By Alexander Wallace, Adam Selby-Martin, Arturo Serrano, Colin Salt and Matt Mitrovich
Wallace: In the Sea Lion Press forum community and elsewhere, I have seen mumblings of dissatisfaction over the state of the alternate history genre. There is talk that the American Civil War and the Second World War are played out, and that the genre is overly focused on war to the detriment of other aspects of history.
At the same time, I feel that the online community is ignoring interesting things in traditional publishing. I have talked before of what I feel are to be different ‘traditions’ in the genre, for ultimately it is a strange one: we have many authors who write one AH book and never go in that direction again. In any case, we’re seeing the likes of Mary Robinette Kowal and Dennis Bock and P. Djèlí Clark combine the best of the genre mainstream of the likes of Harry Turtledove with attributes similar to the one-offs like Robert Harris, Philip K. Dick, and Philip Roth.
It is clear that this is not the same state of affairs that dominated roughly from the 1990s to the mid-2010s. The genre is entering something new, albeit undefined. I have brought forth four luminaries of the genre to discuss the following questions:
Is alternate history as a genre stagnating? Is it evolving? Where is it heading? What should we, as a community, encourage in new writing?
I, Alexander Wallace, will serve as moderator.
Our panelists are:
We will now proceed to opening statements.
SALT: Thanks for having me back. As for the topic, I want to say that, well, it’s made muddier by how there’s not really one “alternate history”. Yet for all the subtypes, I want to say that my thought is that each of them has their own inherent limiters, and that they aren’t “stagnating” so much as running up against them.
First there’s what I like to call “commercial AH”, which is stuff that often fits the “AH as a setting” style (i.e., it’s just a thriller/whatever that takes place in an alternate timeline). The problem is that authors can’t really go into too much detail or explore divergences that are too obscure, simply because they have to appeal to an audience of non-history enthusiasts. That’s why you get so many World War II/American Civil War/other notable things that laypeople in their target audience would understand (i.e., surviving Ceausescu for Romanians). There’s also not much market value in advertising something as “alternate history” that isn’t a blatant divergence, so a lot of stuff that could qualify is just branded as historical/contemporary/science fiction.
This type of AH has changed the least since I got into it, simply because of those ironclad issues. And I can’t see these issues changing because of their very nature.
Then there’s what I call “internet AH”, which is the timeline format. Now this has a pretty strict ceiling, certainly far more than commercial AH has. I’ve jokingly called TLs “like the minutes of a Northeast Railroad Historical Society meeting.” The thing is, that has changed - for the worse, in my eyes. The dryness and detached quality remains, but as people who are less knowledgeable have entered it, there’s been less commitment to actual accuracy/plausibility. It becomes more “trinketized” and broad-but-shallow as the nature of the internet makes it easier to just pluck names and places without really knowing much about the underwater part of the iceberg. It’s in many ways like the new generation of sports fans who cite advanced stats like “market value”, “win shares”, “wins above replacement” and so on just as shallowly as their ancestors citing things like batting average and goals scored.
Internet AH is also extremely compartmentalized-I can say from first-hand experience that its works are extremely difficult to review due to the lack of literary components (ie, you can’t criticize the characterization if there is none). There has been a huge outside influence in the form of Paradox strategy games, but that seems like a funnel-it directs the fandom energy in, but it just stays in. A sad phenomenon I’ve seen is people talking about timelines only in relation to other timelines.
Anyway, the point is that online AH can reasonably be considered historical fanfiction, which has the isolation of various fanfic communities and a dominant writing style that’s extra-exclusionary to non-fans to boot. It’s expanded, but its appeal to outsiders has not.
As for changing, well, I don’t really see it happening. If a big-name author tried their hand at AH, it’d probably be “AH As a Setting” in their normal genre. You take a romance novelist, and you get a historical romance-in a world where the Confederacy won the American Civil War. You take a spy novelist and you get a spy novel-in a world where the Axis won World War II. Now this isn’t a bad thing. But it’s working within those boundaries instead of trying to bust them. The best real-world example I can think of is Len Deighton’s SS-GB. I mean, it’s good that the likes of Kowal and Djélí Clark exist, but I still have a pessimistic view of them actually representing the vanguard of alternate history any more than John Schettler existing means the future of AH is long, rambling lets plays of various wargames.
Finally, what I recommend to new authors is simple: Take and show influence from non-AH sources. This not only makes it more relatable, but it also makes it just better in literary terms.
MITROVICH: ‘Stagnating’ seems like a harsh word. The current status of the alternate history is the result of decades of evolution the genre experienced. I mean asking “what if” is a part of human nature, whether it's regarding humanity in general or just ourselves (Side Note: there are many trans alternate historians and I’ve had a couple link their interest in the genre with their own questions about their gender identity.).
