Interviewing the AH Community: Liam Connell of the AskHistorians 2020 Digital Conference

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.


This week it's Liam Connell, who is working on his PHD in History and wrote the title story in the SLP horror collection 'Travellers in an Antique Land'


Hello Liam! First of all thanks for agreeing to talk to us. So in September this year you participated in the AskHistorians 2020 Digital Conference, where you gave a presentation on Australian fantasies of invasion in the late nineteenth century. How did you come to be involved in that?


Well, it was a mix of personal and professional interest. As a grad student, you're always on the lookout for a conference you can attend without losing too much momentum from your main work- so when a site that I love to read put out a Call for Papers, it obviously seemed like an opportune moment.


The actual topic is something that I don't actually specialise in, but that I've always found interesting. I deal with how Britain's Australasian colonies understood their place in the British Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Part of that is reading contemporary novels, and understanding contemporary fears. In my actual PhD I only get to deal with these invasion fantasies in passing- I rather enjoyed getting to delve into them for a wider audience.


The genre of 'invasion literature' is obviously a bit of a forerunner to the modern alternate history genre; a lot of the stuff that's published in print or online still boils down to 'who would win between these two countries?' I think that when you move past that, the actual ideas about race and empire and masculinity are a lot more interesting than the surface stuff about the Kaiser invading Britain- or Japan invading Australia, for that matter.


How do you feel it went, both for you individually and as a whole?


The conference was a real success. One thing that a lot of people don't understand is just how insular and small scale most academic conferences are. Even a really big conference will have a direct audience of a few hundred people. Most papers at most conferences get read out to twenty people. If those papers get written down and published, they will in turn perhaps be read a by a few hundred students across the world over a period of a decade or so and then get forgotten. Even in the age of Google Scholar, the conference presentation is regrettably disposable.


So when you consider that according to the AskHistorians metrics there wasn't a single panel that had less than a thousand views in its first fortnight, and several had over ten thousand you get an idea of just how successful it was at expanding the audience. On the site itself, the conference had over one and a half million impressions. Did most of those people read or watch a whole panel? Probably not. But if even one percent did, the conference would have been more successful than almost any traditional academic gathering.


Personally, I was just glad to take part. Our panel was one of the smaller ones, but it was a real pleasure to take part and engage with scholars from across the world working in completely different fields from my own. And (he said modestly, brushing some lint off his shoulder) I was very pleased with the feedback I received.


Obviously the main advantage of a digital platform for a conference in 2020 is that it maintains social distancing during a global pandemic, but considering the other advantages in terms of accessibility, expense and ecological damage do you think this is likely to remain a popular model even after the current situation?


I think there are serious advantages to it. Part of the problem with traditional conferences is that they often fall on the shoulders of early career researchers: organising a conference or panel is important if you're trying to burnish your academic CV. But the actual cost of attending and presenting is rarely covered by university grants, so that it's always more expensive proportionally for young researchers to attend and present than it is for more established speakers. Running the conference online was obviously a big organisational challenge for the AskHistorians team, but it certainly made it easier for a wide variety of people to take part.


That being said, the obvious social advantages of meeting in person- in terms of networking, making friends, snubbing rivals and so on- is something that it's difficult to compensate for with online hangouts.


You spoke in the conference from New Zealand, whereas your fellow panel members were based in Europe and North America. Was the time zone difference a major issue that could pose problems in future conferences like this or was it relatively easy to cope with?


It's a tough one. Generally I think the conference did very well; particularly in a conference like this where people in my time zone (and East Asia) were a minority, we knew that we'd be staying up late or getting up early to take part. That's fine- you have to balance fairness with what's easiest for the most people. The actual panel recordings were done in the early morning my time, but not obscenely so, and billions of people get up early every day to go to work.


Where it did feel like missing out was in some of the networking stuff. The conference very generously tried to run at least two networking sessions every day, twelve hours apart to maximise the chances that people could attend at least one; but the central mixer was a one-off session at four AM NZ time which was obviously off-limits to me. Again, I'm not complaining- I was the only Kiwi, and any schedule where I could attend everything would have been a schedule that was drastically unfair to the vast majority of people at the conference. But yes, time zones will generally mean that in an online event some people will always miss out on some things.... god, what an inelegant phrase.


r/AskHistorians as a whole is an outreach project, in which trained Historians engage directly with the public and provide proper, well-sourced answers to questions asked by people with no historical background. How important do you think that teaching role is in terms of the role of the Historian?


It's a difficult one to answer. To some extent, the current set up where professional historians are paid to be teachers but their career progression is tied to their research doesn't help either skill set.


Look, Academics aren't actually as happy about being isolated from the general public as they're often portrayed. People become historians because they are interested in history. People who are interested in history generally like to share that interest. I think that r/AskHistorians shows that there are many researchers out there who, even if they find the classroom environment stultifying, really do want to write for a wider audience. More importantly, the site shows that that audience exists- that there are literally millions of people who want to learn more about history and are prepared and in fact happy to read lengthy, well sourced answers that are far more detailed than the normal stuff you find on popular history sites.


