By Alexander Wallace, Gary Oswald, Matthew Kresal, Colin Salt and Mark Ciccone
Salt: Plausibility. That word has spawned a million arguments on the internet concerning fiction, and alternate history is no different. Entire settings have been elevated and torn down based on their perceived “plausibility”, or “accuracy”, or whatever you want to call it.
But like the story of the blind men each touching a different part of the elephant, it seems that everyone has their own interpretation of what “plausibility” is and how it should be applied. And like everything else in the genre, the approaches taken to plausibility in alternate history-if not its very meaning-have changed over the years.
I have brought forth four authors, critics, and scholars of alternate history to ask the questions:
What is plausibility? What are alternate history writers' obligations to plausibility?
I, Colin Salt, will serve as moderator. Our panelists are:
Alexander Wallace, contributor at Warped Factor and Sea Lion Press.
Gary Oswald, editor of the Sea Lion Press blog.
Mark Ciccone, author of multiple books on Sea Lion Press.
Matthew Kresal, author of Our Man on the Hill. And now we shall proceed to opening statements.
OSWALD: I’d say that a plausible scenario is one that passes the sniff test, essentially. A one where you go ‘yeah, I believe that this might have happened’.
Whether that’s important? That depends on what you’re trying to do. What the structure and format is, what the tone is and above all who the audience is.
Some of my favourite AH fiction are not remotely plausible and don’t aim to be. T.L Morganfield’s ‘Fugitives of Fate’ literally uses divine intervention by the Aztec gods to justify why the Spanish lose and Alex Acks’ Steampunk books have a Zombie invasion as their justification for the different political structure of what used to be the USA. What those books don’t do is dwell on the change, it’s a throwaway line to go ‘yep, things are different, don’t worry about how, it’s some magic nonsense’ and then you get onto the story because it’s the romance, the adventure and the characters which are those book’s selling points. The changed setting is there to remove obstacles to those adventures, in terms of allowing Morganfield to tell an Aztec romance without having to deal with the destruction of that society and giving Acks a weaker government to tell pirate stories in. The change is not the focus of the stories and so it doesn’t really need to be compelling or plausible in itself, it can be skipped past.
John Laband’s ‘The Fall of Rorke’s Drift’, on the other hand, is faux history written by possibly the world’s greatest living expert on the Anglo-Zulu war. The whole point of that book is that an actual historian is exploring in incredible detail how this war could have gone if this battle had gone slightly differently in the style of the sort of history book he writes about actual history. That book needs to be plausible, because that is its selling point. The focus is the change and how the armies react to that. Laband can’t rely on his characters and his adventures, because there aren’t any due to his faux history style. So he can’t have the Zulus win at Rorke’s Drift because of Zombies, it would betray the promise the book is making. He needs to justify the change as being possible because it’s a major part of his story.
The more time you spend on something, the more plausible it needs to be. I don’t need to believe that the Aztec gods stopped Cortez because that is ten pages of ‘Fugitives of Fate’ but I do need to believe that Cuauhtémoc and La Malinche love each other, because that’s the main plot. And plausibility is also relative. It’s a cliché that an expert in any field will see something as fantastic impossible nonsense that even a relatively educated person in a different field will completely buy as plausible. Amateur AH fiction tends to be aimed at an audience that is relatively well informed and so to writers aiming for that audience, plausibility quickly becomes a greater priority than one aiming for an audience which neither knows nor cares about the details of Operation Sealion.
There is also the perception that it is easier to be a great researcher like Laband than a compelling writer like Acks and so amateur writers often aim for the former because that seems more achievable.
WALLACE: I think there are two types of plausibility that are at play here. The first is the traditional form of plausibility as found within alternate history discussion circles - does the divergence from actual history feel believable, given, known facts thereof? It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask for in a genre that prides itself on being historically informed.
