As someone once said: "I'm listening." It was either Big Brother or Frasier, though it can be hard to tell the difference.
Last week, we had a panel discussing the course AH is taking. This week, a different panel looks at he current state of AH in its various guises. Allow me to introduce the panellists:
Thomas Anderson: Author of the acclaimed Look To The West series, the sci-fi tale Twilight’s Last Gleaming, and editor of the Great War anthology N’Oublions Jamais, all published by SLP.
Liam Connell: Long-time student of history and doyen of the obscure.
David Flin: Just here to make up the numbers. Owner of Sergeant Frosty Publications.
Nicholas Sumner: Author of the Drake’s Drum series, published through SLP.
Burton K Wheeler: Long-term member of the AH community.
How did you get involved in AH?
I first came across the concept through the game Command & Conquer: Red Alert and then heard about Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle when it was mentioned in the Science of Discworld books. However, it was Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series that really got me invested in the subject, as at that point (about 2002), they were on the shelves of mainstream bookshops in the science fiction section and I became intrigued from the description. Those were also responsible for getting me more interested in history in general, as I realised that even in a seemingly saturated topic like WW2, school history had left out a lot of things that interested me. Tony Jones’ AH website was my first introduction to grand, sweeping AH worldbuilding to create a setting.
Burton K Wheeler:
Like virtually everyone else who’s reading this, I was a history nerd and a voracious reader with no taste as a teenager and young adult. The first AH influences I can remember are the Harry Turtledove TL-191 novels and also various short AH collections like What If and Harry Turtledove and Martin Greenberg’s The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century. I recall seeing Worldwar and the Draka books in the library at around the same time and rejected them as being too silly, so I guess I had a pretty grognardy approach to things.
Poul Anderson’s Eutopia made me start contemplating a TL with an eternal Roman empire that leads to global integration and the Columbian exchange in a very premodern way, and I played with this idea on and off before googling “alternate history” in a fit of boredom and registering for Alternatehistory.com, where I posted approximately 30 years-worth of the eternal Rome TL before giving it up forever.
As I think about this, I recall my brother and I talking about a hybrid Viking-native American society when I would have been 11 or 12, before reading any of these books, so maybe Turtledove was just incidental.
I suppose it was reading Robert Harris’ Fatherland years ago, but more recently through Tony D’Guilan’s Battleship vs Battleship message board, which I stumbled across in 1998. It quickly morphed into a group of message boards on different topics including a board devoted to fiction. I also found an online story called What If Gordon Banks Had Played? which imagines a very different Britain in the 1970s and 80s as a result of the England football team playing a different goalkeeper in a vital match.
What if he had played on 14 June, 1970? Better than Bonetti.
When I was a kid, I tried to work my way right across the Sci-Fi/Fantasy shelves of the Christchurch Central Library. It was an education in esoterica – you’d read two books of a trilogy that was never finished, books 3-5 of an epic fantasy that had gone out of print in the 1980s, and short story collections with titles like: “The Twenty-Seventh Annual Best Canadian Vampire Adventure Stories.”
And it had Harry Turtledove.
Actually, I first encountered his work through a battered copy of Guns of the South inherited from my uncle, but it was the Central City Library that saw me push through How Few Remain and the rest of TL-191, Ruled Britannia, Agent of Byzantium, and all the rest. I delighted in it. It wasn’t the only alt-history or alt-history adjacent work I encountered – Thomas Harlan’s The Shadow of Ararat was a fun little oddity, for instance, but something about the Turtledove books got me hooked. I wasn’t entirely uncritical even then – the World War series didn’t do anything for me. But when you compared them to things like Harry Harrisons execrable Trent War series, they were a wonderful body of work.
I wouldn’t recommend Turtledove to an adult reader encountering the genre for the first time, but they remain – and I mean this with no trace of irony or criticism – the sort of ripping yarn that will hook a twelve year old.
A few years later, I encountered Robert Cowley’s What If essays, which showed me that you could actually try and think through the implications of a counterfactual question. Around the same time, I also got into spy fiction, so Len Deighton’s SSGB was a favourite, and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union showed me that alternate history didn’t just have to be fun, it could actually be ‘proper’ writing as well.
I hung around alternatehistory.com for a while, but it wasn’t until I came to the Sealion Press forums and the vignette challenges that I really found an AH community that I really felt part of.
For me, it was largely by accident. I wasn’t really interested in history at the time, and I couldn’t see much point debating it as it couldn’t be changed. It all seemed so academic.
However, my wife, Alison, was an active member of the usenet group soc.history.what-if (SHWI) around the turn of the century. I occasionally got called in to give an expert view on certain esoteric subjects being debated, but I was basically a tourist.
Then Alison became ill and died. She had been writing a TL (The Flashman Option) and, knowing how much she hated loose ends, I went onto the group to finish it off. Then I found that I was hooked.
