Questions from 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.
Hello, Dale! First of all thank you for agreeing to talk to us. So you've been involved in producing Alternate History content for over a decade now, how did you get into that and what attracts you to the genre?
Not sure what attracts me to the genre but I have been interested in iffy history since I was a precocious 10 year old with a fourth grade teacher who made history fascinating and indulged my interest.
You're probably best known for the 'Point of Divergence' Magazine. How did that originally come about?
Jim Rittenhouse started POD and ran it for the first 45 issues. He had to give it up due to health issues, so I took it over for the last 53 issues after being co-editor for five issues. It is a lot of work, but fun too. Every few issues we invite an up and coming AH author to be the issue’s guest author. We have had a couple Sea Lion Press people as guest authors and several others.
Point of Divergence is described as a 'Do it yourself magazine' wherein all of the subscribers were also contributors. That's a fascinating model, what were the main advantages and disadvantages of how it worked in practice?
This kind of group zine used to be very common in science fiction circle, but a lot of the big ones shrank or went away entirely with the growth of online forums and social media. The advantages I have seen are a sense of permanence with the actual paper written word and more depth in the conversation. The downsides are that paper and postage are expensive and you wait a couple months for feedback, rather than getting it in an hour or two.
Small press paper magazines are a dying art now, do you think 'POD' is better off for not being purely online content?
I’m a big fan of reading on my Kindle, but what I read in an actual book seems to stick with me more. I think something about the tactile experience of reading something physical helps establish the memories more firmly, at least for me. That being said, part of the reason that we stay physical is that quite a few long term and valued members simply don’t have the computer skills to do online zines.
In those magazines your contributions covered both essays and fiction. As an example you answer the question of 'what if the Nazis attacked Moscow in WWII' in the form of an essay, reproduced in your first published collection of the best of your work from those magazines, rather than as a story. Was there any specific features that made you want to look at certain scenarios through an analytical non fiction lens and others as the settings for narratives or was it just whatever felt right?
Actually, most of my essays start out as brainstorming for story ideas. After a decade and a half I hopefully have a feel for when the brainstorming leads to a good story idea. Sometimes the scenario is cool and helps me understand real history better, but doesn’t lead to a story, at least not immediately. Sometimes I will do a scenario and then, years later, find a story that belongs in it.
Telling a good story and writing a good essay are very different skills. Which would you say you're better at and which do you find most rewarding?
Writing essays is easy for me. I love history and research. Writing a good story is much more difficult but actually more rewarding. As to which one I do better, I think I am just getting as good at writing fiction as I am at writing essays.
In terms of your published fiction, it's obvious that one of the trends you're most interested in exploring is different universes colliding. Which is a trick often used in Fantasy such as the Chronicles of Narnia wherein we are introduced to a fantasy world through the eyes of visitors to it from our world, but it's less used in AH. What's the appeal of it to you as a story teller, just the way it makes exposition more natural or something deeper?
The thing I like to do that is different from most “universes collide“ novels is that where most authors have one person or a small group of people from one universe getting to the other universe, I usually have the entire worlds in contact with one another. Whole towns find themselves in an alternate reality or in one fictional universe, if you have enough money you can drive to Sacramento international airport and take a plane through a gate to an alternate reality. Why do I like throwing societies together like that? I find that it helps me understand the two societies better.
One of the concepts you've come up with is the idea of the snapshot universe, where in a particular area at a particular time is split off from the rest of the world by aliens. Do you think that kind of sci-fi model allows a wider audience for AH who maybe wouldn't be interested in a straight up historical story?
Snapshots are wonderful playgrounds for stories, almost too wonderful because I have a weakness for new and shiny and I have 3 separate series going in the universe at the moment, though I just finished one of them. Snapshots let you have the equivalent of alternate history or time travel without the usual constraints like butterflies and kill your grandfather paradoxes.
One of the other things I think it's fair to say you're most interested in is the idea of more successful Native Americans. Do you think part of the appeal of AH is that it can act as something like wish fulfilment in exploring fictional universe where some of the people who lost the most during the age of colonisation end up victorious?
Most AH scenarios start out with an if-only, a wish fulfillment. Good AH goes beyond the if-only and realistically explores the downsides of the change.
A few years ago you wrote a blog entry about how when you write AH fiction, you always keep in mind inevitable realities of how power structures work that will always be constant. Given certain feudal structures seem to evolve in different places convergently, how alien do you think any human civilisation to emerge in an Alternate Reality could ever actually be to us?
Good question. We seem hard-wired to establish hierarchies as soon as we have a storable surplus of food. Is that true of all humans given the opportunity? If the tendency is genetic, our best bet for humans without it would be the most genetically divergent people still in existence, Australian aborigines or the Khoisan people in Southern Africa. Then there is the question of whether Neanderthals or other archaic humans would have the same tendency, given a surplus.
Societies do tend to develop hierarchies slower when resources are widely spread. River valleys in deserts are great for hierarch. Fertile, well-watered plains not so much, at least not until they get filled with mutually hostile farming or herding people. The point is that when it is easier for people to walk away from oppressive hierarchies, they do.