But when you take a look at the history of the genre, one can find that our understanding of history changes. What may seem plausible to one generation will feel far-fetched to the next, in no small part because our understanding of the past changes; take the fall of the Soviet Union and the archives that were made available to researchers, for one example. I’m also tempted to quote Orwell:
“Every nationalist is haunted by the belief that the past can be altered. He spends part of his time in a fantasy world in which things happen as they should – in which, for example, the Spanish Armada was a success or the Russian Revolution was crushed in 1918 – and he will transfer fragments of this world to the history books whenever possible. Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.”
We are then confronted with the fact that sometimes, people act according to a very different notion of plausibility, one I call ‘emotional plausibility.’ I feel that, when done egregiously bad, an emotionally implausible work can be even worse than a historically implausible work; this was my fundamental objection to James D. Nealon’s novel Confederacy of Fenians, which portrayed oppressed Irish running to support their oppressors win a war against a land that, for all its flaws, had given so many of them a home. It galled me, as someone of Filipino heritage, and as someone with a guerrilla fighter as a great-grandfather.
But on the other hand, a focus on emotional plausibility can likewise lead to distortions, oftentimes of a nationalistic variety. There are always traitors of the likes of Philippe Petain or Vidkun Quisling or Jose P. Laurel or Wang Jingwei. What we feel and what we think are perhaps the two forces that duel when we write alternate history.
CICCONE: For the first question, I feel that Gary puts it best—if the premise or POD “passes the sniff test”, whether in the eyes of the average reader or an AH devotee, then they’re considered plausible. To what level they are plausible will always vary from person to person, as Gary also points out.
As for obligations, I feel that perhaps the biggest is making clear how much different the world of the novel is because of the POD, depending on its scale. Otherwise, in my opinion, the work shades more into general fiction, scifi or fantasy, with a (often very thin) veneer of “AH”, perhaps intended to hook a wider audience that enjoys these broader genres.
The description of “Fugitives” makes me think of “Celestial Matters” by Richard Garfinkle and “The Age of Unreason” series by J. Gregory Keyes. In both cases, the world of the book is demonstrably changed, or “alternate”, due to what would be considered incorrect, pseudo- or “magic” science by us: Aristotelian physics and biology blended with Ptolemaic astronomy and Chinese Xi principles, in Garfinkle’s work, and alchemy, affinity and aether, in Keyes’. Historical figures still appear or are mentioned, alongside fictional ones, but their lives take very different courses from those we know, as do the histories of their worlds—all due to these altered (from our standpoint) laws of the universe. Although the authors may not have intended these works to be labeled AH (“Matters” is frequently called “hard science fantasy”), the worlds they describe are effectively such, and their describing the back-history and principles involved (rather than just presenting these as “magic nonsense” or equiv., without any explanation) adds to their plausibility a great deal, without taking away from whatever plot, quest or events are at the heart of the story. Doing otherwise doesn’t necessarily detract from what can be a thrilling story (I’m still wavering on picking up “His Majesty’s Dragon” due to its basic premise–dragons in Napoleonic warfare–for that reason), but if there’s little or no detail on what’s different enough to cause this scenario, then it’s better in my view to consider such a story fantasy rather than AH, and approach its plausibility from that angle.
KRESAL: To risk repeating what's been said before, I'm inclined to agree with Alex's perspective that there's two different kinds of plausibility at play here. There's Gary's "sniff test" (what a wonderful phrase!), which I know for me is the starting point for anything I personally write. "If x, y, and/or z had occurred, is this a likely outcome for events?" Take Mary Robinette Kowal's Lady Astronaut novels, and The Calculating Stars, especially, for example. They're driven by "If an asteroid hit the Earth in the early 1950s, could the technology of the time have jump started human space flight to the point of lunar colonies and a mission to Mars within the dozen or so years that follow?" The way Kowal lays things out, you can buy into the version of history she portrays across three different novels and various short stories.
