By Alexander Wallace, Adam Selby-Martin, Arturo Serrano, Colin Salt and Matt Mitrovich
This is a panel discussion, modelled on live in-person panels at science fiction conventions, to discuss a particular theme. That theme is Stagnation, Innovation, and the Future of the Alternate History and the question asked is "Is alternate history as a genre stagnating? Is it evolving? Where is it heading? What should we, as a community, encourage in new writing?
SELBY-MARTIN: So, we seem to have some kind of agreement that this is what the state of the Alternate History genre is at the moment, at least in terms of fiction - that a large bulk of it - perhaps even the majority - is based around scenarios that are fully embedded in popular culture, like the Second World War and the American Civil War. We can’t change that, short of some kind of permanent culture shock, so instead perhaps we should turn to the second part of the question posed at the start of this panel - where is it heading? For myself, I’m happy to see that while the majority of the genre is still based on cheesy scenarios like a victorious Nazi Germany and Confederate States, there are many authors that are trying to break out of the constraints of those scenarios - as noted at the beginning of this panel. Given that many of these authors have a high profile, not just in the Alternate History genre, but across broader genres like Science-Fiction and Fantasy, how can we - both as individuals and as a group of reviewers and authors - help to shape the way in which this is heading? And how can the average reader hope to do that as well - either consciously or unconsciously?
MITROVICH: This has been said before, but to answer your question, I think alternate history will start reflecting the changing views on history. I went to undergrad in the mid 00s and a couple of my history professors (to put it charitably) expressed regret that the old way of teaching history, like telling some grand story of great men and epic battles, was falling by the wayside to “social history”. And yet it probably should because history is more than just changing lines on the map and alternate history will likely (if it hasn’t already) shift in that direction as well.
And just like Confederate statues have started falling down, so too will alternate histories about the so-called Confederacy stop glorifying (either intentionally or unintentionally) an independent American southeast. So more Underground Airlines and less of the Lost Cause fantasies you might see in some dark corners of the alternate history community.
To be honest I am kind of disappointed that HBO’s Confederate never saw the light of day. Sure maybe David Benioff and D. B. Weiss would have screwed it up like they screwed up the last season of Game of Thrones, but one of the people attached to the show was Malcolm Spellman, who was recently the writer and producer on shows like Empire and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Just saying Malcolm doesn’t seem like the type of person to make a show for Neo-Confederates.
As for what we as reviewers and readers of alternate history can do? Well the best thing to do is to step out of your comfort zone. Read alternate histories you might usually skip on to see if they are worth it. In fact, try to read books outside of the genre. Get a different perspective on storytelling and if you see something you like, share it with everyone. And if the new stuff isn’t for you, that’s fine, but don’t gatekeep. Everyone has different tastes and there is no need for anyone to be a jerk to someone just because they don’t like the same thing you do.
SALT: I’ll enthusiastically second “expand your horizons and stretch your comfort zone”, which has worked great for me. As for what you can do beyond that? I’d say accentuate the positive. There is a sad tendency for online alternate history fans to sink into excessive negativity about stuff they don’t like (I’ve fallen for it myself), and pointing out what you did enjoy is so much more satisfying-to say nothing of being helpful.
That being said, I take the arguably cynical and pessimistic view that there really isn’t much an individual can do beyond that. Trying to push or force people to make certain kinds of writing doesn’t work, for one. And like I said in my opening statement, the barriers the genre has are just very thick and have been very thick for decades. So I guess I should add “have limited expectations” for my part.
SERRANO: One of the keys to keeping a form of art alive is curiosity and empathy. And there is a moment of reckoning about that going on right now. You can see a turn toward more stories told from the perspectives and experiences of the common people affected by historical changes (like the example Mitrovich cites about Underground Airlines). This trend is fueled by the recognition that history has many actors, not a handful of glorious heroes who hold all the choices.
By sheer chance, today I saw a tweet that referred to someone’s proposed timeline of a US that turned a lot more interventionist in Latin America. The first thing that bothered me about this timeline was that it was introduced via a rather simplistic meme image, with all US presidents laughing and a nameless figure, representing Latin Americans, visibly miserable. And the caption was “POV: You live in Latin America,” which is immediately dishonest because the timeline is not told from a Latin American point of view.
That is the kind of AH we have to challenge, the AH written at such a distance that the people affected by its events are treated as impersonal abstractions. What we need, again, is curiosity and empathy.
