Questions by 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 Matt Mitrovich, host of 'The Alternate Historian' Youtube Channel
Hello Matt! So first of all thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us. For those of our readers who don't know you, you're probably one of the single most influential people in terms of growing the Alternate History Community online. You've been involved in a truly impressive amount of projects.
Thank you but I know there are others who are a lot more influential in the community.
How did you get into Alternate History in the first place?
I always enjoyed studying history. It was one of the few subjects in school that ever interested me. But my personal point of divergence was seeing the paperback cover of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar: In the Balance in my local bookstore back when I was a teenager. It's the one where Churchill and Hitler are posing together with an alien gun. I knew enough about WWII to know how unlikely a pairing that was so it made me curious.
Funny enough I didn’t buy it at first because I was really into the Star Wars Expanded Universe (or Legends as it is called now) at the time. Nevertheless, the image stuck in my head so I eventually bought the book, loved it and later read the entire series. I soon learned from searching the web that there were a ton of people writing alternate histories and I just became hooked.
You've been involved in the online AH community for almost 20 years. How would you say that the community has changed over the years?
It has in some ways become harder to find good web original alternate histories. When I first got involved in the online community, a lot of authors would post their works, many of which began in some of the early forums like Soc.History.What-If, on their personal websites. This meant you didn’t have to wade through a discussion board to find the good stuff and there were sites, like the early incarnation of AlternateHistory.com, that had directories with links to these author sites and even organized them by subject matter.
Of course that was back in the day when you had web hosting services like GeoCities which made it easy to create such websites. After they shut down a lot of content was lost and it became a lot harder to find web original alternate history. That is one of the reasons why I like Sea Lion Press since you guys can curate the good stuff and get it to a more mainstream audience.
Your primary online home these days is your, excellent, Youtube Channel, 'The Alternate Historian', wherein you look at bits of History, review AH content and the like.
Thanks for the nice compliment.
Youtube is an increasingly popular platform for Historical discussion, what do you think the advantages and disadvantages of it as a medium are?
Well alternate history is primarily a literary genre and not everyone likes to read as much as alternate historians do. Thus one advantage that YouTube provides is that it allows alternate historians to express themselves in a visual medium and reach a wider audience. So I can talk about an alternate history while using images, like maps and memes, to better express my points.
A disadvantage, however, is that...well it's YouTube. Anyone who has spent enough time on the Internet knows the problems with that platform, including the ever present need to appease the algorithm. As I write this YouTube just deleted a tweet on their Twitter account that mocked overly long videos, despite the fact that their algorithm only promotes long videos.
So yeah dealing with a company that doesn’t even seem to understand the platform they manage can be frustrating at times.
Do you think Youtube is increasingly going to be the future of AH online discussion or do you think the Forums are likely to remain dominant?
My record of successfully predicting the future is pretty craptacular, but I don’t think forums are going anywhere. Text based communication is extremely popular and starting a YouTube channel, while nowhere near impossible, still requires a bigger time commitment than writing out your alternate history.
Before the Youtube channel, you used to run the popular blog 'Alternate History Weekly Update'. You still have your own blog of course, but it's mostly links to your youtube channel now. Is there anything you miss about the 'Weekly Update' and blogs in general as a format?
I miss it when people would submit guest posts and I didn’t have to worry about producing my own content, haha.
Seriously though, I do miss doing Map Monday posts like I did on The Update. Those were always fun to write up and people really liked them.
Plus I enjoyed spreading the word about some of the amazing artists in the alternate history community. One of my biggest pet peeves is when some publisher or TV show tries to use a map and it looks like they had some intern make up something quick in MS Paint. So you will see some low effort work full of mistakes, like anachronistic borders, but they don’t care. Meanwhile there are plenty of people out there willing to take commissions for reasonable fees.
Someone who does a lot of work for my channel is Sean McKnight, so if I can give him a shout out, please go check out his DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/ynot1989
I’ve done a few map related videos and I plan to do more next year, so stay tuned for that.
You started the Alternate History Online Facebook group which is still going today. To what extent do you think places like that work as a bridge between mainstream AH like a Netflix series and the more obscure stuff that Sea Lion Press publishes? Did you notice a lot of people who were relatively new to the Genre when they found your group and then stuck around?
Good question. I’m more of a lurker on that group now, but when I moderated the place a lot of people I talked with said that they got into alternate history much like I did: they read a bunch of Harry Turtledove or some other author and sought out more. Perhaps because of the nature of our community the place was mostly a discussion forum with people asking what ifs and then everyone sharing what they think would happen when history changed. To be honest I don’t remember too much discussion about published works of alternate history, which can be expected.
To paraphrase something Ian Montgomerie (the founder and administrator of AlternateHistory.com) once told me, alternate historians are a unique kind of fandom. We’d rather create our own stuff instead of talk about the stuff other people made.