On the other hand, there are people who really are better detectives than they are educators and disseminators of knowledge. Just because you're doing important work doesn't actually mean you can explain why that work is important. Alas, with the continued decline in humanities funding it seems that instead of separating the work of research and education we're putting more and more pressure on our academics to be world-beating researchers, teachers, writers and administrators- all for less and less pay.


Do you think you have to alter your language and style when explaining your work an audience to non historians versus when actually writing your thesis or would you say there's no real difference in tone?


Oh, there's absolutely a difference. A good writer never has just the one voice. It's not even about writing for 'historians' and 'non-historians.' If you're writing for your PhD thesis, you assume that the readers are specialists- you don't want to explain every technical concept, because they already know them all and are waiting to see what you're going to do that's new. If you're writing for a broader conference- a traditional one where everyone you're speaking to is a historian- you might put in a bit more context, because even in a room full of specialists there's going to be a lot of knowledge of your own field that people just aren't aware of.


One thing that's important is jargon. Technical terms aren't a bad thing. References to important thinkers aren't a bad thing. That kind of shorthand makes communicating to people in the field much easier. But if you're speaking to non-historians and you casually throw in a reference to 'Gramscian hegemonies' or 'the Gallagher-Robinson Thesis' you're not helping them to understand your point; in fact, you are deliberately putting up barriers to their understanding.


It is perfectly reasonable to write with the assumption that your reader is clever, has a basic grounding in the subject from school and societal osmosis, is willing to concentrate on what you're saying and has a tolerance for not understanding everything perfectly the first time they hear it. In return though, you need to do the work to make that understanding possible. That might mean using concise language, or conversely, explaining something at a little more length to make sure the point goes home. Some people like to use pop culture references- risky, but it can work very well- whereas I prefer to use the odd joke to lighten the mood. As a general rule, I never want a non-historian to think that they need to use google to explain a reference: if I name someone, I explain who they are. If I mention an event, I make it clear what happened.


And never be afraid to warn the reader: 'This is a complex issue, and I'm simplifying a lot- if you want to find out more, I'm happy to suggest further reading.'


What's been the most rewarding thing about your research into the British Empire and what are the most surprising and interesting things you've learned during that time?


Even though I tend to look at the actions of politicians and states, I think that the most spine-tingling moments are always the ones where you find the human ramifications of policy. For example: you can read any number of books about how World War One was expected to be over by Christmas. What made it sink in to me though was reading an Australian children's magazine from September 1914 which ran a competiton: it printed a blank map of Europe, and readers were asked to draw in the borders that would come with the peace settlement.


Entries had to be in by January 1915, or when there was a ceasefire- 'whichever comes first.'


I had to take a moment after reading that.


On a more entertaining note, one thing I didn't know about was the small but rather amusing trend of nineteenth century New Zealanders thinking that they were destined to be vastly more powerful than Australia. It's a strange little offshoot Victorian 'racial science'- white Australians are descended from criminals, and besides which their minds will naturally degenerate in the heat. They are also too Irish. New Zealanders, on the other hand, are stout Scottish and Saxon types- with a healthier climate that produces healthier people. By 1950, it's predicted, New Zealand will rule over a vast Pacific empire- 'The Dominion of Oceania'- and it will counterbalance the continent of Australia the way Britain counterbalances Europe.


Given just how grim and upsetting most of my reading about late Victorian racism is, you have to find what enjoyment you can out of something that bizarre.


What started your interest in counter factual scenarios and fiction and what do you think appeals to you about the genre?


I got into it with Harry Turtledove. There's a lot of stuff I dislike about his work, but I think he's up there with Robert Jordan of the Wheel of Time as a genre author who fundamentally works best as a YA author. When you're a bookish eleven or twelve year old his works are entertaining and just dense enough to feel rewarding.


In the main though, I think my interest speaks to a broader part of my personality- I have a lot of friends who are actors, and even harbored delusions that I could be one myself. I think I liked to play with history the way a drama group might play with a scene- stress this emotion, and see what happens. How does it work if we look at things from this person's perspective? Can we retell the story and have someone make a different choice, and see how that affects the truth?


That's what's appealing about good counter factuals: they ask you to question your assumptions about what happened and why. Before you can tell a good alternate history, you need to have a really good holistic understanding of the history itself- because you need to be able to turn the event around and see how one variable can affect the whole of the structure. And at its most fundamental, the most fundamental 'what if' is about the personal: how does a person's choices, how does a person's chance experiences affect who they are and how they live their lives?


That's why I'm so interested in cultural counterfactuals. Done badly, and you get endless lists of films that were never made. But find an emotional truth in a creator's life and you have the potential to explore what makes them and their work so interesting: there's a great story to be written about what happens if Shakespeare's son Hamnet doesn't die young, for example.


You've written various pieces of Alternate History Short Fiction on the Sea Lion Press Forums, some of which have been reposted on this blog. How much of your writing is inspired by your work? As in do you often encounter something in your academic research that you want to write fiction about or do you more keep the two things separate?


