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 regularly 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.
Hello Jonathan. Thank you for agreeing to talk to us. How did you get into Alternate History and what about the genre appeals to you?
A better question would be what about the genre doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve been interested in history and storytelling as long as I can remember – I was one of those kids who made up imaginary countries when I was five years old – and I grew up on a diet of speculative fiction where “what if” was both a question and a literary theme. This was before alternate history was a recognized genre, and the ifs of speculative fiction mainly involved the future or secondary fantasy worlds, but the idea of parallel universes was already well known, and tours de force like de Camp’s “Wheels of If,” Weinbaum’s “Worlds of If” (notice the theme there?) and Leinster’s “Sidewise in Time” were science fiction classics. So alternate history was a logical next step, and one that I was experimenting with by the time I was out of my teens.
If I had to pick a favorite thing about alternate history, it would be the rigor it has added to my review of real history. If you want to imagine a world where things happened differently, the first step is always to consider why they happened the way they did, and what historical forces operated on the people who made them happen. In many ways, I’ve come to treat our timeline as an alternate history – to refine my perception of historical events by comparing their prelude and aftermath to a hypothetical universe where they didn’t take place. There’s a little alternate history in almost everything.
You're a published author now, but you're probably still best known for writing on amateur AH forums, which have a reputation for caring more about historical details than technical skills. How useful do you think the feedback and conversation on those forums is for honing your craft?
Again, it’s been very good for rigor. Forum AH taught me very quickly that I need to do my homework, because if I don’t, there will be some very smart people ready to call me on it. I also know that anything I post on a forum will be read and criticized by people with a wide spectrum of political views and cultural backgrounds, and if I stray into stereotyped thinking, I’ll have that called to my attention very quickly.
This has all carried over to my published writing. There’s a huge amount of research behind all my stories – especially, but not only, those with historical settings or scientific premises – and I do a lot of consultation to make sure I’m not stereotyping or engaging in lazy thinking. That sense of detail has come in handy many times.
You've been on those forums for more than a decade. How do you think that community has changed over that time period and do you think you've contributed yourself to a shift in focus?
As you may have noticed, I’ve been on the forums a lot less in the past three or four years. There have been a lot of reasons for that – work, family, dealing with the craziness of the world, giving attention to writing for publication. I’ve posted some updates here and there and participated in a few threads, but I haven’t really been involved in the forums as a community the way I used to be. It’s something I miss, but it also means I’m not qualified to comment on how the culture has changed recently.
At any rate, I guess I take a long view of these things – I started taking part in alternate history forums in Usenet days in the mid-1990s, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then. There was very little emphasis on storytelling at that point, and I think that part of forum AH has steadily increased. There has also been more attention paid to non-Western cultures, to intellectual and environmental history, and to a more holistic approach to historiography – the seeds had already been planted in the 90s, but they’ve germinated since. I’d like to think I made some modest contribution with Spinoza in Turkey and Malê Rising, but there have been many other long-term projects that have moved forum AH in those directions.
Your most famous work is Malê Rising which is a classic amateur online timeline in that's it's very long and told in a bricolage style. It has also never been published because you've said timelines don't easily convert into novels as they're too vast in scope and unfocused. If you had written it as a novel instead of a timeline, do you think it could have said as much as the timeline ultimately did?
A novel would, I think, have been both more and less – more depth in the areas it covered, but less breadth to those areas. In Malê Rising, I tried to cover the whole world – to rerun the history of the planet from 1840 to 2015 (which, at the time I finished the timeline, was the present). There’s no way I could have done that in a novel, where I would have to portray the world through the eyes of its characters. There’s a limit to how many viewpoint characters you can have and still tell an effective story – even Turtledove usually keeps them in single digits.
I did kick around the idea of turning parts of Malê Rising into a novel – there were places like the Great War, the life of Paulo Abacar, the Great Rising of South Carolina, or the Indian War of Independence where the story arc was coherent enough. Maybe someday I’ll get serious about the Great War novel, which I had tentatively titled “Partners in the Dance” after Ibrahim Abacar’s in-universe war poem. But each of those would only cover parts of the world and portions of its history, and I’d have to tell the rest of the story through allusion.
Could I have said as much in a novel? Maybe I could have said more, at least in some ways – I would have been able to get into the characters’ heads much more than in the vignettes I actually wrote. But it wouldn’t have been the same.
All good AH creates a world that is both fundamentally alien and grounded in the familiar and Malê Rising's 'present day' explores a world that while sharing a lot of countries and history has completely different basic principles in terms of citizenship, law and states to our own. Do you think if you'd written a story set in that world with only hints as to how it got there it would have been as powerful? Or without showing the way it emerges from our own systems would it feel too alien and you would lose a lot of the implied message that things we take for granted are not inevitable?
If I’d set out to tell the story on a clean slate, I’m not sure the present-day world would have been based on those principles. I began Malê Rising with a set of ideas that would shape West Africa in the immediate aftermath of the POD, and I had a vague idea of where things would end up, but a lot of the Malêverse’s history developed organically during the four years I was writing it. Some of that development happened through discussion on the comment threads - another difference between published AH and forum AH is that the forum writing process is interactive - and some of it was me writing a series of updates and realizing “oh, this is where these ideas are heading.”
