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The Alternate Lavender Island

Marooned guest: Alexander Rooksmoor.

Here we are again.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In this stranding, we welcome Alexander Rooksmoor. Alexander has a number of books published by SLP (The Blood and Ghost; Streseland; In the Absence of Powder; and Against the Devil’s Men). He also has a whole slew of other books (view his author page on Amazon Here) of a variety of different periods and places, covering the fields of steampunk, fantasy, and historical crime in addition to AH. He’s also a regular contributor to the SLP forum, and knowledgeable about a wide range of historical periods.

As always, I’ll be seeing what five AH books, real history book, piece of AH music and luxury item referenced in a work of AH he’ll be taking with him while he sojourns on the Island until the next guest comes along.

Welcome to the isolation of the Lavender Isle. What’s the first AH book you’ve chosen?

The War Lord of the Air, by Michael Moorcock.

I got into reading Michael Moorcock through The Final Programme (1968) with its eye-catching cover. I was then excited to find that both my local public library and my college library held a lot of his work. I was already very interested in airships as we lived under the flightpath of the Goodyear Airship, my great aunt had been bombed by a Zeppelin, and we had had a translated pilot’s manual for the ‘Hindenberg’ in my school library. I had already tried but failed to get through The War in the Air by HG Wells (1908).

Moorcock is an unapologetic writer and I loved how he would leap into his alternatives. This is the first of the A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy (1971, 1974, 1981), and simply expects the reader to get on board without complaint. Moorcock rarely explains how the alternatives came about: that is left to us to decide. Neither does he outline which genres he is pastiching; it is down to the reader to explore – and you have to remember this was pre-public Internet.

Moorcock can be seen to be trumpeting empire in this book, but as he was part of that radical late-1960s vein of science fiction and fantasy writing, you soon learn that, fitting outlooks of the time (early 1970s), even as he portrays alternatives, he is critiquing them from a counter-culture perspective.

It is clear, however, that Moorcock clearly loves the sources he pastiches. The protagonist of The War Lord of the Air is a grown-up Oswald Bastable from E Nesbit’s Five Children and It (1902) and its sequels. Moorcock has also produced two anthologies of science fiction published in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. We can certainly see something of The Angel of the Revolution (1893) in this novel too.

The War Lords of the Air was a green light to me, that parallel worlds were great places to explore different routes in history, my favourite subject. It was very influential on my first AH novel, His Majesty’s Dictator, which I completed in 1992, though I got flak for also using a pastiche approach.

And the second AH book you’ve selected?

Pavane, by Keith Roberts.

I had been interested in history from when I had gone to see the Bayeux Tapestry aged 3. It was my favourite subject at school and university, and I would later go on to teach and lecture in it. As a result of my early interest, throughout my childhood, people would give me story books popular at the time which typically involved children involved in historical events. I particularly remember the work of Vera Cumberlege and Henry Treece.

My father was a voracious reader, reading a great deal of non-fiction, especially history and social sciences, but also historical and contemporary fiction. He tried to get me to read books by John Updike which I disliked, preferring the Target Doctor Who books. Thus I think his buying me Pavane was a compromise.

Compared to when the book was published in 1968, we might now challenge the assumption that the Protestant work ethic was such an important part of British industrialisation and that without industrialisation in the British Isles, there would have been little elsewhere. However, unlike Moorcock’s work, Roberts carefully lays out feasible alternatives. He then explores where they go, not simply in terms of the politics and society, but also especially in terms of technology. This was also the first AH ‘fix-up’ novel that I read which is why I felt it superior to The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) which looked at a similar divergence. I did not come to Times Without Number by John Brunner (1962/1969) until later.

I liked the sense that by using the fix-up approach, an author could show the outcomes of their deviation from history not just in the following years, but stretched across centuries. The individual chapters can feel self-contained and maybe this is a phenomenon of such novels, as also seen in Roma Eterna by Robert Silverberg (2003). Fix-up books, as I know from when doing them myself, can be bitterly criticised by readers, but I do feel – as Pavane demonstrates – the best of them are always clearly greater than the sum of their parts. As a result, they leave the keen AH reader a lot to reflect upon.

Moving on to your third book. What is it?