I keep the things separate. To some extent that's just mental discipline: right now, I'm at a point in my life where I need to approach Australian and New Zealand history in a particular way. I can't afford to play with it too much, because that encourages distraction from my main project of getting to the point where I can smugly force my family to call me 'Doctor Connell.' I think I'll only be able to get about half a week out of that, but it'll be worth it.


That being said, there's plenty of stuff that I've put a mental asterisk behind. Some of them are classic political PODs- failed assassination attempts; the colonial attempts to start wars with France, Germany and the United States; the potential for Australian Federation to go very differently- and some of them are more about society in general. Could we have had an Australia that avoided institutionalized White Supremacy?


How much do you care about historical accuracy in Historical Fiction, as both a writer and a reader? Would you research an area you wanted to write in or just not sweat too many of the details?


It depends very much on your aim. I think where a lot of people in our community fall down is trying to write fiction that is both very plausible and also corresponds to a scenario that's already in their head. This leads to the endless attempts to make Operation Sealion work, for example. If you want to write a Nazi victory scenario- and god, people still want to, for some reason- just write it. Fatherland's backstory isn't that plausible, for example, but Robert Harris had a very clear idea about what he wanted to do- a noir detective story where the crime is the biggest in human history. The novel doesn't need a detailed examination of how the Nazis won, and wisely chooses to brush over it in a couple of paragraphs. The author knows what matters, and that's the emotional plausibility of the story, not the intellectual plausibility of the alternate history.


Similarly, two of the strongest examples of historical fiction in movies in recent years are The Favourite and The Death of Stalin. Neither of them are strictly 'accurate': they simplify timelines, combine characters, don't bother with anything resembling period dialogue and so forth. What they focus on however, is mood. Each in their own way is using their historical setting to examine the dynamics of power: they put people in a goldfish bowl, and gradually racket up the tension. Watching them won't teach you much about the late Stuarts or 1950s Russia, but it might teach you something about the use and abuse of authority.


That being said, you need to be aware that when you change events and people from what 'actually' happened, your choices will have consequences. The new TV series The Great is riotously good fun, and again doesn't pretend to be accurate. But one choice it's made is to tell is story about Catherine the Great- who came to power as a short, ordinary looking brown haired woman in early middle age- where the lead is played by a young and conventionally attractive blonde. She's played very well, let's be clear, and it helps the show achieve its purpose of breaking away from traditional staid costume dramas by playing things with breakneck speed. But that choice also says something about who the writers, and the audience, think is worth of occupying our attention, and has nasty implications about our ability to take a 'historically accurate' Catherine seriously as an intelligent person and a sexual being.


Alternate History can often drift into Imperial Apologetics. As someone whose studied some of the worst consequences of colonialism how common do you think this is, do you think it's something the community is improving on and what do you think can be done by well meaning writers to avoid it?


Is the community improving? Yes. You see more and more timelines being written which focus on Asian, African and Indigenous American societies. It's also one area where the internet communities have probably been better than mainstream publishing: works like Lands of Red and Gold or Malê Rising would have struggled to find traction in the genre press in the mid 2000s.


However one thing that concerns me is that when we do see timelines from these underrepresented parts of the world, they still focus on empire: imperialism does not become benign when it is done by Al-Andalus, the Ming, the Ottomans or the Mughals. These are fascinating societies- we need more fiction about them. But their prominence speaks to a more fundamental issue, which is that too much of the community is still interested in alternate history as a way to paint as much of the map as possible in the colour of their preferred society.


Similarly, there's still many people who think that imperial atrocities were a result of particularly bad governors: that the Congo could have been run humanely by the United States or some other power, for example. The problem, of course, is not the imperial master but the existence of empire. It's inherently extractive, inherently unequal, and if it's involved in settler colonialism inherently genocidal.


That doesn't mean that the cultures of imperial societies are worthless, or that you're a bad person for finding them interesting. But even if you don't want your writing to focus on imperialism, you must show that you're aware of it. If you want to write about Periclean Athens, acknowledge that it's built on slavery and the protection racket of the Delian League. If you want to write a timeline about Meiji Japan and its own struggles to survive the depredations of European empires, be sure to acknowledge what was happening in the Ryukyu Islands and Korea.


Above all, if you are going to write fiction that involves empire, be sure to let the voices of the colonised ring out. If you work involves Britain in the 1840s, make space for the enslaved person in Jamaica, the Irish refugee, the Bengali clerk. Let them be something other than mere victims; let them have thoughts about the empire. Let them fight it, or try and rise in it, or perhaps just live their life with it as a remote authority. Let some of your white characters be racist, and not only your villains. Let some of them see that something is wrong- there have been opponents of empire within empire for as long as we have written records.


All this, of course, isn't even getting into the broader questions of how we represent gender, class, race and sexuality in our fiction, of course. I certainly get things wrong as a straight white cis man. But we should write in a spirit of humility. We should try and be more interested, in a community, in the lives of people who found themselves subject to empire; we need more alternate history about peasants, not kings.

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