No, not that sort of panel beating.
Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.
In this article, I’ll be posing a few questions for some regulars on SLP to discuss. These regulars are:
Angelo Barthélemy, cultural and Napoléonic nitpicker extraordinaire;
Andy Cooke, prolific AH writer (The Fourth Lectern, The Fifth Lectern, Skyborn, and many others) and expert in destroying the world;
Jared Kavanagh, author of the acclaimed series Lands of Red and Gold, and editor of the anthology Apocalypse How? – another expert in destroying the world;
Charles EP Murphy, expert on comics, editor of the anthology Comics of Infinite Earths and author of Simon and Sir Gawain;
Pete Usher, who claims to be a Temporary Gentleman of Leisure.
Book links at the end of the article.
Andy Cooke's The Fourth Lectern, available from Sealion Press. Link at end of article.
How did you get into AH?
I think the gateway was stumbling across What If Gordon Banks Had Played?, but I’m sure I had read some Turtledove (TL-191) because it always seems familiar. I have no idea how I found WIGBHP?, but the idea was fascinating, and the chain of events held up for much of the tale (an issue with so many timelines). That led me to AH.com in 2008 (!), and I lurked for quite a while, before becoming more active, and started posting on SLP around the time it was set up.
For me, it was also a political alternate history that drew me in.
On another site (politicalbetting, I think it was), someone linked to an AH story by stodge: For Want of a Debate. I then read Were You Up for Balls, by iainbhx.
I would probably have seen it as a brief interlude, but I stumbled across Protect and Survive, I registered on ah.com so I could comment, and I was away. I seem to be mainly drawn to post-1900 stuff – modern political stuff, Cold War-era stuff and Cold War goes hot, space alternate history and moving into future history, cultural stuff (alternate TV and films) ... Quite eclectic, I suppose.
This then triggered me into trying my own alternate 2010 election timeline – they were very popular at the time. This produced The Fourth Lectern, which went down well and the feedback from it really encouraged, resulting in The Fifth Lectern.
Charles EP Murphy:
Like many others coming of age in the 90s, it’ll be Sliders. I’d been introduced to the basic premise of time travel creating another world before that, but its concept just is different and that you could do anything comes from Sliders with its Texan Californias, dinosaur parks, American monarchies, and Kromags. Whether they should have done some of that...
My interest in AH started from a couple of published series I read as a young lad. The first was the Fireball trilogy by John Christopher about two teenagers who got shifted into an alternate world where Rome never fell, Vikings colonised North America, and China had a rather different culture.
The second was the West of Eden trilogy by Harry Harrison. This was about a world where the asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs never struck; the dinosaurs are still around and one of them evolves into a sentient species. The dinosaurs dominate most of the world, though humans and a few other species have still evolved in North America. The story is about the conflict between humans and dinosaurs as the latter seek to colonise North America.
From there, I picked up a few other AH books over the years – often by Harry Turtledove – then in the late 90s, I stumbled onto the Usenet newsgroup soc.history.what-if, which engaged in all sorts of AH speculation. I found that interesting, and after a couple of years, I started writing a short timeline of my own called Decades of Darkness, which ended up being slightly less short than I’d planned. I’ve been involved in various online AH communities ever since.
My first brush with it was the Tales of Alvin Maker, by Orson Scott Card, I’d say in my mid-teenage years, but it wasn’t until a few books in that I noticed any divergence, some passing mentions about what was happening in Europe, as I was too unfamiliar with American history to really pick up on it. But I didn’t really know about AH as a genre, so it was just a sort of curious read, and not much came from it.
In 2013, I brought my first Kindle and filled it at first with some public access classics that I hadn’t read yet. Then, for some reason, the Baen catalogue popped up there. The only thing that interested me in it was 1632 and I was pretty much hooked. I devoured the Ring of Fire series (main branch novels, offshoot novels, collections of short stories; there is a lot) and quite a few other, mainly by Eric Flint, whose recent passing was a very emotional moment. Both the more grounded (1812 and 1824) and those with magical elements such as Heirs of Alexandria, or sci fi ones like Belisarius. I really liked Flint’s take on collaborative work and opening the world he had created with 1632 to a veritable crowd of writers, including some with very different outlooks on life which helped grow some characters beyond one- or two-dimensional clichés. He was also a master at including characters from all walks of life, particularly working-class characters and that was also very welcome for me.
Somewhere around 2014, I remembered that when I was on TVTropes, there was one recurring work in many of its pages called Look to the West, and now I knew what AH was, and I wanted to discover more about it. So, I signed up to AH.com and started reading.
What are your main interests in AH?