You're also currently serving as one the Judges of the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History. How did that come about?
I always appreciated the fact that the Sidewise Awards for Alternate History were around when I became involved in the genre because it pointed me toward some great works of alternate history. In fact the Sidewise Awards were one of the reasons why I created my old blog. I was shocked with how few alternate historians knew about them that I wanted to educate people on the genre and thought a blog would be one way to do it.
I guess someone was reading it because Steven H Silver (one of the founders of the Sidewise Awards) reached out to me a few years ago and invited me to become a judge. I’ve had a lot fun doing it, but it has its own unique challenges. On one hand it means I sometimes get my hands on new alternate history books before they hit the shelves. On the other hand, there are some bad books out there. Us judges have all “taken one for team” by subjecting ourselves to printed torture and then warning the rest to stay away.
Although to be fair, the worst alternate histories I’ve ever read happened before I became a Sidewise Award judge, so I have no one to blame there but myself!
Of the many pieces of AH Fiction you've read, both as a reviewer and as a judge, what are the pieces that really stand out, that make you want to hand them out to strangers in the street and tell them to read it?
Good job not asking for my favorite alternate history, which would have been impossible for me to answer.
More classic examples include Voyage by Stephen Baxter (because I love alternate space race stories) and The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson (because not everything should focus on American or European history).
But if the person in question isn’t interested in “sci-fi” they may enjoy mysteries set in alternate histories. Some good books to recommend for them are Fatherland by Robert Harris and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon.
Finally, I should give a shout out to Harry Turtledove, who has obviously inspired so many alternate historians. Personally I think his best work was Ruled Britannia, which is also a stand alone novel so it is a lot easier to get into then some of his longer series, like Worldwar or Timeline-191.
You're also a writer yourself, of course. What are your biggest influences as a writer and what genre do you feel most comfortable writing in?
For my biggest influences, well one would be Stephen King. There is just something about how he writes dialogue that just seems more realistic than other writers. It actually feels like this is how some would talk in real life and I try to emulate that in my writing. Also I’ve always admired how SM Stirling can create a world. He really gets into the nitty gritty on how people live and goes into details that other authors would ignore.
For the genre that I feel most comfortable writing in you’d think I’d say alternate history, but that isn’t it at all. Alternate history is fun for its world-building, but I always struggle to find ways to tell a story in it or find characters to inhabit it.
Honestly the genre I feel most comfortable writing in is the superhero genre. I used to be a big comics nerd before the cost of maintaining that hobby became too much. Now I’m more of a casual fan, but I have several stories in various states of completion that I would love to finish if I had the time.
One is an alternate history and, without giving too much away, focuses on how science and technology progresses because of superheroes. More often than not the existence of superheroes has little to no effect on the rest of the world in comics. For example, technology that is available to your average person isn’t that different from our timeline, but what if scientists are able to duplicate what allows a hero to fly and applies it to consumer products. Would we get flying cars or (dare I say it) airships? How would these technologies being available to the general public change society and culture? I think it would be fun to imagine.
Like a lot of Youtubers, and indeed this publishing house, you have a patreon for people who want to support your content. What are your views on the patreon model as a source of revenue in terms of both utility and sustainability?
I’m probably not the best person to answer this question because Patreon is a very minor source of my income. I’m lucky enough to have a day job with reasonable hours that still helps me provide for my family. Still it means that I have limited time to do a lot of other things and so can’t quite use Patreon to its full potential.
What are your general feelings about the current state of AH, both as a mainstream genre and as an online community, and to what extent do you think the health of the former dictates the health of the latter?
Alternate history is seeing a boom period in the last few years that we haven’t seen since the 1990s, which is great. So many new alternate history stories have come out lately, especially on television. Us Sidewise Awards judges even discussed the possibility of starting a new category for TV because of it. I’m sure all of these new works have netted several new fans who sought out more stories, which no doubt introduced them to the community.
On top of that modders, especially in the grand strategy genre, have created a lot of alternate history scenarios, like Kaiserreich, which have in turn created their own fan sub cultures in the alternate history genre. You’ve seen that occasionally on the literary side, like with the 1632 community, but never to the extent I’m seeing with Kaiserreich. I’m seeing them film their own fan films based in that timeline.
But do I think alternate history’s mainstream success, or lack of it, will have a major impact on the online community? Not really. When the 90s boom ended the community didn’t go away. In fact it centralized and continued to grow and expand into other forms of media. The popularity of alternate history will wax and wane with the mainstream culture, but ever since the Internet became more widespread it allowed the alternate history fandom to become more than just a few chance encounters at local conventions. I think you will need to destroy the internet to destroy the alternate history community and even then some diehards might still find a way to ask “what if”.
Matt Mitrovich runs the Youtube Channel 'The Alternate Historian'