What are your main interests in AH?
Imagining better worlds than our own.
I am most interested in the ‘worldbuilding’ aspects of AH (although that must always come second to telling a good story). The genius of well-told AH is that it makes one realise and reflect on how arbitrary many of the things we take for granted are, and rest on a few happenstance decisions and events. Again, Tony Jones is a master of this. It is pretty obvious that if Germany won the First World War, we would be watching different television programmes, but perhaps less so that we probably wouldn’t even be calling it ‘television’, for example. Because of this, I enjoy AH stories whose plots take our characters through a variety of places and settings for environmental storytelling.
Grand-scope background timelines (such as describing an alternative WW2 in great detail) can also be fun, but I think that all comes secondary to narrative storytelling.
Burton K Wheeler:
I originally had the childish obsession with wars and wargaming, and the first thing I recall doing with my Roma Aeterna-Viking New World stereotype TL was try to work out what a Roman Legion intended to defeat Migration Period enemies in Central Europe would look like.
As I’ve matured, I’d say that ecology and culture (as a function of ecology) is more interesting to me than anything else, imagining how people could live in a place, and trying to understand things in terms of human geography rather than lines on a map.
I’ve never written a completed TL or long form AH story in my 17 years of being part of the Internet AH community, but I find being surrounded by people who are not only historically literate but also think about history in a critical way, where they do the intellectual equivalent of taking it apart and examining the pieces, to be really rewarding. I often find myself overestimating the historical literacy of even very educated and intelligent people, and my mind is blown that sometimes people will actually read a book without considering the historical context of when it was published.
I think that one’s personal historical interests, alternate or otherwise, should inform whatever other creative outlets they have. If one is capable of writing a detailed timeline, or a novel set in a alternate setting that has a good reason to be in that setting, that’s great, but we shouldn’t feel limited to imitating other AH media. We should be making the media we want to make and stirring in our historical interests.
There are two different strands that really interest me. Professionally speaking, I’m interested in the mechanics of empire. Imperialism and colonialism are often whitewashed in AH, but more than that, they’re often portrayed as coherent enterprises in a way that they often weren’t in practice. I’d like to see British Empire timelines, for example, that do more to explore how differently the empire could be experienced depending on your perspective. Not just through the eyes of the colonised – though they are too often ignored. But I’d also like to see more exploration of the messiness of imperial governace – we often assume that there was such a thing as a British imperial policy. However, that often wasn’t true. Depending on the region or the circumstances, you might see multiple, contradictory policies being set by the Foreign Office, the Admiralty, the Colonial Office, the Prime Minister, the local governor, the India Office, local settlers, corporate interests, et cetera.
So, I’d like to see more writing that gets into the strangeness and complexities of empire.
My other, much sillier interest is pastiche. I’m also fascinated by how we tell stories, how we write about things. I love to imagine the works of fiction and non-fiction that exist in another timeline – what would George Orwell write about Suez? How would Aphra Benn write about a surviving Commonwealth? My own little dabblings include takes on alternate versions of Mary Shelley, Gerald Durrell, and P.G. Wodehouse, and I’m currently neglecting an experimental story that tells an ancient historical story through the tropes and themes of Lord of the Rings. You can probably blame this interest in another author I found in the library, Kim Newman, whose wonderful Anno Dracula series deftly blends horror, black comedy, alternate history, and a remarkably wide bench of characters from pop culture.
For me, I’m first looking for a good story. It sounds pretty basic – and it is – but I would rather read a good story with an implausible background history than a detailed history that has no interesting story. The background history to The Man In The High Castle is pretty second-rate at best, but the story is a classic.
I’m very much in the Narrative Camp. Worldbuilding is, for me, merely a support to the story, to provide a good stage upon which interesting characters do interesting things.
To give an example, the background history for my story Six East End Boys is sketchy, to say the least. It basically consists of: “In 1984, Thatcher was killed in the Brighton Bombing. Bad things happen. Thirty years later...” We don’t need to know the details in between, as they are not relevant to the story. The book stands or falls on whether the reader engages with the characters and what happens.
First and foremost, an AH story has to be a good story. Then the history has to be good, and only then do I worry about how the history has changed.
Lest Darkness Fall, by L Sprague de Camp, is a good example. It’s not without flaws, but it has a good central character, interesting supporting characters, and a clear story to tell. It’s a bonus that the history is solid and well-described, and that the changes that arise are logical consequences of what has gone before.
This perhaps explains why I have written very few Timelines. I think my last was The Death of Lt Arthur Windsor, RN – a look at the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the mid-1970s. It was something of a challenge, as I didn’t plot out how it would develop. I simply wrote it day-by-day, making decisions purely on what had gone before, and let it take its course. I also applied the central conceit that I would write 1 day of history, in the form of snippets of news from here and there, in 1 day of real-life. I’ll leave it to others to say how well or otherwise that approach worked for them.
