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Interviewing the AH Community: Nick Ottens of Never Was Magazine

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 we're talking to Nick Ottens of Never Was.

So first of all thanks for agreeing to talk to us, Nick. You, obviously, run the Steampunk site Never Was Magazine which has patterned up with Sea Lion Press this year for article swaps. Never Was was originally founded in 2008 as a printed magazine called the Gatehouse Gazette but is currently I believe entirely online, what would you say are the main advantages of the switch in medium?

It all started in 2008 with a website called The Gatehouse. The idea was to provide a “gateway” to the world of steampunk and dieselpunk online. We ran a printable magazine in addition to the blog, called the Gatehouse Gazette, which was released every two months until November 2011, with one more special edition in August 2012. In 2018, we changed the name from The Gatehouse to Never Was and broadened the scope from steampunk and dieselpunk to alternate history generally.

Publishing online is quicker and easier than in print. It also gives you more versatility in terms of the length of stories, picture galleries, video. Readers can comment on individual stories, and we have an online community attached to the website, called the Never Was Lounge, where we can debate other topics as well.

And conversely what do you miss from the paper format?

Each edition of the Gatehouse Gazette had a theme: empire, industry, 1920s, 1930s. Putting together the art, articles and reviews for each theme was a lot of fun.

You can browse stories on the website by category or tag, to get all the content related to, for example, the Second World War, but I don’t think that’s how many readers engage with our content. They’re more likely to keep an eye on the blog and read what’s new. I do frequently promote older but related articles in our newsletter.

What I also miss is that each release was an event. People were waiting for the magazine to come out. We’d promote it widely. We’d get reviews and letters from readers. You don’t get that sort of buzz around a new story on the blog.

Steampunk has always been one of the more popular forms of Alternate History in terms of fiction but has also been slightly ghettoised. There's traditionally been less overlap between Steampunk and straight Alternate History communities than you might expect, hopefully something our partnership can change. Why do you think that is?

True, and that was one of my motivations for broadening the scope of Never Was. If steampunk fans are anything like me, they’d be interested in a lot more alternate history, and I think readers of alternate history would be interested in at least some steampunk.

It probably has to do with many people coming to steampunk through art, DIY, fashion and events, and only then discovering the literature, whereas straight-up alternate history is almost entirely literary.

Speaking to an audience who are more into straight Alternate History books which are maybe more concerned with changing specific events rather than the general feel and tone of a world than Steampunk is, what would you say is the big appeal of Steampunk and Dieselpunk as genres to write and read in?

I think the worldbuilding aspect is a major draw of steam- and dieselpunk. It certainly is for me. I like to change one event and then explore an alternate history that sticks as close to real-world history as possible. For example, what if the Nazis got the atomic bomb first and defeated the United States? (The premise of The Man in the High Castle.)

But I also like to change something dramatically and then imagine how things could have unfolded completely differently. For example, what if electricity had been discovered a century earlier? Or the Industrial Revolution had started in Japan?

And where would be a good place to start for newcomers to the genres?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comic, not the movie) got me hooked on steampunk. I still think Volumes 1 and 2 are among the best steampunk fiction. China Miéville and Stephen Hunt are popular with steampunks. I love Toby Frost’s Space Captain Smith, which is a steampunk sci-fi take on George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and The Man in the High Castle (the book and the TV series) are a good introduction to dieselpunk. The first represents the techno-optimistic, Art Deco-styled version of the genre, where it seems the Great Depression never arrived. The second represent a grittier version of dieselpunk, which leans toward dystopia, is usually at war and sometimes post-apocalyptic.

Online AH communities are often disproportionally male but, from the outside looking in, that seems less of an issue with Steampunk. Steampunk romance fiction, art and cosplay communities often seen much more evenly split. To what do you attribute this?

When I studied history, it was one of the few academic fields still dominated by men. I don’t know why, but it follows that alternate history has fewer women as well.

Steampunk is pretty evenly mixed gender-wise. Dieselpunk is more male. It’s hard to account for this without genderizing, but steampunk must lend itself more to stories and creations that appeal to both sexes whereas dieselpunk’s setting and storytelling are less interesting to women.

One of the article series I find most interesting on your website is your 'Unbuilt Cities' series looking at various architectural plans that never happened. To what extent do you think the power of Steampunk relies on visuals like that, cities which look like something we haven't seen in real life? Do you think a non visual media, like a non illustrated book, has a disadvantage in that area?

Steampunk is definitely a more visual alternate-history genre. There are steampunks who hardly read steampunk novels but enjoy the art, design and fashion. But there are also steampunks who just read. And people like me, who like the art, books and movies, but not so much the design and fashion.

Steampunk has something for everyone. If your genre or niche has only form of expression, like the written word, then logically your potential audience is smaller. Although I suspect that the audience of alternate history is still much larger than steampunk’s.

Never Was Magazine has now been running for two years in its current format. How pleased are you with how it's gone and what are your ambitions for the magazine in the future?

I think we’ve published some of our best content in the last two years. The “Unbuilt Cities” series you mention (which are a lot of work to put together!). A number of throught-provoking pieces on the politics of steampunk. Genre tropes. “Worldbuilding” articles that imagine, for example, a world in which the Second World War never happened. Or World War III is fought in the 1950s.

Hilde Heyvaert recently kicked off a series of catalog fashion book reviews, which are a great introduction for anyone looking to match the styles of the early 1900s through the 1950s. James wrote a fascinating essay about the real-world history behind the “Year Zero” in The Man in the high Castle. I’m super-pleased with the content we’ve been able to republish from Sea Lion Press, including Paul Hynes’ alternate histories of Operation Barbarossa and Katherine Foy’s articles about the geography of alternate history.

The plan is keep going. Hopefully my commentary on the heated politics of steampunk will persuade at least a few people to cool things down and remember that it’s just a hobby, not a cause. I hope our alternate-history how-tos are helpful to writers and creators. And I hope Never Was will ultimately become the top destination to learn everything you can about alternate history!


Nick Ottens is the editor of Never Was, an online, non-commercial alternate-history magazine, formally known as the Gatehouse, with a special interest in the Steam, Diesel and Atomic Eras.


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