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Panel Discussion: Guns and Butter - Part 2

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

By Alexander Wallace, Liam Connell, Arturo Serrano, Colin Salt and Alison Morton

Graphic by Wikimedia user 'Teetaweepo' and shared under the under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This is an experiment: a panel discussion, modelled on live in-person panels at science fiction conventions, to discuss a particular theme. That theme is Violence, Power, and Alternatives in Alternate History and the question asked is "in focusing so much on war, what has alternate history as a genre lost? What should we do in the future?"

The five people taking part are:

Alexander Wallace, who also acted as moderator, Arturo Serrano, Colin Salt, Alison Morton and Liam Connell.

WALLACE: I think this discussion ties in well to something Colin has said before, about how there are really a number of fandoms within the broader umbrella of ‘alternate history.’ You can do a lot with the act of speculating about how the past could have gone differently, from political tracts to deeply human stories to rivet-counting.

A possible counterargument to Arturo’s point would be that political and military history have easily recognizable ‘rules.’ Politically and socially, Marxist thought is probably the most developed set of explanations, and one with many adherents in the community. Beyond that, you get a lot of competing schools of thought, from Whig history to nationalist histories and many other ways of thinking. What these all assume is that there are principles underlying human history, and that they can provide ‘rules’ for the ‘game’ that is allohistorical speculation.

Military history, I think, is specifically prone to this. Especially for wars of the twentieth century, there is immense amounts of data that can suggest broader principles about the outcomes of wars. This gets even murkier with the influence (as Colin, as well as Bret Devereaux, have pointed out) of grand strategy games, like Civilization or the various Paradox games, that lead to the impression that human history is an easily definable system, when in actuality they involve ways of thinking about the state that actual historical states never had access to.

There’s also assumptions about the inevitability of many things, a determinism that can obscure. We assume that something would have sent the European powers off to war in the 1910s, even if it weren’t Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo. It’s a way of thinking that has echoes of psychohistory in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and Peter Turchin’s theories of cliodynamics, of treating history as a science. There are, in my opinion, quite valid objections to the assumptions this makes (and Bret Devereaux, once again, has interesting things to say about it).

Just look at the Cold War; so many people thought that it was inevitable that we’d all die in nuclear hellfire, but here we are, puttering away on the internet in a world where no such things have occurred.

Furthermore, there’s a cogent point to be made about how large-scale allohistorical speculation implicitly centers the agency of the powerful. I’ve written about it on the SLP blog before, and it’s the basis of Liam’s ‘peasants, not kings.’ There’s also a mostly forgotten essay on the Alternate History Weekly Update by rvbomally, of Ad Astra Per Aspera and Vivere Militare Est fame, which puts it well, and is the best writing I’ve seen on the subject.

From this, I think alternate history is a genre steeped in what James C. Scott calls ‘high modernism.’ Essentially, Scott argues that there exists a notion that science and technology, mediated through an elite class, can solve just about any human problem. In his book Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, he charges entities on both sides of the Iron Curtain (and polities before the Cold War) have engaged in such thinking to disastrous results. He argues that such thinking leads to an ignorance of local conditions which leads to a great many wrenches thrown in their plans.

Essentially, high modernism is the result of looking at the world, and at history, through an elite lens. High modernist elites think they can apply laws to all human history, and make the world ‘rational.’ Scott argues that such thinking caused famines in the Soviet Union, as well as the creation of hollow, soulless cities in the West. It is a way of thinking that ignores humanity.

It is this sort of thinking that leads to the trinketized alternate history that Serrano discusses, preoccupied with wars and kings and empires and not with human beings. So many alternate historians view the world from metaphorical senate chambers, not villages, and it has the result of making so much of the genre feel more than a little samey.

SALT: That “metaphorical senate chamber” statement reminds me of a quote by political commentator Jim Geraghty about how “If you have been lucky enough to stay or even just step inside more than one luxury hotel in more than one world capital, you’ll realize they all look more or less the same.” I could also add that conference rooms almost always look the same.

Alex’s point about “high modernism” is excellent, and I just want to add, with the caveat that I feel uncomfortable going too deep into internet subculture, that online AH has, as its fanbase has grown larger and initially less knowledgeable, frequently descended into what I would call wannabe high modernism. Which is to say it has a lot of the structure of that academic approach, but frequently doesn’t have the actual factual rigor, even about the basics, that gives it its strength.

The analogy I’ve used is a race car. A race car is intended to do one thing: Go fast around a track. That means it’ll be far less comfortable, it’ll have one seat, it’ll be shaped differently, etc… So a second generation of AH enthusiasts would get the idea of a car that’s low to the ground, has only one seat, and no cargo space, but have less knowledge about how to make it go fast and, sometimes, less interest in actually making it go fast.

CONNELL: So, if we are to begin finding a natural end to the conversation, perhaps I can ask us what we’d like to see more of in AH fiction.