Which brings us to the "emotional plausibility," as Alex put it earlier. Which itself, I think, is a version of the "sniff test." Sure, events might have played out in a particular way, one might argue, but does it feel like something that might actually have happened? It's the problem I had with the JFK dying in December 1960, causing LBJ to become POTUS in January 1961 scenario that Jeff Greenfield opened Then Everything Changed with, as he had LBJ acting differently on most issues except Cuba, where he followed JFK's moves almost to the letter. It's there so Greenfield can get Johnson into a version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it ignores that LBJ almost certainly wouldn't have made the same decisions around the Bay of Pigs invasion that set the stage for the crisis. It could have happened, perhaps, but it doesn't feel like what might have happened.
Which leads to this question: Is it better to be factually or emotionally plausible? As an author and reader, I'd argue it depends entirely on what story you're trying to tell. Both have their pitfalls, and, as I wrote about recently regarding the Battle of Midway, you're going to be at the whim of changing historical analysis and accounts. It's also an issue that works of secret history and even Sherlock Holmes pastiches face: what's plausible for one person won't be for someone else. What we’re looking at then is a case by case basis, rather than answering a wider single question.
OSWALD: I can only agree with Matthew on this one, that you do have to look at it on a case by case basis. I think mostly because AH is such a broad genre, that if you look at 10 AH pieces, they are trying to do ten different things.
If I was trying to make up a general rule, it would be 'ask yourself what the piece is focused on and make sure that bit feels plausible, feels immersive'.
Sometimes the story is about how the world changes and if it is then absolutely you need to make that feel possible, take the reader from real history to your new world with each step feeling likely.
But a lot of AH stories simply aren't. There have been many stories written about the horrors of a surviving Third Reich or a surviving CSA. If the story is set 50 years after WW2 or the American Civil War, how you get there doesn't really have to be plausible, arguably it doesn't even have to be explained, because that's not the focus. The 'emotional plausibility' of 'does this society feel like something that can realistically emerge from what existed?' or 'are these characters reacting to this society in a way that feels realistic?' is much more important.
If I thought my point of divergence wasn't plausible, that's how I'd tell the story, by starting after it happened and barely mentioning it.
But format also plays into this quite a bit. I think any story told in the 'faux history book' style has a much higher bar in terms of historical plausibility than a pure narrative, because there's nothing to distract you from the facts, whereas fun characters and good adventures can make you forgive a lot.
SALT: I cannot agree enough about how the format makes a big difference. Gary’s point about the ‘faux history book’ style and how it can’t rely on a narrative to cushion it is something I’ve seen.
But for a more positive example, wargaming is an instance of the kind of “How many B-52s can dance on the head of a pin” exact minutia actually being justifiable. Because it’s an interactive game, small changes in performance/composition can make a difference, so they do matter in ways they don’t in a non-interactive narrative.
KRESAL: Distance is the thing, I think, we're talking about here both in terms of time and space. In cinematic terms, whether you do it in close-up or a wide-shot. If you're aiming for the former and showing how events divulge as Mark did, for example, in A Bright, Cold Day, you almost have to get into the minutia. You have to know as much as you can about the moment in history you're playing with and altering because if the audience doesn't buy into it from that point, you're never going to have them. If I may flatter Mark, he did that with Orwell and the Spanish Civil War.
It's a tough nut to crack, and plenty of writers have fallen flat doing it. Robert Conroy's 1862 comes to my mind because the logic behind why Britain backed the Confederacy in the American Civil War after the Trent Affair didn't hold water as Conroy laid it out. Though 1862 is a novel with far more problems than just that, including the fact that his nineteenth-century characters' dialogues and sometimes attitudes read like what they are: something from a different century. It's surprisingly easy to overlook how much even the way people talk and move sells the plausibility of what you're presenting.