Agent of Byzantium, by Harry Turtledove

There are a lot of Turtledoves I could reference, and I did enjoy Ruled Britannia (2002). However, I feel Agent of Byzantium tends to get overlooked in the shadows of what followed. However, there were a number of reasons why I still like it. I have already discussed what I see as the richness of a fix-up book, but also for me – I came to this book as a university student – I liked the fact that Turtledove was qualified in Byzantine history and yet could also be a fiction author. Constantly when studying factual history, you think “What if?” While there was analytical AH writing going back some 50 years by the time this book was published in 1987, it was still the case that ‘serious’ historians tended to dismiss AH as a frivolous distraction.

This is a fix-up book, but one set in a single era and linked by one character. Turtledove has a sharp eye for the cultural differences such as the protagonist, Basil Argyros, giving himself away by neglecting to add ‘filoque’ when saying the creed. However, his prime focus is on technology. Some might say that it is unrealistic that one man would encounter such a range of inventions. However, if we excuse the mechanism, Turtledove is showing that while there would necessarily be cultural, societal, and religious differences from the persistence of Byzantium, there would also be technical ones.

As I have aged, I think that my interest has grown much more for the cultural and technical aspects of AH over the political and military that are often the prime focus for AH books. However, it’s possible those aspects have always intrigued me.

Another reason I have for liking Agent of Byzantium is that at the same time as the reader is picking up lots of pointers about the history, Turtledove still manages to provide engaging adventures. Striking the balance between an interesting alternative and also providing an engaging book isn’t easy, and Turtledove handled it well.

Can you talk about your fourth book?

Unmaking the West, edited by Philip E Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker.

Despite the dismissal by historians of AH writing, which goes back as far as the 1st Century BCE at least, historians have, in fact, been writing out their thoughts on some of the ‘what if?’s they naturally encounter in their work. Authors as famous as Winston Churchill even got in on the act. On occasion, perhaps more often nowadays, AH analysis as well as AH fiction, can often be used as a tool for polemic, the ‘if only...’ factor rather than the ‘what if?’ I was especially riled by some of the writing in Nelson Polsby’s What If...? Explorations in Social Science Fiction (1982) settling of personal scores which greatly weakened that collection of interesting speculations.

After just a handful of analytical AH books across the 20th Century, the 2000s saw a flurry of such books bringing together chapters by a range of historians, notably from Robert Cowley and Ian Dale & Duncan Brack. Established historians like Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson edited their own collections too. This was, at least, until Richard Evans began to pour a lot of cold water over the practice.

The quality of the chapters in these analytical anthologies varied and included using it for personal gripes – Simon Heffer in Andrew Roberts’ 2004 collection being the sharpest example – persisted. Yet this output was a nice balance to AH fiction, especially for those AH fans who sometimes like a good bit of analysis rather than an adventure. Every fourth book I read is non-fiction, so I was certainly in that category.

I had attended a lecture in 1997 given by renowned historian Eric Hobsbawm which later went into his About History (1998). He tentatively said that counter-factual analysis was alright for a historian to engage in, as long as it revolved around different decisions that could have been made with the information available at the time. Thus he was dismissive of bothering to think about it not raining heavily in the days leading up to the Battle of Waterloo, but was happy to consider Napoleon sending the Old Guard into battle earlier.

I felt this was a reasonable argument, though I knew adopting it for AH fiction might see off some interesting stories. It did mean, however, that when Tetlock, Lebow & Parker’s book came out, I leapt at it. I enjoyed how they had set out the criteria within which they and their contributors worked, in terms of what might be feasibly considered or not. Still, as the book’s title suggests, the authors – all US academic historians – did have an agenda.

In many ways they sought to shift the AH focus from Europe and North America to look further afield and also importantly to remind historians, what AH writers definitely know, that nothing in history is “inevitable”. This is an important point, especially in an age when the sense of manifest destiny and its equivalent seem to be gaining strength once more.

And what about your fifth and final AH book?

Resistance, by Owen Sheers

When selecting my five books, there were naturally a number which came close but did not make the cut. These included Queen Victoria’s Bomb by Ronald W Clark, SS-GB by Len Deighton, The Moscow Option by David Downing, and Fatherland by Robert Harris – though I prefer the movie’s ending to the one shown in the book.