I think that, as a practical step forward, aspiring AH writers should try and write scenes set ‘at the kitchen table.’ Find the ordinary routine of characters- the ebb and flow of daily life, how they interact with their neighbours on the usual weekday, not at moments of high drama. If you’re really wedded to violence in drama, than at the very least you have grounded it in real human stakes. But I think that the more you understand how characters behave in the myriad of human experiences that are not violent, the more you will quite naturally discover ways to instigate and resolve conflict that don’t involve doing brutal things to your fictional people.

Picture lunch in a London restaurant where the Commonwealth never fell and Puritan attitudes hold sway; a wedding in modern Jerusalem where everyone is an Ottoman citizen; young girls going to see their favourite band from the Kingdom of Joseon. All scenes that could put you in a different world, intrigue the reader, might start a larger story or simply tell you who your protagonist really is.

MORTON: I would certainly endorse more ‘ordinariness’ in AH fiction such as stroppy teenagers, people trying to get a job, normal feelings like embarrassment along with ambition, recognition of failure, romance in the ordinary experience. However, good fiction needs to have a point, a purpose, so the natural driver is a ‘quest’ in its widest sense. It can be a heroic, non-heroic or comedic quest, as well as a world-changing one. I’m really pleading for variety…

SERRANO: The Alternate Peace anthology is a valuable example of that very needed turn away from military-obsessed fiction.

SALT: I guess I’m an echo chamber in that I’d agree with wanting fiction centered around small people that shows the depth of the world that way (ie, Tolkein’s distant vistas). As I said before, writing such a book was very enlightening and fun.

SERRANO: What we seem to be converging toward is in wanting to read literature that feels like literature. A timeline is not literature, nor is a customized map, nor a diagram of battle positions, nor a blueprint for a tank. AH enthusiasts who want to present us with a whole new world should strive to draw us fully into it, make us live it. Of course, that’s applicable to writers of all genres. It’s pretty standard craft advice. Maybe the problem is that AH hasn’t been attempting to be literature, which resonates with the critique that SF used to receive before the New Wave (and still receives from critics who haven’t heard that the New Wave happened).

Perhaps in this I sound too harsh toward timeline drafters who are happy to just enumerate casualty counts. That is part of AH, and it’s not a bad thing in itself. What I’ve been trying to say is that it should not be thought of as the central focus of AH. When I look at AH fandom and see this entire vibrant and very educated community formed around a literary genre, and it turns out that the topic they most discuss is, of all things, which side killed more soldiers, it strikes me as very strange. It’s like joining a forum of romance novel fans and discovering that their main activity is to catalog what brand of furniture the protagonist prefers. That’s not why most readers of books get into books, and it’s certainly not why I got into AH.

SALT: If no one objects, I’d like to make my closing statement now. I agree with Serrano’s above statement completely. The “cataloging the brand of furniture” analogy is like my own “the shape of the race car but not how fast it goes”.

I’ll admit it’s harder to make literature than it is to make summaries. I know this myself from writing books. But I feel the reward is so much greater, as both a writer and reader. I’ll conclude by saying that even a few truly literary elements-developed characters who you can discuss and analyze at all, even if flawed or shallow, a central plot and theme, etc-go a long way to make something more enjoyable and critiqueable. I know that trying to review flat internet AH timelines was an experience of frustration, while reviewing proper books has been largely one of wonder and excellence. And that’s what I think AH should inspire: Not a flat set of trinkets and things, but something that makes you feel a larger, more alive world lurks beyond the pages.

CONNELL: Readers won’t be aware that this discussion took place over the course of a month. As I write my closing statement, I can’t help but think that as we’ve discussed the portrayal of violence in fiction, the entire world has come to watch the invasion of Ukraine. It’s not the first war widely seen on social media by any means, of course. But the ubiquity of the images, the public captivation, the sheer scale of the tragedy have made me reflect on how inadequate much of our fiction is for trying to capture any truths about war. The Russian army’s poor performance in the first week of the war has led to a lot of jokes about how this will render many technothrillers out of date, and I smiled at them. And yet, and yet, the knowledge of the Russian army’s poor performance is cold comfort to any one watching- anyone in- a block of flats being destroyed by a rocket barrage. It means nothing to a mother trying to hold her children close in a bomb shelter.

I’m sorry to write a closing statement so shaped by the outside world, not the discussion that we’ve had, but it has reinforced my view that more than ever we have to move away from the alternate history that amounts to pushing armies around on a map. It is not just about finding alternatives to violence in our fiction, though that is needed too; it is that even our ‘military’ fiction needs to be better at showing some little, some pitifully inadequate part of what war means to the people on the ground. It does not mean ‘misery porn;’ wallowing in horror is as insulting as ignoring it. But though much of this discussion has been about finding ways to shape a narrative that are not based on characters using violence, we must be more aware of how characters are shaped by violence. How people are moved across continents, how human connections are severed and made, how cultures and customs adapt to the memory of struggle. This is the stuff of real history and real lives. And given how many other genres have dealt with this well- how many children’s books (Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Ian Serrailler’s The Silver Sword) - it is clear that this does not have to come at the expense of an engaging story.