So in the beginning alternate history was mostly the realm of intellectuals and scholars. They treated it as a fun little pastime that shouldn’t be taken seriously. You still see this even with present-day historians. They look down their noses at alternate or counterfactual history, but almost every history book I’ve read has at least a couple sentences, paragraphs or even a chapter dedicated to wondering “what if?”
Later on, you started to see fiction writers take on alternate history and share the idea to a larger audience…but rarely did they dedicate their literary career to the genre. Mostly you just get one or two books from someone. For example, Ward Moore is famous for his novel Bring the Jubilee and while it is certainly influential on the genre, Moore didn’t write another alternate history novel. He did write other science fiction novels, some of which even inspired films, but that was his one contribution to the genre.
By the 1980s, however, you get a lot of people with backgrounds in history entering the writing game and they tended to write about what they knew: history. So you got your Turtledoves, Stirlings and Flints. But what also made these writers different from the ones that came before is that they can communicate easier with each other thanks to the Internet. Although still somewhat a novelty in the 1980s and 1990s, they nevertheless helped create the foundation of the online communities that we know of today.
That said, the nature of the Internet is evolving. Your average person isn’t hanging out on forums to discuss alternate history or other topics. They are on social media where they (for better or worse) are getting introduced to new ideas. I think there is a backlash to the “same old same old” of WWII or American Civil War alternate histories. This has allowed new authors to appear who generally aren’t your average old white guy who likes airships (and I say this as an aging white guy who likes airships). They can bring a diverse viewpoint and talk about histories that often fall by the wayside. And as the Internet evolves so will the future alternate historians (Are there any on TikTok? Is TikTok still popular? I’m too old to answer these questions.).
Although, I am eternally grateful that alternate history maps never got targeted by the NFT crowd.
Granted, there are limitations that have to be addressed. Your audience for historical fanfiction remains small and if you want to reach a wider audience you not only need to suspend your desire for plausibility but also, and most importantly, tell a good story. I think that is something a lot of people who got their start in the forums still struggle with because I’ll be honest, while most people are willing to try alternate history, they normally don’t want to read a fake textbook.
So in summary, alternate history has been evolving and will continue to, we just might lack the perspective to see it happening now.
SERRANO: If the recent years of the Sidewise Awards are any indication of the best of the genre, what I find most salient is the trend of established writers from other traditions doing one book in AH and turning out to be the best of their year. Tchaikovsky, Newitz, Kowal, Winters, etc., were already big names before winning the Sidewise. So what I’m seeing is a slight rise in the genre’s prestige, in that well-known writers whose fame doesn’t depend on AH fans won’t be afraid to resort to AH if a given story calls for it. Even Kowal, who nowadays is most famous for her AH novels, had an extensive trajectory in short fiction before starting her series.
At the same time, older names continue to reoccur in lists of Sidewise finalists. Turtledove has been getting a nomination almost every year, which I take as a reassuring sign that the old guard remains very much active.
So I don’t see stagnation, as far as I can keep up with what’s being published. In fact, I’m excited for the unexpected and fascinating ideas emerging all the time in AH. We’re extremely fortunate to live in an era that has seen Everfair and Mecha Samurai Empire and Underground Airlines and The Doors of Eden, plus everything else going on in television and video games.
However, I do have to point out, as I said in our previous panel, that much of the AH being written today is still concerned with alternate war outcomes, which is an unfortunate limit of imagination. One of the most ambitious novels I’ve seen recently, Laurent Binet’s Civilizations, is yet another revenge fantasy of reverse imperialism. So, while the genre is gaining much-welcome visibility, it’s difficult to outgrow the established clichés.
SELBY-MARTIN: To echo the other people on this panel, I’m not sure that ‘stagnant’ is quite the correct word to describe the Alternate History genre at this time, although admittedly I’m struggling to come up with something more aposit in its place; ‘happy where it is’ seems more accurate, although nowhere near as concise. I may have a slightly different viewpoint here than my other panelists, because I must guiltily put my hand up and admit that - thus far - I have not actually read any of the more recent, high-profile Alternate-History works by Kowal or Bock or even P. Djèlí Clark, despite the glowing reviews that they’ve received.
Instead, when I have had time to dive back into the genre, I’ve always been fond of thrashing around in the hidden depths of the Kindle lists in order to see what works are being published by independent authors or micro-publishers (of which admittedly there are very few in the genre at this time) and what their focus is. You can certainly find some hidden gems in there, as my reviews on the Sea Lion Press blog attest - genuinely unique titles like David Oliver Godric’s Alliance: Metamorphosis that stretches back almost to the concept of pre-history to change the fundamental course of history, or In The Cage Where Your Saviours Hide, by Malcolm Mackay, which posits a modern-day independent Scotland haunted by its own imperialist past. Sift through enough of the entries in the independent and self-published listings and you’ll find some brilliant diamonds in the rough.