My claim to fame here is that I inadvertently inspired Meadow to create SLP. At a meetup in London, shortly after winning a Turtledove for The Fifth Lectern, Meadow presented me with mockups of book covers for the two timelines. I really liked them, and then suddenly thought: why not? I looked into self-publishing on Amazon and scoped it out and went for it. Meadow helped me with proof-reading and feedback on the timelines and I did some heavy writing surgery on The Fourth Lectern, and published them.
I then went back to politicalbetting and mentioned it to the proprietor, who ran a competition on the site (first prize: a copy of both books). Briefly (for about three days), The Fourth Lectern went to #1 on Amazon’s kindle list for alternate history. It turns out that you don’t need to sell that many copies in a day to spike onto it. As part of my research, I noticed a running theme from successful self-publishers that you could get improved sales by associating your books together, as people liked to read more books like the ones they liked. I wondered about other ah.com self-publishers mentioning each other’s books at the back of their own books.
Meadow grabbed the idea and ran with it, reasoning that a whole stable of good quality ah.com books, with similar cover themes and linked by a single publishing house, might work as well. He then founded Sea Lion Press.
Charles EP Murphy:
My main interests are contradictory. I love the brief microfiction – the PM list, the CDs that never got made, the casual reference to a wrong place – that implies a great deal and gets an idea out.
At the other extreme, the massive in-depth multivolume piece with huge scope that you can drown yourself in (provided, of course, that it’s good). I also have a soft spot for the near-future that becomes an AH and the nerdy game of trying to make it all make quasi-sense.
It may be a bit of a cliché, but anything which is well-written. As a reader, I enjoy most styles, from vignettes to the ongoing epics. I’ll be honest and say anything with which I have a passing familiarity will draw me in more easily than a period I don’t know, but one of the things I really enjoy is seeing things written from a different perspective. I might also be one of the few people on SLP who is interested in the idea of sporting what-ifs (which only come up about once per day, and twice on Saturdays).
My early interests in AH stemmed from works that were a big, sweeping changed history where, as a reader, I could immerse myself in that world, while still having a sense that somehow this could have been our world. There are a lot of works which have big worldbuilding – science fiction and fantasy are full of them – but what interests me about AH is the experience of thinking that this could have been our history.
Such worlds could be from most periods of history – I don’t have a particular era I’m more interested in than others – but in general recent divergences don’t interest me that much, because it’s hard to build the sense of a sweeping world in that case. The exception for that is where the divergence is recent past but the world has been projected into the future.
The other more recent interest in AH I’ve picked up is for short fiction where the story is set in such a world. In those cases, part of the attraction is having such worldbuilding in the background. It’s seldom explicit in short fiction, and doesn’t need to be, but I like to see it as part of the setting.
Stories of people and how they are changed, the choices they make. How they come to them, how they come to think about them afterwards. So, I’m more partial to novels, or at least narrative threads, though I do like the occasional textbook passage and did sacrifice to that when I tried (very briefly) my hand at it. Because it’s also a genre that to me seems very dominated by English-speaking writers, I also like stories which are more about continental Europe and different historiographical traditions. Yes, that does mean 1789 and the follow-up to that. Or Jonathan Edelstein's Malê Rising which remains to me an absolute triumph.
I also have a personal loathing for dystopias. I’m not asking for my reads to be filled with sweets and flowers, but suffering does not interest me as a narrative device. I read enough about it in regular history. I think I want fun and exuberance, not only in the pages, but to feel that it was this way for the writer too. I am currently starting again to write AH as joiner of an older project. What drew me on was an hour-long sort of improv match where a throwaway idea I was asked my opinion on turned into a full-fledged storyline and its incredible (in the best sense of the word) characters, while at least two French onlookers were left with a bemused look over the very excited, very fast English being spoken. That’s the sort of energy I’m looking to see in AH work. It can be zany, flamboyant, funny, sad, poignant, but it needs to make me feel and be drawn into the story alongside the writer.
I don’t expect it to be something AH turns to, because misery sells more than happiness, but I’d like to see AH dwell more on what could have gone right, either disasters averted, what if the needed reforms to the body politic or social, or environmental issues are better handled? And I know someone’s dream on a particular issue can be someone’s nightmare… but much as dystopias are often touted as offering a glimpse of the future a slippery slope might lead to, more utopic AH can help articulate what we’d like to see happen in the world, give more embodiment to projects with are yet just figures on arid files.
It probably helps why I don’t feel overwhelmed by the genre tendency to hark to WWII and the ACW so relentlessly: my first points of contact with the genre were around very different time periods, and I’m not interested in reading about longer Nazi dominance of Europe, of Confederates managing to keep slavery going for longer. No, thank you. And while I was familiar with military AH from Flint, this is about the furthest removed from that other recurring flaw, the rivet counting.
