By Alexander Wallace
I, and a number of my colleagues who write for the Sea Lion Press blog, have become fond of quoting Liam Connell’s interview with said blog. At the end of that lengthy interview, he says, quite poignantly:
“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.
It is those last few words that have justly become part of the common wisdom in this small community, as they reveal a potent oversight that so much alternate history has.
We as a genre are dedicated to a single preposition: that asking about what may have happened had history not gone the way it did is in some way worthwhile. That exact ‘worth’ varies from person to person and from work to work; sometimes, the basic contention is that exploring such a divergence is simply entertaining, and there is nothing wrong with that. But in doing so, we must take care to see what is truly different in the new worlds that we create.
Few would deny that the halls of power have an isolating effect on those with said power. In our own political discourse, we castigate our apathetic politicians on Capitol Hill or in Westminster for not thinking about the effect of their policies on the common person. These are people with political power and usually also great wealth, both of which produce an abstracting effect on their view of political issues. They are insulated from what the majority experience.
The intelligentsia, likewise, are usually wealthy enough to not have to deal with the worst of any government. They make their careers off of abstracting concrete reality; they analyze trends and create hypotheses for why things are the way they are. But for the most part, they are usually spared the worst of any particular government's policy towards its people; not all of us are Edward Said throwing stones at the IDF.
This calls to mind a quote from Bill Haywood, noted American labor leader in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who helped found and lead the Industrial Workers of the World during their heyday. He famously said:
"I've never read Marx's Capital, but I've got the marks of capital all over my body."
In this regard, Haywood is interesting to compare to the great anticapitalist philosopher. Marx spent his days living off of income often provided by Friedrich Engels’ textile factories. Marx was a thinker, a man who dedicated his life to the intellect. His contributions were valuable in many ways (dated as they are, and as often his arguments have been used by the monstrous), but he was not himself a worker in the sweltering factories of the period, those that would inspire the work of Charles Dickens, among others. Compare this to Haywood, who worked in silver mines and felt the crushing misery of late nineteenth century industry first-hand. There is doubtlessly a qualitative difference between the two.
David Flin wrote an article about managing this very issue; it is well worth the read. The higher-ups get to decide the ‘why,’ and the people on the ground have to suffer the ‘how.’ The Pentagon orders the drone strike and the child who is the nephew of the bride sees his family’s blissful gathering rapidly transformed into a smoldering crater. For the Pentagon, the strike is an abstraction, a mere enactment of policy. For the child, it is a brutal, uncompromising reality. The king makes policy, and the peasant suffers policy.
I have noticed in a number of alternate history works that I have read recently that there is an issue in choosing point of view that makes the entire piece harder to enjoy. It involves choosing characters who relate to the history in such a way that the emotional and dramatic impact is maximized. I’m reminded of a comment I once read about action movies: a punch, once thrown, is most satisfying when you see the knuckles hit the target.
For example: assume, for the purposes of argument, an alternate history novel in which a main character is a diplomat in a foreign capital. His country is at war, and the country he is stationed in is at peace. The updates to the course of the war are told mostly through dispatches from the home country’s capital to the diplomat; much information, rivaling that of a textbook format, comes via these dispatches.
My question of the narrative, then, is: why are we not getting this information from somebody more directly affected by it? Why are we not on the battlefield or on a ship, seeing the terror of combat?
One could easily alternate soldier and diplomat, seeing both military and diplomatic consequences that exploit the potential of both viewpoint characters. When the only viewpoint character is the diplomat, we run right into the problem that Connell addressed in his interview. We are seeing events at a distance, removed from the way that high policy affects the common person; a journalist, for example, would have many of the same narrative issues as the diplomat.
The tendency towards elite main characters in alternate history leads to an issue where politics is nothing more than a narrative parlor game. There will be much talk of legislation and backgroom parliamentary dealing, but there will be very little discussion of how policy actually affects the society in which it is enacted. This is at its worst, in my opinion, in electoral alternate history; in some cases, one may be forgiven for thinking that the entire enterprise is merely a middle school popularity contest given a huge dollop of advertising money (in fairness, that’s political coverage in the twenty-first century).
Alternate historians, as a community, tend male, white, and middle-to-upper-class. People with at least one of those attributes are at serious risk of seeing politics as nothing more than a hobby where teams win and lose according to arcane rules (I go into this in depth in my review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham, a book hit with this problem hard). Politics is, for many of them, an abstraction. We must remember that for a great many people politics is concrete in the way that the namesake building material is: hard, rough, grating, and if physically contacted in the wrong way can skin you and bleed you. As William Faulkner said, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” By stripping our fiction of the human element, our genre risks devolving into a mere collection of trinkets.