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.
First of all, thanks very much for talking to us Steven. So how did you get into Alternate History and what do you think the appeal of the genre is to you?
At the time I founded the Sidewise Awards, I was doing post-graduate work in history, so the genre is a merger of two areas that were of interest to me: science fiction and history. We’ll come back to the idea of history being a driving force for me in some of the following responses.
You're obviously very well known, within the speculative fiction community, for fandom organizing. You've helped run numerous Conventions, Awards, fanzines etc. How did you go from just a reader of speculative fiction to actively organizing things like that?
It’s interesting because all the different aspects have formed such a large part of my life, but when I sit down to think about the order they started, it isn’t what I would expect. I attended my first fan-run science fiction convention in 1986, which is what I consider the start of my fannish career, such as it is, although I attended many gaming conventions in the first half of the 80s and a couple of comic conventions back in the 70s. However, I wasn’t a con-runner until the late 90s.
When I came up with the idea for the Sidewise Awards in the mid-90s, I was active on various sf-based Usenet groups and had become acquainted with Evelyn Leeper and Robert Schmunk. I reached out to them and pitched the idea for the award. We hammered out the details and it grew from there. About that same time, I was posting reviews on-line and beginning to find myself on panels at some science fiction conventions in the Midwest, notable Windycon, Rivercon, and InConJunction.
After moving to Chicago, I began volunteering at Windycon. In general I’ve found that helping run events is much more fulfilling that passively (or not so passively) consuming them. By the end of the millennium, I was running programming for Chicon 2000, that year’s Worldcon. A few months before Chicon, I was in California and chatting with Mike Glyer. I mentioned that I was thinking about doing a fanzine, and this was in the days before there were really on-line zines or blogs. Mike remembered our conversation and when he wrote an article about Chicon 2000 for Locus Magazine, he mentioned that I was planning on publishing a fanzine. That sort of forced my hand and between 2001 and 2014, I published 18 issues of Argentus, as well as various other zines. Since 2017, I’ve also guest edited four issues of Journey Planet.
ISFiC, which runs Windycon, and on whose board I sat for most of the period from 1998 through 2020, decided to start up a small press. Although I tell people I was made the editor and publisher at a meeting that I wasn’t able to attend (which is entirely true), since it was my idea, there was no question that I would be responsible. From the time we started the press in 2004 until I stepped down in 2012, ISFiC Press published a dozen books, including one Aurora Award winner and one Hugo nominee.
Obviously during your time in fandom, the internet has become much more popular and a lot of social norms have changed. How does the speculative fiction fandom now compare to the one of the early 90s, what are the major differences and similarities?
As I mentioned above, the Sidewise Awards got their inspiration from a Usenet discussion, which doesn’t happen anymore, at least not the way it did in the early to mid-90s. As far as I’m aware, when I received my first Hugo nomination in 2000 for Best Fan Writer, I was the first person nominated solely on the basis of work that appeared on-line. All prior nominees had published in print. Now, it is difficult to find a nominee in the Fan Writer or Fanzine categories whose oeuvre isn’t entirely digital. Similarly, although physical fanzines still exist, they’ve taken a backseat in many ways to blogs.
The modern internet, and when I started, the World Wide Web portion with webpages was in its infancy. In 1992, there were an estimated 10 websites. By 1994, it had grown to 2,738. I’ve had a website on-line since early 1996. Back then, most of the people I knew on-line were just Bitnet user names. Now, even if I don’t know someone personally, at the very least, I can see a picture of what they look like. Through the magic of the internet, I not only have fannish and professional friends around the world, but I can easily communicate with them, not only via e-mail but through Zoom, etc. The video phones we were promised are well and truly here, even if they didn’t take the form we thought they would.
And, of course, I’ve spent most of the past two years not only running virtual conventions, including two virtual Nebulas, but also teaching other people how we did what we did. I can’t help but thinking that in many ways we lucked out with the timing of the pandemic. If COVID-19 had been COVID-01, we would have been worse off. Forget about trying to run conventions, twenty years ago, few people had laptops, people and companies were on dial-up, and there was no infrastructure to support people working from home.
Within the AH community, you're probably best known for co-founding the Sidewise Awards for the year's best Alternate History stories. How did that come about?
To expand on what I said above. The mid-90s appeared to be a period when Alternate History was on the verge of becoming a major subgenre. In addition to Harry Turtledove publishing Guns of the South and the first couple of Worldwar novels, Harry Harrison and John Holm had published the first volumes of The Hammer and the Cross, Orson Scott Card had started his Alvin Maker series, Janet Berliner and George Guthridge had published the first of the Madagascar trilogy, and Gregory Benford and Mike Resnick had each edited volumes of original alternate history short stories. It seemed like a genre that would be able to stand on its own. Around the same time, Jim Rittenhouse, who would serve as a Sidewise judge from about 1998 until his death last year, was starting up the APAzine (a fanzine made up of individual contributions by its members) Point of Divergence, which is currently being run by Dale Cozort and still has a physical presence.