Moving forward in time gives you options. There's a reason why things like Fatherland and The Man in the High Castle work as Axis-victory novels, and it's because they don't have to worry about how that came across. True, there are plenty of hints dropped along the way in both, but what Robert Harris and Philip K Dick were after was more, as Gary pointed out, about exploring a world that could have come out of World War II going the other way. It's also a trick that British TV writer Robert Holmes used in a lot of his Doctor Who scripts, dropping in little references to things like World War IV and a siege of Reykjavik to make the world of his serials feel larger than were without showing them. Which, in turn, has become rich fodder for spin-off writers.
The difference being that while Holmes had a largely blank page to play with, alternate history writers do not. In some ways, the closer you are to events, the more dangerous ground you're treading. It's the difference between those Axis-victory works and something like Spike's failed series pilot: two works are distant, one is VERY close to events and based on false premises.
SALT: Matthew’s point about how Fatherland and High Castle hold up well because they don’t obsess over how the Axis victory happened reminds me of my two favorite conventional World War III books, Team Yankee and Red Army. Neither of those go into the big detail about how it starts either. Coyle in Team Yankee takes John Hackett’s background but doesn’t dwell on it, while Peters in Red Army simply doesn’t give a clear reason why the war started at all.
This approach is the exact opposite of what Larry Bond has done, and what some other followers like Northern Fury: H Hour have also tried to do in their Fuldapocalypses. That technique is to go into a large amount of detail justifying the plot. While this can work, I’m not really a fan of it. You get things like Red Storm Rising’s “we want to invade the Middle East, so we’ll invade Europe now, all so we can invade the Middle East later” conference room clunkiness, and it can make the book a lot bulkier in literary terms.
The two big contrivances one needs to follow in Hackett/RSR-type conventional World War III stories are “why did it start?” and “why has it stayed conventional”. And what’s really been interesting as I’ve seen the genre in full is that for the latter question, the answer is “it didn’t.” Red Storm Rising itself is actually an anomaly in that the war stays conventional from start to finish. Most of the others, including Hackett’s original, do have nuclear weapons being used in some fashion. Granted, that limited fashion is often contrived, but they’re still there.
Of course, for a discussion on plausibility, I have to bring up the second relevant thing I found as I explored the world of cheap thrillers. Namely, that most popular fiction writers are, to be blunt, really, really bad at basic details. I’m not even talking about stuff you could forgive as exaggerating/changing for dramatic effect like making a human too capable or with too great situational awareness. I’m talking frequently and constantly getting the absolute basic details of a weapons system wrong, details that could have been found easily, especially with the internet.
This is one of the big reasons why Larry Bond, who does know a thing or two about military platforms and how they operate, has grown on me. Because even if he’s not the most ideal in either, he’s still able to balance basic plausibility with basic storytelling. Compare him (or for that matter earlier Tom Clancy) to someone like the infamous Ian Slater, William W. Johnstone, or even the dreaded James Patterson. The difference is night and day.
And what I’ve seen from some of the older school of internet alternate history enthusiasts is a kind of reaction to these less plausible thriller writers. There was/is an understandable frustration with them, so seeing something that checked the technical boxes, even if the politics were implausible or the story clunky/nonexistent, was a delight. I could go on and on about how I’ve seen the attitude towards the plausibility question change, but since this statement is long enough, I’ll just ask the others: How have you seen attitudes/approaches to plausibility change in the fandom since you got into alternate history?
OSWALD: It’s a tricky one to answer Colin, because I have only been in AH spaces for 7 and a half years whereas there have been people who have been posting about AH in online for 30 years and so by the time I came onto the scene a lot of the etiquette, in terms of butterflies and not using people born after the POD, was firmly in place.
I think again AH is such a broad genre that it is difficult to say anything generalised. For a start, what was common rules in those spaces wasn’t the rules in professional fiction, which almost always use characters born after the POD. So even those rules were only ever in this very minority niche space.
In terms of that space, it’s again complicated. On the one hand, I’ve been reposting 25 year old essays on the blog and there’s a bit more hand waving with those then you could get now. I can believe the modern audience is much more rigorous in terms of critiquing pieces for historical inaccuracy.