Alternate Second World Wars have long been a popular focus because much of the general population knows what happened for real, so can quickly comprehend an alternative – although there have been signs in the past 20 years that this can no longer be guaranteed.

As an author who has quite often written AH takes on various wars, I have received criticism that I focus ‘too much’ on the characters. One commentator said that he had to skip over tens of pages of dialogue and activity to get to the ‘real’ AH history in one of my novels, ie, accounts of battles. Receiving this criticism, I took time out to read more straight wartime historical fiction and found that there were two types, largely distinguished by the gender of the author.

I was (perhaps naively) surprised to find war fiction all the way from the Roman period to the modern day with minimal characters (often with no women featuring at all) in them and certainly no character development. At times, these read more like an account of a wargame someone had played. In contrast, there are numerous war stories very much focused on people, predominantly women, and their personal experiences. The progress of the conflicts in this second type of books provides a backdrop, rather than being in the foreground.

As I noted earlier, I feel it is always important when writing AH fiction that no matter how mild or extreme the deviation is from our history, that there is a good story there.

I knew quickly that I would not write like Peter G Tsouras, certainly in my fiction, even if my analytical AH books would be much more like that. Thus, I am to have characters who do act simply as witnesses, but also who develop as people through the book. As my interest in the societies and cultures of the alternatives I create has grown, this human aspect has become ever more important to me.

This brings me to Resistance. I has seen the movie before I read the book. I found it interesting, but was rather frustrated that the alternate history action, an incomplete German invasion of Britain in 1944, was only occasionally featured. The story focuses on an isolated rural Welsh valley, far from the large-scale armed conflict. However, then I came to the book and I found it beautiful. Sheers is a poet; this was his first novel. I guess that background was why he was able to being such a vivid portrayal of the locale. He also provides a fascinating story of the engagement of the local population, predominantly women surviving through working together, and the small band of German troops sent to the valley.

So much, from the wild plants and crops, through the wildlife and livestock to the buildings and the seasons themselves, are shown so richly. By keeping to a microcosm, Sheers is able to instil real depth in what he explores. There are points of tension, violence, and danger, but above all, it is what it would be like to exist in this alternative, both its continuities and differences from our history that are detailed so well.

Moving on from AH books, you’re allowed one OTL history book. What would be your choice?

I think I would struggle without The Penguin Atlas of World History edited by Hermann Kinder and Werner Hilgemann. I have had various editions beside me constantly since about 1978.

However, in terms of a book telling, rather than showing, the history, I think it would have to be Zulu Rising by Ian Knight. I was given a copy by my wife, a historical novelist who has set some of her books in southern Africa. The book is over 700 pages long, but Knight’s writing is sublime. He deftly engages you with the complexities of the situation from all perspectives and his writing sweeps you along so skillfully that you actually regret that it does not go on any longer.

We’ve loaded you up with books, so you will have plenty to read. What about music? What piece of AH music would you like to have?

This is a challenging one for me as I am very poor at music. I totally lack rhythm and was quickly ejected from piano lessons as a child. I am trying to think of AH music I have come across in books and am rather stumped, certainly as I would prefer to avoid something militaristic, so I am falling back on my own books.

It would be interesting to hear satirical cabaret tunes that would have been produced in the mid- to late-1930s if Hitler had not come to power as I show in Streseland.

And the final item you’re allowed is a luxury item. What will that be?

One prime reason why I write is to get ideas out of my head so that I can sleep. I have been using word processors/computers for that since 1987, so would need a laptop that could be recharged by solar power, to enable me to keep writing.

We’ve got you all supplied up for your stay on Lavender Isle. How well do you think you will cope?

I would need to ensure that I had all the medication I need to keep me alive. I typically take 12 tablet per day, have 4 injections and 2 creams applied, so that would be a concern for me.

When studying (I was at university for 9 years), especially in the final 4 years, I lived alone and would work 7 days per week reading and writing. I had what I termed a monastic life. While it might be a challenge to get back into such habits 30 years on, I think I could manage it.

My main challenge would be if I had to do any survivalist stuff. I am very clumsy and am likely to injure myself using tools or set myself alight trying to cook over a fire.

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