I’ve often been quoted for my dictum that we need more ‘peasants, not kings’ in our fiction; if we are to write truthfully, convincingly and meaningfully about violence and power in alternate history we need more refugees as well.

SERRANO: Lately I’ve been giving much thought to the long legacy of wargaming, specifically the Prussian army training tool known as Kriegsspiel, which mutated, evolved and grew until its descendants blossomed in multiple directions. One of those branches became D&D; another became our modern form of AH. If I have to leave you with some concluding remarks, I think it’s healthy to acknowledge that the hobby we love has a less than admirable history, but we’re under no obligation to perpetuate it. We’re already witnessing a turn toward a more narrative and emotional use of the tools of both D&D and AH, and I find that very promising. Traditions exist to be questioned and improved upon.

MORTON: The original questions posed were: in focusing so much on war, what has alternate history as a genre lost? What should we do in the future? Much of alternate history fiction rests on war – ideology, power, body count – often with a macro rather than micro focus. Perhaps it’s an inheritance from historical fiction where a fair proportion of the genre concentrates on those things. But the most interesting historical fiction and literature is about people, whether they are kings, empresses, messengers or peasants.

In more modern times, a story about a serial shopper, a spy bristling with technology, a recovering alcoholic or a rogue financial trader is more enticing when it delves into their personality, emotions, memories and values. People cause events, whether in a local or global context.

We often hear in AH about the butterfly flapping its wings in a far away forest. I’d be interested in why that butterfly is there, what does it matter, who is the person who catalogues its zoology and what the implications are.

Alternate history by its name and central ethos is based on potential change. A good story is based on change. Although there may be some violence such as a fight or strong emotional conflict in a story – I write AH in a Roman style culture, after all – if it is not relevant or necessary, then for me the story fails. If we wish to intrigue readers, even provoke them to new thoughts or to change old ones, then AH must embrace the whole human condition and on a personal level.

WALLACE: I’d like to thank all the panellists for choosing to participate, and give my own final comment.

What this conversation has shown me is the malignant presence of what could be considered the alternate history genre’s ‘original sin.’ The act of asking ‘what if?’ in a systematic manner has strong continuities with military and otherwise elite planning, and as such has replicated a view of history through an elite lens. In other words, it does not view the input of those without political power as being valid, in some sense. The refugee does not matter, while the general does.

It is in some ways an immense tragedy. Our genre could be an immensely useful tool for looking at human societies in a way that is often neglected in academic history (as Richard J. Evans’ criticisms have noted - however it is worth saying that one of his criticisms is that AH was used for British imperial apologia). But what is done all too often is to repeat these narratives uncritically, to look at history as a Christmas tree’s worth of trinkets all for our amusement. It is a view that reminds of the truth of the saying that an individual death is a tragedy and a million is a statistic, one that can, all too often, border on cheap voyeurism and exploitation.

It also makes us forget the sheer cost of what we write about. I’m reminded of a passage that Vasily Grossman, a Ukrainian Jewish war correspondent for Pravda on the Eastern Front, wrote about seeing what had been done to the country by the Nazis:

"There’s no one left in Kazary to complain, no one to tell, no one to cry. Silence and calm hover over the dead bodies buried under the collapsed fireplaces now overgrown by weeds. This quiet is much more frightening than tears and curses.

Old men and women are dead, as well as craftsmen and professional people: tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, house painters, ironmongers, bookbinders, workers, freight handlers, carpenters, stove-makers, jokers, cabinetmakers, water carriers, millers, bakers, and cooks; also dead are physicians, prothesists, surgeons, gynaecologists, scientists – bacteriologists, biochemists, directors of university clinics – teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry. Dead are professors, lecturers and doctors of science, engineers and architects. Dead are agronomists, field workers, accountants, clerks, shop assistants, supply agents, secretaries, nightwatchmen, dead are teachers, dead are babushkas who could knit stockings and make tasty buns, cook bouillon and make strudel with apples and nuts, dead are women who had been faithful to their husbands and frivolous women are dead, too, beautiful girls, and learned students and cheerful schoolgirls, dead are ugly and silly girls, women with hunches, dead are singers, dead are blind and deaf mutes, dead are violinists and pianists, dead are two-year-olds and three-year-olds, dead are eighty-year-old men and women with cataracts on hazy eyes, with cold and transparent fingers and hair that rustled quietly like white paper, dead are newly-born babies who had sucked their mothers’ breast greedily until their last minute."

[The above can be found in A Writer at War, a collection of Grossman’s writings edited by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, in the twenty-first chapter The Killing Ground of Berdichev.]

It is this sort of suffering that our lens of history all too often obscures. It is what leads to fratricidal civil wars being used merely as a backdrop for great power conflict. It is what makes us think that the oppressed would run to support their oppressors. It is a lens that, when indulged in too much and too long, has deeply corrosive effects on how we view other human beings. It blunts our consideration and whittles at our empathy. It is something that, as empathetic human beings, we should be very careful to avoid, so that we as those who study the past can imagine a day when we can study war no more.



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