On the other hand I’ve seen the growth of online fiction being written with the intention of publishing thanks to Sea Lion Press, Sgt. Frosty Publications, Inklings Press etc. So something that was happening around about 8 years ago in those spaces was the growth of limited stories with a focus rather than sprawling world building timelines and they tended to have disclaimers that strict plausibility has less of the goal than the story.
So I guess there’s simultaneously more pressure to be plausible on faux history book type dry timelines and less pressure to write stories in that format, which means less pressure to be plausible. But it’s all relative, in a forum of amateur/professional historians even the more out there stuff is more historically vigorous than most mainstream books.
I mentioned Sgt. Frosty Publications above and I do think David Flin’s upcoming book ‘The Nitpicker’s Guide to Ancient Warfare’ is interesting in this context cos it’s essentially saying ‘Hey a lot of mainstream fiction gets these details massively wrong, let’s do it better’ which is like you say part of the motive for this. Ultimately the Peter Jackson LOTR films, which David criticizes for their portrayal of warfare, are excellent and hugely popular for good reasons, an amateur writer is not going to be able to match that for spectacle or emotion. But we can be more authentic, it’s the one angle Hollywood has left for us, we can write for that audience who moan about the logistics of the siege of Minas Tirith.
WALLACE: From what I can tell, having joined the fandom in the early 2010s focused at first on the AH Wikia and then on AH.com, it feels to me that soft AH has become much more acceptable in community discourse. There’s much less haggling over what is and isn’t ‘plausible,’ however you define it, and I’ve found it to be far more conducive to the writing of good alternate history.
KRESAL: I'm a relative newcomer to the fandom, having been at the edges of it until the last couple of years, so I'm not sure I can speak to and for the fandom at large. Alex's comment, though, does make me think about the question of medium and audience. Because that plays into the plausibility discussion that we're having here.
One of those pieces of writing advice we've all heard is "know your audience." If you're writing something for a topic-centric forum, that means a dedicated audience to something (in this case, alternate history) capable of picking your story/timeline apart. "This wouldn't happen because of X, Y, Z," or "That piece of technology wouldn't be there because such and such happened."
Writing for a more general audience, which is what you're doing if you're doing a short story or a novel usually, is a different ballgame. That's true of TV and film with something like Apple's For All Mankind, for that matter. In that case, you're going to grab someone in a bookstore or library, browsing Amazon in the case of books. Or, for on-screen stuff, seeing an ad or trailer or scrolling through a streaming service and going, "That looks interesting." That audience isn't going to be an expert on the Second World War or the Space Race, but they'll tag along for something with enough trappings and groundings in reality they can buy into it.
What's changed, I think, is the target audience, which in turn had a wider effect on the community.
SALT: In my personal experience, I can agree with Alex about how there’s more of an understanding of “soft AH” than there was in the past. Looking at the infamous Draka series, which was in the past famously crushed for its implausibility, my reaction was “but would you even expect it to be plausible if you didn’t know the argument's context? I don’t think so.”
The glass half empty interpretation of how plausibility has developed is that the growing internet fandom, including those of admittedly less knowledgeable people, has led to stuff like the “Dark = Realistic” and “Detailed = Realistic” fallacies being accepted (which, to be fair, happens in other fiction, Game of Thrones being the highest-profile example). Also in that half-empty glass is stuff like how it’s a lot easier to pluck names and things without knowing their historical context, and just Sturgeonism (a lot of everything inevitably being low-quality) being amplified by internet writing with few/no barriers to entry.
But the glass half full interpretation, which I’ve increasingly grown towards, is that there are legitimately more deep resources, and that the proliferation of AH fiction means that there’s room for sophisticated or niche works that there didn’t use to be. I mean, I can criticize the setup of conventional WWIIIs till the cows come home, but guess how many books of that nature involving a conventional WWIII that takes place before the book’s publication date but after the Vietnam War have been released by big presses as of this writing?