What is the current state of AH?
I’m not as conversant with online AH discussion and publishing as I once was. I feel we have entered something of a semi-golden age of AH becoming more generally understood by the public; not only are there explicitly AH TV shows like The Man in the High Castle and For All Mankind, but mainstream popular superhero films and TV have also helped demystify the concept of the multiverse and time travel to a broader audience. I am not sure, however, if ‘traditional’ AH writers and producers are in the best position to take advantage of this.
My impression is that it is robust, healthy and full of possibilities.
Burton K Wheeler:
In response to the previous two questions, I’ve been talking about alternate history as we internet nerds understand it and what alternate history means to me. As a literary genre, AH, well, isn’t. A lot of good short stories and novels can be written around an AH premise (once again endorsing the Turtledove and Greenberg collection), but there isn’t really an AH genre that can be dissected easily.
There’s stuff like Jewish Policeman’s Union and Plot Against America, which are literary fiction using an AH premise, SM Stirling and Eric Flint’s novels about counterfactual societies, and some stuff that’s straight up pulp about Roman Legions being teleported to the Aztec Empire or whatever. The only person who does something that’s straighforwardly writing about alternate timelines is Harry Turtledove, but you’ll notice that he doesn’t really have imitators. AH as a literary genre has only one thing in common, that it uses historical counterfactuals to explore the present. One reason that Turtledove doesn’t have imitators is that despite his long series being pretty mediocre, he understands what an AH book should be and always writes about common people caught up in the sweep of history, plus the fact I think “Harry Turtledove” is basically a handy marketing label for AH potboilers with easy elevator pitches.
Internet AH is a very tiny niche thing and our obsession with realism and butterfly nets and so on is at odds with what 99.99% of people are seeking from an AH novel.
Amazon making niche publishing viable, and Sea Lion Press carving out a very specific niche of alternate history for historical obsessives, is a great positive step, at least for us historical obsessives and voracious readers.
There are two factors at play here: firstly, the style of AH being produced, and secondly, the outlets.
To take the second point first, there has been an explosion in the number and variety of outlets for AH (along with every other genre). Where once the choice was between magazine, paperback, and hardback, we now also have Podcasts, e-books, audio books, Discord servers, Facebook, Twitter, and goodness knows what else.
With my publisher’s hat on, what I’ve seen is a proliferation of outlets. The costs to entry have never been lower. Which means that there is a lot of stuff out there. Whereas before, potential authors had to jump through a number of hoops to get published, now someone can self-publish without too much difficulty.
The consequence of that is that there is a huge variability in quality. Not just in the quality of the story – which can be very subjective – but also in the quality of the actual writing. Finding good quality AH has become something of a challenge. The Amazon algorithm is notoriously inadequate, flagging up straight history as alternate history.
From the publisher’s point of view, marketing has become increasingly important. There’s so much stuff out there trying to get the attention of casual readers that the quality has to find ways of drawing attention. Reliable publishers, specialist reviews, word of mouth – all have become vital.
Even – dare I say it – blogs on specialist AH websites reviewing AH novels.
Taken as a whole? It’s stronger than ever.
Oh, it’s got big problems. It always has. But in the past few years we have had not one, not two, but three major works of counterfactual television on big networks: For All Mankind, The Plot Against America, and The Man in the High Castle. Stephen King’s 11/12/63 was a bestseller and his most significant work in a decade, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars won both a Hugo and a Nebula.
One recent work I loved was Shelly Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, which is a retelling of the rise of the first Ming Emperor that incorporates some supernatural elements and a delightful alt-history framework.
Now, as to Internet AH? That’s in a slightly more vulnerable spot. I think that the golden age of alternate history timeline is probably over. There’s no nice way to say this, but I think most of the good creators have increasingly turned to vignettes and long-form fiction, leaving timelines increasingly to people uncomfortable with anything other than the barest prose.
There are exceptions; I regularly check on several timelines in alternatehistory.com. But while I may be a young fogey, I don’t think that we’re seeing anything like the output of the early 2010s, when a reader could find regular updates from Ed Thomas or Jonathan Edelstein.
Does mainstream AH have a problem with a fascination for WW2 and the American Civil War?
Burton K Wheeler:
No, of course not. Those are probably the two biggest turning points in American history, and periods of history a lot of people have an awareness of. There simply isn’t going to be “mainstream” AH for an English-speaking primarily American audience that isn’t about our best-known and most significant historical events. Books get sold on the elevator pitch, and “what if the Nazis won and the Cold War was with them” is an easy elevator pitch compared to, say, the Kalmar Union surviving, or whatever.
Secondly, big dramatic wars are an easy thing to market potboiler books about, and a lot of people like books about big dramatic wars, whether they’re historical, counterfactual, in space, or between elves and orcs.