Charles EP Murphy:
I think the short stories and lists are the places you see both the harshest dystopias and the most bolshie utopias, and in both cases because a short tale can run off an idea, a character, a concept, or a twist. Once you get longer, the characters need to do something and for a utopia, that would mean you have to either leave the utopia to visit somewhere that isn’t one, as seen in a thousand sci-fi stories where aliens or the future come to the hellish dystopia of contemporary Earth, or something has to disrupt that utopia. That part may throw people. If it’s a utopia, what’s wrong?
An example of a book that does the latter is B. L. Blanchard’s The Peacekeeper which is set in a never-colonised Americas with a restorative justice system. It’s clearly presenting this system as better than what we have now, but it’s a murder mystery so people still kill each other for sordid reasons and have to be brought to book. Crime’s going to be really useful for this as only the very weird believe that all malice will be undone by better politics. I guess you could also copy Thunderbirds and have stuff going wrong in the utopia; so in your AH where cars lost to public transport, the Calais-to-Kyiv Express bullet train is out of control and you have to stop it crashing.
What are the main developments in AH? Are we going to see increasingly niche publishers (with the growth of self- and small-publishing)?
The publication of timelines by niche publishing houses and self-publishing has been a recent and valuable development: not only SLP, but Sergeant Frosty Publications has blossomed (albeit SFP ranges further beyond alternate history in its theme of children’s and young adult books). The startup hurdles are significantly smaller now than they have ever been (albeit they are not negligible); the key challenge is in getting noticed in an ever-widening pool of reading material. I’m wondering if we’ll see more development in other media of alternate history – specifically videos. As greater computing power and resource comes online, the ability to create alternate worlds visually becomes easier. Just see what has happened with Deepfakes to show what can be done by disreputable people.
This, however, may lead to a dangerous quagmire of copyright legislation. God knows where that may end up.
Skyborn, by the prolific Andy Cooke. Airships, Apocalypse, and nuclear reactors. What more could you want? Available from Sergeant Frosty Publications. Link at end of article.
I have a question coming from what Andy said about self-publishing. How do you make it easy for people to find ‘good’ alternate history in a sea of self-publication, which is likely to be of variable quality, especially for people who are not AH readers? Obviously, working with SLP, SFP, etc is going to be a signal for those in the know, but I’m assuming we would like more people to be reading the things we enjoy.
And how do we avoid the literary snobbery that surrounds certain genres (like, say, Sci-Fi and Fantasy) being applied to AH, given that it can, and does, tackle massive themes.
Charles EP Murphy
Unfortunately, the Amazon algorithm is so broken – straight history like the Sharpe books and Wolf Hall show up on the AH pages – that I think the only way to get good AH is by word of mouth and specialist reviews. The Amazon website is worse than useless.
I’d say that’s a bigger barrier than low-quality indie books. You can sense that Rommel Saves The Day with a typo-ridden blurb is probably not worth reading. If not for reviews on here, though, I’d have never spotted Axis of Andes.
This segues into the broader “problem” of modern publishing – between e-books and self-publishing, there’s a lot of books out there. Wonderful to have so many choices to read, much harder to find a book which interests you among all the other books out there.
As Charles EP M. noted, Amazon’s categorisation for AH is worse than useless – straight historical series, fantasy, and other things which may well be interesting to read, but aren’t AH or anything close to it.
As a reader, I essentially rely on lead-ins to find new AH works. Some, of course, comes from SLP sources – reviews, SLP announcements, word of mouth through the forum, and so on. Other sources are from a handful of reviewers whose tastes I find helpful, and through some other online sources such as AH Facebook groups and the like.
I’ve found a couple of new AH books by browsing the Amazon lists and reading the blurb and the Look Inside function, but I have to say that there’s a lot more I passed on because the blurb was uninteresting or the sample I read was not good, for one reason or another.
As a writer and would-be promoter of AH, my main take is to find what’s the unique selling point of the work in a way which makes sense to the broader reading community, not just those familiar with AH. To take some more well-known AH works (and not trying to promote my own), Years of Rice and Salt has a straightforward explanation: “This is about a world where the Europeans aren’t around anymore.” For Want of a Nail is: “This is a world where the American Revolution failed.” Or, for more character-driven pieces, Agent Lavender is: “What if Harold Wilson really was a Soviet spy.”
There’s lots of ways to market books (most of them beyond my ken), but all of them need their unique selling point. It’s not about selling people on AH as a genre – they’ll like it or dislike it as they experience it – but about explaining why they may find a particular work to be worth reading.