It surprised me, but it’s true: Zero. The absolute closest are a Robert Conroy book set after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a Harry Turtledove series about the Korean War turned Third World War. If you’re looking for even technical plausibility, suddenly that Harvey Black self-published Fuldapocalypse doesn’t look so bad in comparison. You can’t argue the plausibility of something that doesn’t exist.
In any event, what have some of your own experiences with research and plausibility been? My favorite example is in one of the Smithtown books where I deliberately rewrote a fight scene to make it (even) less realistic by having the main character do a pro wrestling elbow drop.
CICCONE: It might seem strange on some level, but one of my favorite experiences (and one that never fails to bring relief and laughter when it happens again) is finding out little but significant errors in terms of equipment, sayings, clothing, etc, even after copious research on that or the story in general. For example, one of my first works, Red Delta (plot in a nutshell: CSA wins, then falls apart, with a Vietnam-style situation eventually arising in Mississippi between a white-controlled gov’t and black guerrillas) had a scene with characters eating MREs. However, the person who was doing beta-reading on the draft pointed out that MREs didn’t exist until the 1980s, and the story was set in 1973; a notable gaffe, even allowing for the story’s AH nature. Some writers might be irritated at having to correct that kind of mistake, or that they made it in the first place, but I felt an odd kind of excitement (perhaps similar to the kind that folks who enjoy rivet-counting feel when everything’s done according to blueprints :) ) that someone had pointed it out, along with the relief that it had happened well before the book made it to Kindle and paperback.
Similar vibes come up when I find something that works right off the bat, or close to it, as happened with my work Dixie Curtain and its (currently in draft form) sequel, A House United. In the first story, I was researching everything from major monuments in 1960s Washington, D.C., to the types of cars, computers, clothing and radio/walkie equipment that would’ve existed at the time, and exploring the likelihood/plausibility of them still appearing in OTL or other forms. Given the “CSA wins” nature of the AH story, including something like the Lincoln Memorial, to take one example, wouldn’t have been too likely, so I dug into the history of the Memorial’s construction, then came up with my own, substitute edifice that felt plausible according to the political and historical tensions of the story. Same thing with cars: Chevies still seemed plausible, though maybe with a slight number or name change, while CSA models were almost out of thin air; “Lee” was an easy name choice, in that case. For the second story, I had to figure out a way to hide a couple cabinets’ worth of classified paper files, with no means beyond what the late 1980s-1990 had to offer in OTL. In the midst of pondering this, I remembered the breadbox-type cases filled with 3 1/2 floppy disks that were always on my dad’s desk. A few minutes of research proved just one of those would do the trick for the amount of files in mind, and I had a good long laugh at the memory and how it had helped.
When it comes to fight scenes and other actions, as you describe, Colin, it’s a little harder, but still fun. In Dixie Curtain, my lead characters are in their prime, or close to it: late 20s-early 30s, with law enforcement or military training, occasionally hard-drinking, nonsmokers (probably an anomaly in the 1960s, but a trait I often include given my bias against the habit). Not Olympic athletes, but more than capable of meeting the demands of a manhunt, firefight, etc, with changes made when they’re outnumbered, drugged, or beat-up and woozy from earlier exertion/battles. In AHU, the characters are mid-late 50s, so while they’ve kept themselves fit, far more so than most their age, they can’t do chases or shootouts with the same ability or speed that they could 30 years earlier; thus, I had to write action scenes with a voice in my head going “Yeah, they can manage a sprint, for a short stretch…No, they cannot jump or take a punch that way without more than one bone breaking.” If I’m writing something with more of a fantasy/magic element (as I will be for this year’s NNWM) or involving highly-advanced tech like genetic engineering, it’s less of a barrier for me to write aged characters doing lightning-fast sword- and gunplay (or wrestling moves, haha). When I write AH, though, I find that plausibility, for me, demands I keep such to a minimum, or not include it at all.