SELBY-MARTIN: I think that Mr Serrano might have hit the nail on the head here with the phrase ‘curiosity and empathy’ because that manages to encapsulate the core of what I think the Alternate History genre needs right at this moment. Not to necessarily break a stagnation that may or may not actually be a thing, but to instead start to pivot genre fiction away from the stale, tired scenarios still being written about and move towards more original, engaging and thought-provoking scenarios like Kowal’s Lady Astronaut series.
Perhaps now that we have more and more high-profile authors - including women and BIPOC - being published by hugely mainstream authors, we will start to see that filter down into the works written by independent authors and smaller publishers. We have certainly started to see that from publishers like Sea Lion Press - an excellent example would be the Lands of Red and Gold series by Jared Kavanagh, which couldn’t be more of a pivot away from the military and politically-focused scenarios of the genre, and instead injects a fresh perspective that’s desperately required. Or indeed the related Alternate Australias anthology that features a story in the same timeline from Kavanagh.
SALT: My go-to phrase for what I’d want to see more of in alternate history is “audacity”, where you use the fact that it involves changing history to, well, change history. This isn’t incompatible with curiosity and empathy-in fact, taking a more grounded approach where the distant vistas stay distant can make everything seem more audacious. A lot of the best alternate history-of all kinds- has been audacious. Two of the hallmarks of the genre are “A story where time travelers introduce AK-47s to the American Civil War” and “A magical realist, centuries-spanning story where Europe is completely destroyed by disease”. One of my favorite pleasant surprises was seeing the 64 book Kirov series, which I expected to just tinker around the edges of World War II, to instead be a gonzo time travel beautiful excessive mess with airships, shifted-in modern tanks, aliens, and more.
Yet I think one of the reasons why I crave audacity (which, by the way, isn't always possible or desirable) is because I think both kinds of alternate history and their barriers actually disincentive it. Commercial AH at least has the factor of needing to appeal to a wider audience, so I can understand and often forgive it going back to the big, blatant ACW/WWII/whatever trends well. It’s internet AH which doesn’t have that, but does too often have an obsession with “how many B-52s can dance on the head of a pin” rivet-counting minutiae, “plausibility,” and/or a tendency to reduce everything to just dry exposition.
Audacity isn’t everything. Robert Conroy loved audacious ways for the continental US to get invaded, but his books otherwise embodied the worst parts of commercial alternate history. But it’s definitely something that goes well with a genre that can be summarized as “what if this happened?”
MITROVICH: Curiosity, empathy and audacity! I love it.
It's definitely things I wish more alternate historians, whether they are sharing their stories online for free or publishing books, embraced. Unfortunately, I think too many alternate historians take the cynical, pessimistic and “plausible” route possible.
Something I’ve heard a couple of times as part of the alternate history community is that our timeline is the “least bad” or “best of all possible alternatives” out there. This seems to be a foundational belief for many alternate historians and is probably why so many alternate histories lead toward the dystopia. Because if this is the “best” timeline, then of course if you change anything things will get worse.
And yet such a belief never sat well with me.
I mean unless you believe we live in a deterministic universe, human history is full of choices. No one forced Leopold II of Belgium to establish the human rights disaster that was the Congo Free State, but he did. Or what if Reconstruction wasn’t sabotaged by President Andrew Johnson and then abandoned by Republicans? Those were choices as well. The latter was a choice to abandon an attempt to create racial equality in America. And yet our timeline is the best timeline?
I personally would prefer to see more alternate histories tackle ideas like that. Alternate histories that showed humanity taking a better path. And sure “better” is incredibly subjective and not everyone agrees on what “better” would be (and some out there have honestly terrible ideas), but I rather read and discuss those ideas then see another: “Hey wouldn’t it suck if the Nazis won? I bet no one has talked about that before! Anywho, I'm going to spend 99% of it talking about cool tanks.”
SALT: Thing is, a lot of the time the reasons for dystopia over utopia are actually well-intentioned and well-founded. One is for good narrative reasons-it’s obviously a lot easier to create conflict in a dystopia. Another is that utopias can be frequently criticized (and rightfully so) for just being authorial wish fulfillment. And yes, as you said, “better” is frequently more subjective than “worse”.
I don’t think OTL has been the “best” timeline, even if I’m somewhat deterministic on certain things, sometimes bad ones (for instance, I think the Iraq War, or at least a catastrophic collapse of the Saddam regime, was more or less inevitable after 1991-but this isn’t the time or place to get into that argument).