Charles EP Murphy:
I think the near future of AH will continue to be self-published books and online stories, with a few mainstream releases. There’s not that many dedicated fans of AH as a genre, but the Internet gives you the ability to reach all of them, and a small press or solo writer can take a chance a larger publisher could not afford to.
This is true of most genres; just because someone watched Get Out doesn’t necessarily mean they want to also watch Saint Maud, never mind look for the gems in low budget VOD horror. Alternate history starts off with a smaller audience because you need to know something about real history to grasp what’s going on, and outside of being extremely broad in what counts (like Sliders was, where a larger Texas meant lawyers who did showdowns with six-shooters) you run into the problem that there’s a lot of history. Nobody can know enough about all of it.
Which brings us to the ubiquity of WWII AH. That war is one everyone knows a bit about; they know what the Nazis did and why they’re bad (which I think is also important; a Communist or Libertarian or religious or liberal dystopia may well annoy some of your readers who are those things, but nobody relevant will argue that your Nazis Win dystopic story is unfair to the Nazis.
I’d expect that written AH will still dominate. As Charles said: Everyone can write, but not everyone has the skill or confidence for video creation. I can imagine a rise in AH content on Youtube and the like, as Andy suggests, but I think it’s likely to be small.
As far as formats go, someone will do something that catches the eye of the community at some point – we had TLIAx, vignettes, shuffles, and wiki lists appear, blossom, and then settle down to a steady state of usage as a recognisable format. There will be another one at some point, but we won’t know what it is until it’s happened.
And I think Charles has also nailed the reason why WWII is such a common theme. From an Anglosphere perspective, we all know about it, and it’s quite easy to introduce some handwavium as to why the Germans win at X, or the Japanese at Y to Change The Course Of The War. I think this is also why there are a number of not-Hitler versions – because it allows the author to ignore or minimise the horrors of what an Axis victory would have meant. I’m guessong that the same is true for Southern Victory (or Southern Not Losing) ACW timelines.
Charles EP Murphy:
AH stories set in the recent past would be easier to allow an audience to grasp everything, and they do show up online and in small press, but don’t seem to be common in the mainstream. I assume that’s because a good chunk of the audience will be turned off by default – a story about independent Scotland in 2014, Remain winning in 2016, or Sanders facing Trump instead of Clinton/Biden means saying if that’s good or not. A mainstream company may think twice.
However, I could be wrong because the Rodham book was a mainstream one and that assumed a big mainstream audience for an alternate Hilary Clinton who wins.
As well as the: “That decision was wrong” element, I also think more political AH is less engaging to a wider audience. Wars are more interesting (for a given value of interesting), and gives differences that are easier to explain, regardles of the how. For recent (or even ongoing) events, I’d expect to see some Competent Russia TLs emerge in the next few years, just because most people can visualise lines on a map.
Which reminds me, I must go and see if there is a decent Desert Storm continues and removes Saddam TL anywhere.
Charles EP Murphy:
Good point. Wars have action scenes, descriptions of destruction, clear stakes, one side and another side. Political timelines will often bring in wars for stakes and drama.
You can get drama in politics, but it is harder to write, and uglier (in story terms). We’ve recently had big dramatic high politics with the SNP leadership election in Scotland, but people verbally tearing at their former comrades to get the top job, in fiction, will read quite differently and grubbier to a character making an heroic charge/last stand, even though in real life those are far more horrible than a debate.
I know from the SLP blog that there’s a lot of romantic AH out there about historical monarchs, and that has surely got the same factors: romance has clear stakes and a clear side to take.
I expect that the future of AH will see a consolidation of existing trends. Self-published and small press written AH will continue to thrive, with the caveats already mentioned about marketing. While there’s some crossover with the online AH community, I’d expect the latter to diverge a bit. For example, the venerable timeline format is still going strong at most online AH venues, but is notably less common on the SLP forum, where more narrative works predominate.
One wildcard is what role “chat Ais” like ChatGPT and its successors will play in the future production of AH. There’s been a lot of hype around these models recently, which often exaggerated their strengths and disregarded their weaknesses – about how they operate by word association, so can make a lot of thing up and potentially plagiarise, and so forth. But the more interesting question will be as the technology improves, whether “AI-assisted” works make much impact in the online AH community or published AH or both. That is, the writer spends some time going back and forth with an AI prompt and then refines the finished product. Maybe that will be part of the future. Though a lot of speculative fiction magazine publishers have now updated their guidelines to prohibit AI assistance in any form, so this may become a point of distinction between published AH and online AH.
Simon and Sir Gawain, Charles EP Murphy. Available from Sergeant Frosty Publications.
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Walking Through Dreams, (Lands of Red and Gold Book 1)
Charles EP Murphy