KRESAL: The entire issue of plausibility nearly led me not to write Our Man on the Hill, believe it or not. When I had the idea for what I initially called "Joe McCarthy: KGB" in 2017 while reading the non-fiction book The Haunted Wood, I just about laughed the idea out of my head. True, I had this entire 400 or so page book sitting there in front of me with stories of Americans who had spied for Stalin's Soviet Union, including a New York congressman in the years leading up to World War II, but the idea seemed absurd. Thankfully, I had someone (in this case, my best friend and, later on, a couple of other people) who told me to pursue the idea and do some more research.
The weird thing was that the more research I did, the more I found ways to make it plausible. Little details in a couple of biographies, like the meeting between then-presidential candidate Eisenhower and Senator McCarthy, where no one knows what anyone said except it got heated before Eisenhower went from about to condemn McCarthy publicly to shaking hands with him at a rally. Or the details of the little war, as it were, between the CIA and McCarthy. Those things helped me take an idea that seemed outlandish and ground it in a reality, enough that I felt comfortable using as the basis for what became a novel.
Ian Fleming used a wonderful phrase about research in the James Bond novel On Her Majesty's Secret Service that seems applicable here: "Nuggets in a wasteland." Alternate history and this question of plausibility come down to finding those nuggets in one's research, cashing them in, as it were. Moonshot in Alternate Australias was a case of that, as was an earlier story in the same universe called White Knight published over on Vocal's Futurism page, where my reading up on different ways NASA might have gone to the Moon and the British Interplanetary Society's 1946 Megaroc proposal collided together. It's one of the things I try to do with anything I write in this field, even the vignette contest entries on the forum. There's still the odd moment where you have to show your work, as it were, but there's a particular history nerd fun in doing that.
SALT: Great answers from all of you. If no one objects, shall we proceed to closing statements?
OSWALD: So in terms of closing statements. I think it's been an interesting discussion and I've been fascinated to hear from Matthew and Mark, who are far more prolific writers than I am.
What I keep coming back to is that plausibility has so many meanings and AH is trying to do so many things that you could answer the question a hundred times and still not cover every possibility. In my own writing, I would say I care quite a lot about plausibility because I write about countries and time periods that I do a lot of reading about and so try and at least attempt to capture a realistic society emerging from that. But I very rarely care about the plausibility of getting there.
When I have written about a surviving Kingdom of Haiti or a surviving Kingdom of Dahomey, I studied the laws and customs of those places and tried to project that forward in a way that makes sense to me, I ended up actually rewriting the Haitian story because I didn't buy my original conclusions about religion for instance, but I don't really care about explaining how the Kingdoms survived the events that overthrow them in otl. I don't have an answer to that in my head, I just accept that they did so I have a story.
I would still consider that very grounded AH but I know there will be people who view it as no different than 'Zombies made it happen'. And likewise there will be people who view the key point as to how plausible an AH is, how well explained it is how it got there from our reality rather than how realistic the societies are.
I believe the goal is immersion i.e. producing a story which readers can enjoy without getting caught up with 'wait, that makes no sense' because it feels plausible. However I think ultimately different readers will be hung up on different things, so it's impossible to achieve universal immersion.
WALLACE: I think that, ultimately, this discussion revolves around what we want the alternate history genre to be. You have at least two different conceptions: of a series of simulations, or as literature. You can do both, and there are long traditions of both, and the fact that the two are bootstrapped together in the same community has led to much tension therein.
If you’re doing a simulation, something like a wargame, you want as much historically accuracy as you can (within certain parameters - I notice a distinct tendency towards a desire for accurate weapons and equipment, but not so much concern for accuracy in regards to human suffering). If the goal is to see how the US Army and the Soviet Army would have duked it out in the plains of northern Germany, you want to know all the idiosyncrasies of the materiel involved. You want to know doctrine. You want to know the terrain.
