By Alexander Wallace
D. G. Valdron’s Axis of Andes duology was recently reviewed on this site. It is a work that, for better or for worse, very much shows that it originated on an online discussion forum and I wanted to look at what it shows about how that adaption can be done.
Before I start making my core argument, I want to stress the fact that overall I did very much enjoy D. G. Valdron’s Axis of Andes duology. Our genre needs more work on Latin America, and on the Global South more broadly. Beyond that, Valdron really did make an effort to put the focus on the little people, on “peasants, not kings” as Liam Connell said (and as I keep quoting). It’s an ambitious, sprawling work that manages to keep a core idea going through it; it never feels as if its length is mere padding. I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Gary Oswald’s assertion that it represents the impressive things that online alternate historians can do. Additionally, it has some incredible straight narrative scenes: the death of a particular Bolivian is perhaps one of the best scenes I’ve ever read in an alternate history work.
Nor do I think that the fact it originated on an online discussion forum is a bad thing per se, but there are differences in expectation between an online work and a published work. I read Axis of Andes on my Kindle reader over the course of several days, sometimes on a bench in a riverside park, sometimes in a nice Italian restaurant, sometimes in a McDonald’s dining room approaching midnight. It is a different reading environment than how it was originally intended to be read; I refer not so much to the physical environment (you can read a forum timeline on a phone nowadays) but to the ‘lectoral environment.’
Allow me to define two terms I will be using to discuss Axis of Andes:
Lectoral environment - the expectations created by the location of a text in regards to its environment (social and genre-wide) for the experience of actually reading the text.
Legitimizing effect of publication - ‘legitimacy’ in political science, when applied to a government, refers to its capacity to inspire obedience in a population. In other contexts, ‘legitimacy’ means something more like ‘the ability to command respect.’ When a text is published as a book or series of books, we are inclined to take it more seriously than we would a text available solely on an online forum. This is because publishing is perceived as more exclusive; self-publishing has muddied this, but overall it is still easier to put a timeline on a forum than it is to get it published.
In other words, publishing a timeline as a book changes the lectoral environment of the original timeline. Whether we like it or not, expectations change as we spend our hard-earned money on a book from the Kindle Store versus reading a timeline for free on a forum. This article is about things that should be taken into account when shifting a work from one lectoral environment to another.
To exemplify my concepts using a work that isn’t Axis of Andes, I shall turn to the most known work of Jon Kacer. When it was published on alternatehistory.com, it had the name The Anglo/American-Nazi War, a blunt, literal title that does not embellish a description of its contents. Such literalness was common in the lectoral environment of alternatehistory.com in the late 2000s, as part of the job of the title was to tell the reader what era the work was about so people looking purely for WWII stories could find it. When it was published as an e-book from Sea Lion Press, it was subjected to the legitimizing effect of publication, especially given how it is written in the style of an academic history. We expect published history books to have titles that are at least a bit fancier than The Anglo/American Nazi War; that is a rule of the lectoral environment of academic history. To comply with the new conventions of such an environment, it gained a newer, more elaborate title: Festung Europa, literally ‘Fortress Europe’ in German (a title that I, personally, much prefer to the original).
We alternate historians like to write in what we call a ‘textbook style.’ Many great alternate history works have emulated great works of historical scholarship, down to the legion of nonexistent sources at the end of Robert Sobel’s For Want of a Nail. Axis of Andes, to its credit, does have many proper textbook excerpts that follow those conventions, but there is more than one way of writing about the greater scope of events. Axis of Andes has another way of doing this in parts, and it is worth remarking on in regards to the reading experience after a timeline is published.
What many AH timelines do, and what Axis of Andes does, in some impersonal sections, bears more similarity to the conversation that goes on in said discussion fora, or even among friends in person. There is an informality to it that is not found in an academic text (a popular history text may differ).
Consider the following: if you are recounting the plot of a novel you are writing to a friend in a restaurant over lunch, with what grammatical tense do you describe the events of the plot? You’d detail that plot in the present tense. It’s not something we think about much, but it really stands out in how it differs from the actual work in question.
This is one of the things that stands out in terms of how Axis of Andes is written. Much of the duology’s sections on the broader history are written in the present tense, befitting the sort of discussion that occurs among friends or among writers’ groups (like many fora often are). It is, ultimately, a casual form of discussion. This becomes problematic when the lectoral environment changes; when a work is published, we expect the work to follow the conventions of the published texts of a similar nature we have previously read. When the text in question doesn’t follow those conventions, the end result in the reader’s mind is puzzlement.
One other aspect of Axis of Andes that struck me in regards to differences in lectoral environment is the level of formality in these casual pub-talk-esque sections, or perhaps more accurately stated, the lack of formality. The language used is very casual; I distinctly remember reading a section on a mutiny in the Chilean Navy and finding it jarring that it was referred to as ‘pants-shitting,’ a turn of phrase no serious academic history would use in the main body of the text.
Ultimately, the dissonance is a result of the lack of unity of the duology’s narrative form. Axis of Andes is written using a technique referred to as bricolage in ‘proper’ literary studies; more specifically, this is the technique of combining documents, narrative sections, and other literary forms in the service of a greater whole. Alternate history, as a genre, is prone to bricolage by virtue of the desire to expound more upon the world that has been created. It is a technique that has also been used by ‘literary’ writers such as John Dos Passos and science fiction writers such as John Brunner and Kim Stanley Robinson.
What disrupts the credibility of this bricolage is the extensive use of these present-tense pub-talk intervals about the world. Consider this: wouldn’t it be just plain odd to include the author’s casual discussions of their novel in progress with their friends as part of the novel itself? The fake textbook sections work because they purport to be from the world, and the traditional narrative sections work because they show the world through the eyes of the people in it. These casual sections are simply so strange because they are ultimately abstractions of the story; they are the story according to the author, ultimately addressed to forum friends. The reader on a Kindle is not reading as a member of a forum; they are reading as someone who bought the book on the Kindle store.
Ultimately, the issue is that the reader, in one lectoral environment, is being jolted into another lectoral environment. The reader is being reminded that the narrative they are reading was not originally intended to be read in the way that they are. Essentially, they are being told “this story is not for you” while in the process of being told said story.
Furthermore, there are issues of actual presentation on certain screens to consider. There is a section of Axis of Andes that uses the tried-and-true timeline update format of a series of headlines without any article following them; this looks fine in a forum post viewed on a desktop or laptop, but assumes the strange quality of free verse poetry when viewed on a Kindle reader. Such a format becomes disjointed in such a viewing method, and should be taken into account when authors publish their work on a Kindle.
This is not to say that an alternate history writer cannot write high-level discussions of events in informal manners; I have done so myself. But what my argument will hopefully do is have alternate history writers publishing their forum work consider how these elements are interpreted when read in different environments to contribute to a better reading experience, for the reader matters too.