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On the One Good Sex Scene in Alternate History

By Alexander Wallace

I was greatly dismayed when, after two seasons of avoiding such an obvious trap, the third season of The Man in the High Castle had not one, but multiple egregious sex scenes. I felt like a train wreck was taking place right in front of me when I beheld George Lincoln Rockwell being garroted to death in the presence of a topless woman, who had been the focus of an extensive scene in the preceding minutes. It was then I had lost faith in the notion that broadcast alternate history would avoid the godawful sex scenes of print alternate history; Netflix’s 1983 did nothing to bring me away from that notion.

As I said in a video I made with Matt Mitrovich some years back, alternate history as a genre has a problem with really bad sex scenes. The absolute bottom of the barrel, in my mind, is in the works of Robert Conroy, with the lesbian sexual assault scene in 1862 and the nude violin performance in North Reich being the two that have scarred me the most. There are multiple instances of these scenes in every one of his novels that I have cared to read, and Matt Mitrovich’s review of Germanica only proved to me that he had somehow sunk even lower. To contextualize this in a different way, I read most of the Conroy novels I did when I was 14 to 16, and with poor social skills; in other words, the exact age where I would have found egregious sex scenes to be something interesting. But no; even then, as a lonely, hormonal male adolescent, I found them to be disturbing and in poor taste.

Nor is Conroy the only author guilty of this; Harry Turtledove has had his low points in that regard, and I say this as someone who otherwise likes his work far more than the average online alternate historian. I quite loudly exclaimed “God Damn It, Harry!” upon reading the one unpleasant sex scene in the first quarter of Armistice while I was doing reading for a podcast I did with Ben Kearns on nuclear war (I was unemployed and alone at home at that particular moment, and I will admit to being talkative in solitude). I have also heard that S. M. Stirling is guilty of it, as well as the Belisarius series by David Drake and Eric Flint, but I have read neither of those to any significant degree.

In that video, I state that I had never read a good sex scene in an alternate history novel. I had no belief that I would ever change that viewpoint. It was in early March 2020, as the specter of quarantine was haunting the Washington D. C. Metropolitan Area, that I finally got around to reading 1632 by Eric Flint, joining the teeming ranks of alternate historians who had at long last. I blitzed through the novel within a span of 48 hours, loving every page. And then, near the end, I was shocked at what I had just read: an actually good sex scene in an alternate history novel. Then and there, I was forced to eat my words.

It concerns Gretchen Richter, the camp follower in the armies of the Count of Tilly who is saved from being raped by soldiers by Grantville townsfolk. She settles in Grantville and enters a relationship with one of the men who saved her, Jeff Higgins. Eventually, after a good deal of wrangling about the ethics of Americans marrying Germans, the two wed to great celebration by Americans and Germans alike. After the ceremony and revelry, they retreat to their quarters, and the aforementioned scene occurs.

A Camp Follower during the American Civil war as photographed by Mathew Brady.

Before I go further I need to elaborate on Gretchen’s backstory to fully explain why I think that scene worked so well. She was a camp follower in the 17th century, an occupation which had barely a shred of dignity. These women are often stereotyped as prostitutes; while there were indeed a great many prostitutes, they often also served as cooks and launderers and seamstresses and otherwise provided a good deal of logistical support for the armies of the period. This support, however, does not mean they were well-regarded by the soldiers. About a year before writing this piece, I read Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines. That book starts with a harrowing account of an army whose general declared its camp followers to be too much of a drain on resources, and ordered them all drowned in a nearby river. The soldiers obeyed this order.

That is the life that Gretchen Richter had until Grantville miraculously appeared in the midst of war-ravaged Thuringia. She was brutalized in every conceivable way, and most likely treated as alternatively less than dirt and as a commodity by everyone except her family. In some sense, or so is my impression, she was skeptical that anyone outside of her family could ever really love her as a person. She expresses these thoughts several times, worrying that Jeff Higgins is nothing but another soldier who intends to take advantage of her.

It is in the only good sex scene in the entirety of alternate history as a genre by which that misconception of hers is rendered false. Through the novel, it is clear that Higgins really does have feelings for her as he gets to know her over time. During that scene, the focus is overwhelmingly on Gretchen’s thought process, and with only the most florid descriptions of the actual mechanics, which, unlike the sordid scenes that Robert Conroy has bestowed upon the world, are actually plot relevant in that they show that Jeff Higgins is very much concerned with Gretchen’s pleasure. As he does so, Gretchen is brought to realize that Jeff Higgins does in fact love her, and that there is more to the world than simple brutality.

This stands in stark contrast to the thinly-veiled pornography that passes for sex scenes in far too much of the genre. The persistence of that is a legacy of the historic male domination of alternate history specifically and speculative literature in general, combined with the pressures of the mainstream publishing and broadcast industries to maintain a broad appeal, and in this day and age broad appeal means, in works meant for adults at least, those looking for sexual titillation. I for one think it is an absurdity that works tailored to a community so heady as alternate historians feel forced to include such scenes, but both authors and publishers will make it so (in regards to publishers, I have a hunch that the time Turtledove was worst about this sort of thing was the time when he had to get his daughters through college in a relatively short period of time).

As a side note: I can certainly see the argument that the scene is problematic by virtue of Jeff being the man who saved Gretchen from rape; however, the rape did not actually occur, at least within the pages of the novel. I think there is a case to be made that the handling of that was insensitive, but the scene affected me, and I think emotionally it worked.

The ultimate message a writer should take away from Flint’s scene is that scenes of this nature need to have a very good reason for being in the plot. Naked violinist scenes, the vast majority of the time, have no bearing on the actual narrative being told, and as such they lead to a screeching halt in pacing while the baser desires of the author are pursued in excruciating detail. As I said in the video, there’s no reason for them, and they are best left out unless you have a reason as good as Eric Flint did.



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