That being said, I have no issues with your actual argument. In fact, it’s the perfect example of how audacity can help a work improve. I just have this feeling that if we did get a lot of utopias, Sturgeonism would kick in and we’d be complaining, often rightfully so, of how they were just tales of conflict-free Mary Sue societies.
SERRANO: There’s some measure of just-world fallacy in dystopian AH, particularly the timelines that kill Hitler and then produce an even worse 20th century, as if telling us we should count ourselves lucky. And one could perhaps understand that impulse to make sense of what went wrong in real history, to try and find a justification for what shouldn’t have one. It causes anxiety to face the fact that we have had true evil in this world and it didn’t need to happen. This variety of worse-than-Hitler AH may serve some social utility as a coping mechanism, as a way to protect against the unconfessed, unconscious dread of a world that doesn’t follow a cosmic moral law.
It’s not really all that hard to create compelling stories in an utopia. Look at all of Star Trek. The problem with worse-than-Hitler AH is not only the implicit plea for fatalistic acceptance of historical wrongs, but as regards storytelling, it’s a mark of lack of imagination.
SELBY-MARTIN: Perhaps I might be so bold as to state that perhaps we have been looking at this entire situation slightly askew? It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps what is happening to the Alternate History genre is what has happened to the Horror genre - my speciality - over the past few years. Instead of simply a monolithic genre comprised of a few different subgenres (Reich Victorious, Dixie Victorious, Cold War Goes Hot etc) perhaps what we are now seeing is an organic process in which the genre is becoming bigger and more complex to allow for distinct subgenres to be formed from the titles being written, especially those coming from larger publishers and more influential authors. In terms of Horror, it has now become an increasingly diverse and (delightfully) complex warren of interlocking and sub-branching sub-genres and sub-sub genres covering everything from Weird Horror to Extreme Horror to Urban Gothic Horror and a myriad of other areas that I delight in exploring.
Perhaps it is time to adopt a similar system of sub-genre categorisation, in order to recognise that Alternate History has now become broad enough to encompass everything from the (fictional) Dixie-Reich Uber-Empire titles that have been the bedrock of the genre for decades, to the far more complex and thought-provoking titles provided by Kowal, Bock and many others? That might also allow us to resolve the inherent conflict between utopian and dystopian scenarios noted above.
SALT: I’d respectfully disagree. In large part it’s because I’m a little leery of over-categorizing things. But it’s also because alternate history is clearly already divided into a lot of different categories, even if they’re not given explicit names. And as I’ve said earlier, there’s often very little overlap between them. You’re not going to get a craving to read The Years of Rice and Salt or a Clark/Kowal novel because you played Wolfenstein 3D or Hotline Miami. That some AH is highbrow and some is lowbrow is just like how non-AH fiction is that way too.
Besides, I started Fuldapocalypse trying to pigeonhole books into specific review categories. That turned out to be unfeasible from the moment I ran out of Red Storm Rising-esques (which happened very quickly). About the only personal categories I regularly use for alternate history are as follows:
“Hard” AH, which puts a greater emphasis on perceived plausibility, often with the use of empirical tools (ie wargaming).
“Soft” AH, which puts the story first and is less concerned about perceived plausibility.
“AH as a setting”, which can be hard or soft, but focuses on a familiar genre fiction that just happens to take place in an alternate timeline.
“AH as a genre”, which puts the events and divergences themselves first and foremost. Harry Turtledove is by far the mainstream author who uses this the most.
Turtledove is also interesting to me because a lot of the (reasonable) criticism of his books points out the compromises he’s had to make to have a story that’s both “AH as a genre” and accessible to a wide audience. The events have to include obvious parallels so the audience can get them, and the divergences have to be blatant as well (going to the heights of “Aliens invade during World War II”). Which kind of shows just how niche that sort of thing is.
MITROVICH: Alternate history becomes even more complex when you realize how easily it can be mashed with other genres. Alternate history westerns? Sure. Alternate history political thriller. Absolutely. Alternate history hard boiled detective story. Just read one recently. Alternate history horror…actually yeah that is one combination you don’t see very often, but my point still stands.
Alternate history is so extremely flexible that it stands as a genre in its own right and basically a style of world-building for many other types of stories. In fact, just like how literary authors don’t like their novels being called “science fiction” (even when they obviously are) , how many authors who write alternate history even consider what they did as alternate history?
