another language? To what extent, do you think the published version of 'To Climates Unknown' is the same book as the Spanish draft or does the different language dictate it being a different text?

The original, Spanish draft of To Climates Unknown only went as far as the first chapter of the completed novel in English. And it had a slightly different plot; the death that occurs at the end of that first chapter happened to another character. I had a complicated plan for a book series, where the beginning of each entry would differ from the ending of the previous one, making the plot a succession of alternate histories within itself. But I hit a point where I was doing more imagining than I was writing, and it became clear it was preferable to get something done than to spend another ten years in my head. So the planned books became the main sections of this one.

Even after I decided to write this in English, I knew I had to keep a tight rein on my expectations.

I did not translate that first version into English; To Climates Unknown takes the same starting plot elements, but its sentences were all conceived in English. There are a few fragments where, for reasons of theme, I used poetic metres from other languages to compose an entire paragraph, but such an exercise was the exception.

To be frank, it’s been a while since I’ve read any science fiction or historical fiction in Spanish, so I don’t have a fresh idea in my head of what a book like this would have sounded like in Spanish. The theme dictated the medium.

You're also a regular reviewer over at Nerds of a Feather, the Hugo award winning Fanzine. Will having your own work out there, which has been reviewed by people like Alex Wallace, affect the way you write reviews, now you know what it's like to be on the other side?

Reading as a writer is a completely different experience. Gabriel García Márquez liked to call it reading with a screwdriver in your hand: you can take the text apart and study the pieces and intuit the reasons behind the author’s decisions. So I don’t write reviews just based on the story’s effect on me, but based on the techniques of the craft that I can identify in the text and that help understand how it was created. I’ve found that I enjoy a story better when I detect where the nuts and bolts were screwed. Many readers prefer to believe the illusion of the completed work, but I’m an advocate for explaining the joke. One thing I’ve noticed these days, as I begin my second year as a reviewer, is that I’m selecting more novels by first-time authors. I’ve become a convert to the “lift as you climb” school of career building. There are highly publicized novels coming up this year that I’m not going to review, because they don’t need my help to sell well. I know firsthand the need for visibility, and I'm planning to spread it more generously.

Outside AH, you wrote the 'Doves and Dissenters', Dungeons and Dragons 5e pack 'intended for players who want to create nonviolent heroes', which is a radical departure from what we expect from D & D. What was the inspiration behind that idea?

I enjoy alternate history, and I enjoy D&D, and that’s somewhat funny to say as a pacifist, because the martial ingredient in both genres can be quite offputting. While the alternate history community still appears to be dominated by the list compilers and the battle tacticians, D&D has grown from its small roots and is now open to many more modes of storytelling. The fact that the first D&D was a wargaming system does not mean at all that it’s destined to remain chained to combat as its central storytelling tool. D&D has become bigger and richer and wider than its origins, and I hope alternate history can likewise outgrow its fixation with battle simulations. My pacifism is a big part of my writing. Americans are bizarrely comfortable with violence, which is another key theme of my novel. You can see in To Climates Unknown how I deliberately steered away from military content, which is why, over several chapters, world events build up to a huge world war that I then skip, because war is boring, so I jump over a century of history to tell what happens after the war. That’s also why I go out of my way to have a character explicitly say that war is the least interesting part of human history (and I posit that it’s the least interesting part of alternate history). What draws me to alternate history is not the scorekeeping of who wins and who dies, but the meaning of the story. And, on a more technical level, I am opposed to the use of violence as an aesthetic object. Violence is what happens when humanity fails. As much as I love science fiction, I have no patience for military content. I have nothing but contempt for militaries. A story needs to have a very human focus to make me care for a war; an excellent recent example is the beautiful character work they did in The Expanse. So you may be wondering how a pacifist deals with D&D. I’ve played D&D since the mid-2000s, and part of the process of learning the game involved learning to tolerate combat scenes. I never liked combat, but peer pressure is very powerful when you’re young and trying to make peers. So I spent many years suppressing my dislike of violence, until 2020, when I played in my first (and last) villain campaign and was confronted with the full extent of everything I hate about violence. It was a very intense campaign, which I had to leave, but the unpleasant experience led me to do some lengthy reading about the cultural appeal of violence. I spent months in heavy introspection about what I wanted from the game and how I could continue creating stories with the tools of D&D while staying true to myself. The result is Doves & Dissenters, which suggests nonviolent powers that can defuse combat. With luck, one day D&D will no longer privilege combat as the main event of the story, but in the meantime, I offer this for players like me, who come for the sense of wonder but feel repelled by all the slaying.

Now your first English Language novel is out, what can we expect from you next? Do you plan to return to AH at any point?

I’m finishing a degree in creative writing, and my thesis will be a horror novel that reimagines the origin of Patasola, a Colombian folk monster. This one will be in Spanish. I’m currently adapting Doves & Dissenters for the Pathfinder system, and I have a few ideas for short stories I’d like to send to science fiction magazines. As for novels, that depends on what obsession takes hold of me next. I’ve been reading about the oddities of false cognates. I’ve been reading about pharmaceutical age reversal. I’ve been reading about the early climate of Venus. I’ve been reading about the new, insidious forms of authoritarianism. I’ve been reading about the evolution of sleep. Something will come of that.

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