I’m aware that non-English markets, particularly Russia, have lots of very political AH novels that reflect their specific current circumstances and national myths, in a similar vein to Newt Gingrich’s axe grinding work. I’d like to see the front page here have articles from international members about alternate history published in their languages.
I’ll see what I can do.
This is a common complaint, and while there is some truth to it, I feel it’s overblown. I think it stems from endless roundabout discussions on AH discussion forums covering the same clichéd points over and over again. However, I feel there’s still plenty of scope for new AH fiction based on PODs from WWII and the ACW, and we shouldn’t turn our nose up at something which the average AH newbie might be more conversant with and interested in. Again, I remind you that I myself got into AH because Turtledove’s Worldwar taught me not only about AH, but also that there was more to WWII than: “Poland, Blitz, Battle of Britain, Holocaust, D-Day” as I had learned in school. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make an effort to explore history outside the well-worn topics, of course. There is a common complaint that the history in AH is Eurocentric or Western-centric. I think it’s a valid criticism, but the problem is that an audience needs to be conversant with the real history that happened in OTL before you start to change it. This is one reason why topics like the ACW are so popular. So, if we want to see more AH focused on the rest of the world, we first need to think about how to communicate the real OTL history of it to start with. A good AH writer can do both at once, of course.
Yes. So does non-mainstream AH. We have to remember that Internet alternate history sites are a tiny niche!
However, I’m actually a lot more optimistic about the genre’s direction in this area. I think that For All Mankind is a good sign because it’s just a good popcorn show; not prestige TV, but a fun weekly watch, and the fact that the creators and the network were confident enough to pitch an alt-history show with nary a Confederate in sight is a good sign. Mind you, it’s got Werner von Braun, so I suppose that’s your Nazi representation right there.
More generally, I think there’s a lot more mainstream AH from more diverse authors – I think that part of the glut of Confederate and Nazi fiction is that that’s the part of history that sticks in the mind of the mid-western, mid-century, mid-brow demographic who were overrepresented in the publishing industry for so long.
Where we do still have a problem is gaming – from the new Wolfenstein games to the hugely popular The New Order mod for Hearts of Iron IV, alternate history in the fastest growing entertainment industry is still dominated by old-school Nazi victories. There are exceptions, like the delightfully anticolonial Jules Verne game 80 Days by Inkle Studios, but they are few and far between. Paradox Studios, for their part, have increasingly offered alternate history options in Hearts of Iron that allow the far-right part of their fan base to vicariously live out their fantasies, from passing a new Chinese Exclusion Act to (deporting Poland’s Jews), sorry, sending settlers to Madagascar.
I’d like to see change there, but I have little hope.
Those two events have a tremendous appeal for many, partly because they are so well studied. To what extent does the focus of Alternate History writers follow that of Real History (for want of a better term) writers? If Alternate History is overly fascinated by those two events, perhaps it’s because Real History is overly fascinated by those two events.
More generally, what are the biggest problems facing mainstream and genre AH?
I would say the disconnect between the engaged AH writers and producers and the audience. The factors I mentioned in an earlier question have potentially created a new receptive audience, and we need to find ways to take advantage of it. There is also the point that traditional publishing is still lagging behind what audiences want – not just in AH, but in a number of areas. It is “Common Knowledge” that nobody will buy worldbuilding-focused background timeline stuff rather narrative story telling, but my bank balance says otherwise, thanks to SLP.
I would echo Tom’s response to this question, particularly with regards to the way traditional publishing is out of step with what audiences are looking for. In a way, it’s more difficult for them than ever. Small presses like SLP can serve a niche market more effectively than a mainstream publisher whose need to maximise economies of scale limits what they can publish to something that will have wide appeal.
Burton K Wheeler:
I simply don’t know there’s much to say about the genre, inasmuch as there is one. AH in all forms of media certainly doesn’t seem to have become more or less popular since the 1990s and there aren’t any big obvious trends to comment on. It’s easy to say that it’s a problem that most people aren’t as smart and well-informed as me and my dozen best Internet friends, but that isn’t really significant to anyone but me and said dozen best Internet friends.
One thing I’d desperately like to see more of is more ‘bottom up’ alternate history. Take this plea with a grain of salt, since I am not good at doing this in my own work. That caveat aside, however, I think it’s disappointing how much alternate history is still dominated by big states and the representatives of big states. One thing I like about She Who Became The Sun is that it takes a traditional narrative – nobody rises to great power – and always grounds it in the crushingly awful experience of peasant farmers and especially peasant women in times of famine and civil war.
Author Book links:
Look To The West (5 book series)
N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)
Building Jerusalem (6 book series)
Ten Years Later (Anthology of stories, proceeds go to the DEC Ukraine Appeal).
Drake's Drum (3 book series, with Book 4 Coming Soon).
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