I’ve heard Philip Roth apparently didn’t know anything about alternate history when he wrote The Plot Against America. Maybe if there is one thing different about alternate history today than what it was like 10 or 20 years ago is that there aren’t really any people like that anymore. Everyone has been subjected to some kind of alternate history, whether it be books, games, TV shows or films. Before I think the closest thing you got to such mainstream outreach was Sliders, but now there are a lot more options and a lot more people being exposed to the idea even if they don’t fall into the rabbit hole that is the online community.
SALT: Saying “Online Community” brings me to where alternate history has arguably been hurt the most by the expansion you talked about. For most cases, I think it’s been beneficial - the other side of Sturgeon’s Law is “The one hit subsidizes the ninety nine misses” model. While that applies to sales, it can also apply to story quality: i.e. you get 200 additional AH stories, and even if 198 are Nazi Confederates Take Over The World, the other two are interesting and profound, which is two more than would be the case if the genre was smaller.
But for online AH, it means that the term “historical fanfiction” becomes more accurate than ever, and not in a good way. It means more of the internet baggage from fanfiction seeps in (which I will respectfully not elaborate on; you know what that is), and it’s made worse by people choosing the timeline format not because it’s the best way of communicating, but because it’s just easy to write. It’s my analogy of timelines being like race cars in that they’re ideally suited for one thing only (show detail/go fast), and then people come along who don’t care about speed/accuracy/detail.
However, I’m not sure that this really matters. Timeline AH has a footprint comparable to say, jumpchains (another kind of obscure shortcut fanfiction where you just have your avatar travel between universes and gain superpowers along the way. It’s frequently just reduced to ‘Jump ___: Universe X, get powers Y and Z’. ) Lots of people know what The Man in The High Castle (book or show) is, but I could bring up the name of a timeline that’s controversial in the online AH community and get confused silence from nearly all people. Or even one that’s popular. And to be honest, I feel that’s often the correct response. One of the positive changes I’ve seen is an increase in putting these in perspective: Often the whole forest is seen and not merely single prominent in the moment trees.
MITROVICH: You bring up a good point there. How big of an impact does the online alternate history community actually have? Does your average enjoyer of alternate history spend a lot of time there? As I write this AlternateHistory.com has over 79,000 users, which sounds like a lot, but at the moment only 1000ish are active.
So how many active accounts does that site have? Most? Half? A third? Even less than that?
P. Djèlí Clark’s A Master of Djinn just won the Nebula Award. How many of the people active in the online community read that alternate history? Are there that many SFWA members active in the online alternate history community? Maybe, maybe not, I just don’t know.
You know, I interviewed Ian Montgomerie, founder and admin of AlternateHistory.com, once years ago and he suggested that alternate historians aren’t fans in the traditionals sense. They are creators first and foremost. They don’t talk about traditionally published alternate history as much as they like to create works of fiction (in their own style at least) for their fellow online alternate historians. But I wonder now how much of that is a closed system. How many of those timelines will see a larger audience? Most won’t since either the original authors aren’t interested or able to turn it into something for a larger audience.
World-building for an alternate historian is easy. But writing a story with plots, characters, dialogue, etc.? That’s a harder skill to learn and not one the online community is always great at teaching its members.
SERRANO: I wonder if this phenomenon exists also in other literary communities. Do fans of steampunk gather online to calculate fuel consumption for airships? Do fans of spy thrillers exchange designs for realistic explosive pens? We know that the most devoted enthusiasts of hard SF take orbital mechanics very seriously, but I haven’t seen attempts to present such calculations divorced from the context of a specific story. In AH we can see someone post “Here’s my timeline for what happens if Marco Polo chokes on his breakfast,” so I’m curious to hear about any hard SF fan who posts “Here are my specifications for a spacesuit that can withstand the atmosphere of Venus,” but does it just for the fun of the idea, not as part of a plot.
Because if other literary communities don’t do that, then what we have is a unique trait in the AH fandom: creatives who worldbuild without the intention of using that world. The only adjacent examples that come to mind are fantasy cartographers and conlangers, but those can be seen as derived, respectively, from visual arts and linguistics, without a necessary relation to literature (Tolkien notwithstanding). I’ll openly admit that I’ve been severe in my criticism of timelines divorced from a narrative, but it’s possible that those isolated timelines contribute something valuable to the literary exercise of AH, beyond “look at all the overdone scenarios to avoid.”
SALT: I think it’s mostly neutral and, due to the isolation of online alternate history, balances out. Are there people who've gotten into online AH and ended up reading (or writing!) more conventional stories in that period? Quite possibly. But are there people who’ve stagnated because they just went for the easy target instead of doing the hard work of actually writing a big work of fiction? Also quite possibly, though I don’t think there are a large or even substantial number of people like that. Of course, the real answer is: You never know.