But in answer to your question, I do think that the alternate presence of the Malêverse might have been a bit too alien if presented ex nihilo. You can get away with that in a science fiction or fantasy story, where readers expect a world that works differently, but if the story is set on Earth in the present day, I think readers will want to know how it got that way. And I agree that showing the Malêverse’s present as the product of many small decisions would be hard to replicate if I just cut to the chase and left out all those decisions being made.
One of the most notable things about your writing is your focus on the global south, your SLP book is about Gabon, you wrote a great timeline about Haiti etc. Why do you think that you're so drawn to Africa and the Africa Diaspora in particular for Alternate History stories?
Yes, that’s the one I always have to explain – no one ever asks why I write stories about medieval rabbis. (There’s a story behind that too, and it has to do with pushing back against what Salo Baron called the lachrymose conception of Jewish history and portraying the Judaism of that period as an integral part of medieval Europe in all its splendid weirdness, but I digress.)
Like my fascination with alternate history, my interest in Africa and the African diaspora goes back a long way. I began reading the African literary titans in college – Achebe is my particular literary hero, and Ousmane Sembene’s “God’s Bits of Wood” also made a major impression on me. I’ve worked on professional projects involving African law, and in 2009 I was fortunate to hire a paralegal out of law school who happened to come from a Yoruba royal family and who became an associate at my office. I went to her wedding in Lagos – 2000 guests, 1000 of whom were invited and the other thousand just showed up – and I consider her to be family. There have been other connections, both literary and personal.
Aside from these specific links, though, I think there’s a shared regard from one diaspora to another. I’m a member of the Jewish diaspora, and while the history of the African diaspora and the challenges it has faced are of course very different, there’s been some of the same sense of struggle and the same blending of tradition with modernity. And there are events in African history such as the Igbo Women’s War of 1929 – the background to two of my published stories – that are just an inspiration to anyone concerned with fighting a creative battle against injustice. There’s something about the history and cultures (very much plural) of the African diaspora, and those of its many motherlands, that calls to me and always has.
In terms of telling those stories, how much were you concerned with the potential of pitfalls of that, both that you might naturally have a smaller audience compared to say a story about the American Civil War and the way you're talking about a culture that isn't your own?
I wasn’t worried about having a smaller audience – I figured if I built it well enough, the readers would come, and if they didn’t come, maybe I wasn’t writing anything worth reading.
Writing about other cultures, on the other hand, was definitely something I was concerned about. I want to treat people with respect, and I want to treat my subject matter with respect. And that was definitely an issue once the scope of the timeline moved beyond the cultures I was most familiar with or when I wanted to introduce a “rule of cool” plot point. I cast a pretty wide net in terms of research, but yeah, I made some mistakes – I make mistakes when I set stories in my own culture, so I’m definitely going to make them in a story that covers the whole world. Only God is perfect; the rest of us can only make sure our mistakes are respectful ones and do better going forward.
Beyond the Subject matter, one of the most notable things in Malê Rising, is the literary excerpts where you explore various cultures by showing us fiction those cultures produced. How easy was it to slip into that kind of pastiche of other literary styles?
It was easier sometimes than others – as with the timeline as a whole, there were cultures and literary styles I was more familiar with than others. I did research for these excerpts too, but it was slightly different; rather than doing historical reading, I would immerse myself in literary works from that place and time, listen to the voice, and hopefully be able to speak in that voice when I got into the head of whatever in-universe author I was ghostwriting. If the part of the Malêverse in question had diverged too far from our history to have a literary analogue, I’d get as close as I could.
Some of these attempts, I think, were successful; others not so much. As you mention, “The Stars That Bore Us” has grown into six published or to-be-published stories; there are a couple of other in-universe stories I’m proud of, and I think the in-universe poetry came off well. But some of the others are meh, which is going to happen. If I beat Sturgeon’s Law, then I’m doing well.
You've had a series of afro-futurist short stories published that originally started life as one of those literary excerpts, a fictional character's story. Is that written in a voice that isn't quite your own as a result or did the rewrites turn it into much more of a JE story?
That’s an interesting question, and I suspect the answer gets lost in recursion somewhere down the line. I did write the original Mutanda-verse story in the voice of a fictional character, but its “author” was a character of my creation, so there was always something of me in there. And as I’ve written more stories in that universe, maybe I’ve taken on some aspects of his voice as my own. Characters write stories as much as authors do – I’ve written more than one where the characters took over – and maybe that goes just as much for characters who are in-universe authors. Somewhere in the Mutanda-verse is a hall of infinite mirrors, and I’m not 100 percent sure which of us is staring back.
What more can we expect to see from you in the future?
I had a very dry year in 2021 – for a while, it seemed that the above-mentioned craziness of the world had leached all the stories out of me – but then all of a sudden in December they were there again. I wrote two stories in the space of three weeks, both in the Mutanda universe, and both of them sold right off the bat. “Dark Eternity” will be appearing toward the end of 2022 in “Worlds Long Lost,” a Baen alien archaeology anthology, and “Lightning Cat” will appear mid-2022 in “Felis Futura,” which is an anthology of future cat stories.
Right now, I’m actively working on two more – another Mutanda-verse story called “The Witch of Bio-Facility 3,” set at the deepest part of its dark age, and a story tentatively entitled “The Speech God Understands,” which will be a sequel to “The City of Kindness” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies # 329, May 6, 2021) featuring medieval French cabalist Isaac the Blind. If I can place them, hopefully you’ll all get to read them.