In 2020, a Sea Lion Press story won a Sidewise Award for the first time. Most Sidewise winners are paper novels by major book publishers which sell in the thousands so it was exciting to us that an ebook by a minor publisher with more modest sales could win it. You're obviously not the only judge but do you consider popularity or legitimacy at all or would you be happy to vote for a self published ebook with barely any sales if you felt the work was good enough?
I try to read each story or novel for the Sidewise Award pretending I know nothing of its provenance. I try to ignore who the author is, who published it, or the way it got to press. To me, it is about the story being told and the way it is told. I try to judge each book on two levels. Is it a good/interesting alternate history and is it a well written book. I’ve voted down books I like because they were strong in one of those two categories, but weak in the other. If the writing isn’t good, the concept doesn’t matter and if the writing is good but the alternate history is weak, it is hard to consider it a contender.
Obviously as a reviewer and judge, you've read a lot of AH. Is there anything you'd particularly want to recommend to our readers that perhaps isn't hugely well known?
I’m afraid I’m going to give you a cop out answer. My suggestion would be to take a look at the finalists for the Sidewise Awards. It’s a list created through an arcane process by all the judges, but it generally includes my favorite alternate history novels and stories of any given year.
Of course, I also think people should track down a copy of Alternate Australias that came out at the end of 2020 and read my story, “The Prediscovered Country.”
Your first full novel 'After Hastings' came out in 2020, which we gave a very positive review to on this blog. It's a political thriller about Harold Godwinson attempting to maintain power in a world where he won at Hastings but still isn't fully accepted. What was the inspiration behind that idea?
The Norman Conquest was a major turning point, not only in English history, but in European history. It firmly brought England (and by extension the rest of Britain and eventually Ireland) into what is now considered Western Europe instead of being more a part (politically at least) of Scandinavia (of course, the Norsemen were also busy settling in France, Italy, Russia, etc.). Despite being a major turning point, very little alternate history has used it. I decided to write a version of a world in which Hastings went the other way. Around the time, I was also reading Bede and his description of the Synod of Whitby, in which Roman Christianity and Celtic Christianity vied for acceptance, another key moment in English history. I decided to combine them and see what would happen if a victorious Harold decided to “revert” England to Celtic Christianity, although in truth he is espousing a version of what he thought Celtic Christianity was with the ambitions of the Scottish monk he brought to help him.
'After Hastings' tells the story from a variety of different viewpoints and characters throughout Europe, rather than sticking firmly in the King's POV and location. What was the reason for that choice?
If I focused on just Harold’s point of view, I was severely limiting the story I would be able to tell. Harold was already the driving force of the book, his response to Hildebrand’s announcement setting off everything that followed. By shifting viewpoints, I could more fully explore the impact his decision had, for instance on the village priest who has no real interest in what is happening and just wants to be left alone with his parishioners, of Harold’s antagonist, Hildebrand, who could not only give the reader an alternative point of view to Harold’s, but also indications of where Harold’s point of view might be wrong. In general, a King’s movement is relatively limited because of his duties. Adding other characters allowed a more mobile story and comprehensive story to be told.
As someone who has been involved in the AH scene for decades at this point, what's your opinion of the current status of it? Are you hopeful for the future?
Although the alternate history explosion that I expected in the 90s never happened, in part, I think because alternate history requires a knowledge of history that many readers don’t have, especially when the writers move away from World War II and the American Civil War, it is still in good condition, with alternate history anthologies continuing to be published, stories showing up in various magazines, novels being published by mainstream publishers (60% of the 2020 Sidewise nominees were from mainstream presses), and specialty presses like SeaLion or Greenhill.
That said, I would like to see fewer alternate histories based on World War II or the American Civil War, with more authors exploring changes based on cultural, technological, scientific, and other non-violent branch points, as were explored in the most recent anthology I edited, Alternate Peace.
And what can we expect to see from you in the future, in terms of new projects?
I don’t like to talk too much about future projects until I know that they will happen. I’m currently working on several short stories, including some that have alternate history content. Although I know where the world goes following After Hastings, I’m not sure when/if there will be a sequel, although I’ve started working on the outline for a potential sequel. I also continue be involved in convention running…my next “local” convention is this year’s worldcon, which will be held in Chicago in August—Chicon 8. And I’m working on Windycon, which is held each November in the Chicago suburbs. I also have some ideas for non-alternate history anthologies.