But to the other question, there are wargamers who do (too?) much research to set up their mock battles, and it’s interesting to note that all the complaints about rote fiction are muted in that context. Seemingly small or minor details are truly important because for gameplay, they can make a difference. Because they’re interactive, the players are creating a story instead of simply looking at a story that someone else made. And of course, some authors just have an excessive attention to detail, for better or worse.
And stories that focus on worldbuilding aren’t limited to alternate history by a long shot. I could use Stephen Baxter as my go-to example of setting/worldbuilding-first fiction, and there are undoubtedly many others. Different people will have different tolerances for worldbuilding for its own sake.
I’ll say though that we should not bash idle whims too much. They can become something substantive. Harry Turtledove heard another author complain that a cover looked as anachronistic as “Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi”, and one of the most famous AH novels of all time was the result.
WALLACE: Seeing the current length, I think we should start wrapping things up. Now, I will ask for closing statements.
SELBY-MARTIN: I think we are currently watching another period of evolution and expansion in the Alternate History genre, and it’s one that I’m incredibly excited to be observing in order to see what happens to it. While there have always been stalwarts of the genre over the past few decades - Turtledove, Harrison, Stirling etc - it seems to me that there haven’t been many ‘big name’ authors representing the genre for a number of years, and as such perhaps it could be argued that the genre (in terms of written fiction at least) as a result lost some of its visibility amongst so many other genres. However, with publishers getting behind authors like Mary Robinette Kowal, Dennis Bock and P. Djèlí Clark and publishing Alternate History titles that are both incredibly well-written and imaginative, and avoiding many of the hackneyed scenarios that stereotype the genre, I’m deeply intrigued to see where the genre goes over the next few years.
SALT: So for my closing statement, I feel like the positive parts of alternate history’s spread should be stated. I mentioned that I believe that alternate history, and especially all the varied individual parts, have limiters on either their appeal or their content type. That being said, it’s important to note that within those limiters, AH has managed to gain wider approval.
Basically everyone I’ve spoken to about it knows what alternate history is without me needing to explain the basics further. This was not guaranteed, and it’s a sign of, however shallowly, the concept of it having spread pretty thoroughly through pop culture (to the point where I could bring up Marvel’s What If? as an example of AH within a fictional setting). That needs to be remembered.
I’ll also say that focusing on positivity, from years of reviewing books, just feels better. Instead of sniping at online threads that annoyed me, having the chance to share something I enjoyed is a much more pleasant experience. Though cursing the darkness is understandable, there are plenty of candles out there that can and should be highlighted. And if someone gets inspired to metaphorically light a candle of their own, then all the better.
MITROVICH: Like I said before, alternate history is evolving, we just lack the ability to see how from our current perspective. Nevertheless, I think everyone on this panel has done a great job showing how alternate history is changing and what we can expect from the future.
And if you want to contribute to this change, well my advice is: do it! Go research a new timeline, write a story, create a map or whatever. Don’t worry if your first attempt will be good (it most likely won’t) but be willing to keep trying until you get better. And don’t just hang out in the usual forums. Go find out where alternate historians are congregating or just create your own community.
Better to be part of the change, even if your contributions are minor, then to sit it out and forever ask “what if?”
SERRANO: The fact that the trends in the genre have motivated this extended discussion is in itself a sign that the field is fertile. It’s always more exciting when a literary movement grows beyond our attempts to describe it, when there’s a healthy level of uncertainty, when even the long-established tropes don’t exhaust the possibilities for innovation and experimentation.
I do sometimes find that the various micro-niches within the AH fandom look a bit intimidating, especially as they seem so isolated from one another, but that’s preferable to a community of rigid like-mindedness. AH, and in their own way every speculative tradition, is about finding what we assumed was unthinkable and making it feel true. We should hope for our genre to never become too predictable.
WALLACE: I’d like to thank these four fine gentlemen for taking the time to discuss this subject. As you can see, the discussion went to a number of interesting places. It drifted a bit, but in the best way possible, like a good science fiction discussion panel (which was what inspired this format). What strikes me about all this is that alternate history is, despite what some may think, a surprisingly vibrant genre, and a much more diverse one than we tend to give it credit (I’d like to give a good word to Gary Oswald, the SLP blog editor, for deliberately trying to showcase that diversity in his interview series). It makes me feel more confident that the genre will have a bright future and that my fears of stagnation were unfounded.