But I find myself drawn more towards alternate history as literature, and I think there the genre can be very strong. In science fiction and fantasy, one of my favorite authors is Robert Silverberg (who also dabbled in alternate history; Roma Eterna is very good). All of his fantastic stories are in some way parables, commentaries on the human condition. I find his sort of writing to be quite applicable to alternate history, and in our genre it may well be more potent because our speculation is far more grounded in the real.
This divide is at its core a battle for the soul of the genre, and the two different forms of plausibility are on opposite sides of that long and deep valley. Ultimately, they pose to us a potent question: do we care about the fighter plane, or the pilot?
CICCONE: I feel that Alex raises excellent points on the issue of simulations (“counterfactuals”, as historians and other academics might call them, with varying degrees of amusement or disdain) versus literature in AH, their respective strengths and weaknesses, and the ideal instances where one or the other is the best approach for a project. I would argue, however, that there is less tension or such a “long and deep valley” between the two as he suggests, or that they represent entirely opposite forms of plausibility. While these are certainly distinct styles, and it may not be possible (or at best more difficult than in other cases) to achieve a perfect balance of “simulation”- and “literature”-type writing, I believe it is possible to blend the two to the point where the author and the writer can answer “Both” to the “fighter plane or pilot” question. I’ve found versions of this blend in many different AH works (Collaborator by Murray Davies, specific Turtledove writings, Harris’s Fatherland, the Inshallah duology, Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Underground Airlines, to name just a few), and while the emphasis on either accurate figures/tech/garb/etc. or literary element(s) is always variable, with one slightly or greatly preeminent over the other, a plausible, enjoyable world and story are inevitably the end result, in my experience.
In closing, I believe that this mixture is the ideal state of plausibility (the “immersion” goal, as Gary describes) that the AH genre should aspire to. This doesn’t at all prohibit authors from writing specifically “simulation” or “literature” AH, nor does it imply one is ultimately superior to the other, separately or blended, when it comes to what is “plausible.” Yet if an AH work possesses engrossing enough characters and settings alongside close–albeit relaxed when appropriate–attention to the “rivets” aspect, it reaches that ideal state for me, and provides another example of the level of AH writing that I personally strive to attain.
KRESAL: It's been an interesting experience taking in others' thoughts on the issues, particularly those far more read-up than I am. In many ways, particularly with Alex and Mark's comments, I feel that the question of plausibility we've discussed here involves a bigger question for alternate history and the arts in general. Namely, as Alex put it, what do we want alternate history to be? Is it a genre of ideas and counterfactual simulations or one of story and literature? It is only in answering that question that I think we can answer where plausibility comes into play.
For me, there's room for both approaches. That's because of audiences, by and large. You can do simulations in an online forum or a non-fiction format. That's an extension of wargaming and rivet counting. Getting that to sell on an actual bookshelf is another proposition, especially for a general audience.
It's there where the literary side comes into play, the place to tell stories with characters and plots. Doing so, like dramatizing actual events, means condensing, conflating, and even inventing for dramatic convenience. Just as some criticize docudramas for taking too many liberties, the same has been true of alternate history. Sometimes deserved, sometimes not, but it's there.
Plausibility then is reliant upon the audience and what the author is trying to do with their work. "Know thy audience," to conflate a pair of old axioms. Tell a story, make someone understand how events (however unlikely from the point of view of this world in which we live in) came to pass, immerse them in it, and an audience can forgive a multitude of sins. Insult the audience's intelligence, as some of the examples we've cited during this panel do, and you've lost the battle no matter what other merits might be in your favor. It's a fine line to walk, and authors do so at their peril. That's the beauty and terror of what we do.
In the final analysis, we all have the same tools, and how we use them defines how plausible something is or isn't for our audience. Tell the story you want to tell and tell it well. Do it right, and almost anything is plausible.