However, in order to find those particularly well-hidden gems, you have to sift through dozens - if not hundreds - of pages of alternate history thrillers with names like Hitler’s Eagles: The Atlantropa Offensive and Operation Sea Lion II: This Time It’s Reich-Personal or A Burning Yankee on a Pile of Burning Yankees: States Rights Boogaloo. And while these names are obviously exaggerated, their content certainly isn’t - there are hundreds of these titles across the genre, almost all of them on-going series that have six, nine, even a dozen books in the series. These are clearly successful and popular titles, even if they’re never going to appear on bookshelves alongside Mary Robinette Kowal, and constitute the bulk of the Alternate History genre - just as zombie horror and post-apocalyptic books constitute the bulk of the horror genre, regardless of what some people would prefer to think. So when we see titles like The Haunting of Tram Car 015 they should indeed be celebrated - but we should also consider that they are the outliers and not Himmler’s Reich IV: Kalifornia or Bust. As such, can the genre be considered to be ‘stagnant’ as such when titles that feed into the stereotypical Victorious Reich or Victorious Dixie scenarios not only constitute the bulk of the (published) genre but are clearly sufficiently successful to spawn further series and spin-offs and so forth?
SALT: With regards to both Serrano’s “difficult to outgrow the established cliches” statement and Selby-Martin’s commentary on AH series, both accurate, I feel obligated to point out that that’s true of any type of fiction. The “Sturgeon’s Law” claim exists for a reason. Even within the boundaries of cheap thrillers, you have a hundred “shoot the terrorist before he detonates his WMD!” books for every Larry Bond-esque attempt to show a conflict in its entirety with a degree of accuracy.
Should alternate history really be any different? You can argue that it’s supposed to be exploring different possibilities, and thus it falls “farther” when it doesn’t. It’s kind of like science fiction where you have a million spacesuit commando tales for every Roadside Picnic, but people know that Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Star Wars have very little in common besides both being sci-fi movies. Similarly, AH combines a bunch of disparate works with an arguably very loose connection. Should they really all be judged against each other?
MITROVICH: I also think it's important to remember that if World War II and American Civil War alternate histories are popular, that might be because those eras of history are just popular in general with people so of course alternate history will reflect that.
And while those two eras are popular in alternate history (in the English language at least) obviously alternate history isn’t just about those histories, although if you listened to your average critic of alternate history it certainly seems that way.
Heck as I write this Apple TV+ is currently promoting the upcoming season 3 of For All Mankind, an alternate history where the Soviets beat the Americans to the Moon, but in this upcoming season America is about to land (male and female) astronauts on Mars…in the 1990s!!! And yet I see on Twitter the constant refrain of “why does everyone just write alternate histories on WWII or the American Civil War?”.
I mean other kinds of alternate histories are out there and they aren’t even hard to find. Groups like the Sidewise Awards do help elevate the stand outs in the genre while Himmler’s Reich X: The Reichening (sorry to steal your joke there, Selby-Martin) fall by the wayside.
SALT: The point about the Twitter complaints reminds me of perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned since I started reviewing fiction on my blog: How different perspectives can distort your view of something. Like before Fuldapocalypse, based on one small internet boomlet and one community where such things are ultra-prominent (wargaming) and not seeing differently, I honestly thought there was an overabundance of 1980s World War III stories.
Now, hundreds of book reviews later, I can see very clearly that there aren’t that many of those, and (if you like them) there arguably aren’t enough. It’s been one of the most humbling experiences for me. And since there are so many different types of alternate history and so many ways in, I think that can apply to pretty much any subset of AH.
SERRANO: This is an odd case of how the same cultural scene can look mutually unrecognizable to different members. I was familiar with the phenomenon of literary scholars having a very limited idea of what science fiction was about, but in this case we, dedicated fans and critics, are describing our own field as if we were the blind men touching the elephant. This can mean that AH has become richer and more varied than we can pin down in some paragraphs of discussion, or it can mean that we happen to be witnessing a turning point where AH is evolving into new traditions, new formats and new narrative devices we can’t yet make sense of because we haven’t developed the appropriate conceptual tools. This may sound like a frustratingly vague pronouncement that doesn’t explain a lot, but that’s the nature of the beast. There’s no one shared sense of what AH “ought” to look like, no standard that resembles the way everyone mostly agrees on how to define cyberpunk or sword-and-sandal or gaslamp or grimdark or spy thriller or isekai. AH, by its own principles, is infinitely malleable, and that makes analysis harder for the critic, but it also makes the selection process more interesting for the reader.
The conclusions the Panel came to will follow in another article.