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The Alternate Lavender Island

Marooned Guest: Alex Richards.

Here we are again.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This time, we welcome Alex Richards to the splendid isolation of Lavender Island. Alex is, as denizens of the SLP forum can attest, both an expert of classical music, and a cartographer of no mean talent. He is also the author of the SLP book Tippcanoe and Wallace Too, a look at a Curse stalking American Presidents. And he wrote one of the most complete online studies of the Thirty Years War on this very blog, a veritable tour de force.


Welcome to Lavender Island, Alex. What’s the first AH book you’ve chosen?

Robert Harris’ Fatherland. Yes, it’s a bit of a cliché choice, but it was very much my gateway into the genre and even now it remains a great example of the field – both a very well written book and a very well-conceived work of AH. It’s a good example of how sometimes the obvious answer is one for a reason.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

And the second AH book you’ve selected?

And moving from a book that brought into the genre to one of those series that I’ve been following for a long time – our own Tom Anderson’s Look to the West. If we have to go for a specific one, then let’s start with Book 1, Divide and Conquer.


The thing with Tom is I find he constantly manages to hit this balance between the carefully researched historically grounded elements, and the bits that are a bit more “roll the dice and throw it in”. And when you look at actual history, there are plenty of times when something happens that seems to come completely out of left field – and sometimes is completely out of left field is actually down to something as simple as: “The absolute monarch of this place just really got fixated on this idea and threw loads of resources at it” that you can ironically get a less ‘real’ feeling world if you try and just plod along mechanically working everything out as a logical consequence of what has changed. The later books in the series especially are also great demonstrations of how Tom is not afraid to just change up the format or the approach to certain topics, which really helps such a long-lasting series feel both familiar but also fresh at times.


The other thing with Tom is he’s just a really nice guy to collaborate with. I’ve been doing the maps for Look to the West since, well, before it started being published actually – the first was a sort of ‘semi-independent fan work’ but one that’s ended up with a couple of extracts in the later books. And the fun thing is that Tom’s got this very certain idea on the core bits but he’s also happy for some points to get slightly tweaked if it works better, or to just add in details where asked. I can remember doing a bit and then pinging a list of towns at him for what he felt should be the names – some of which will probably never actually appear in the text itself. And it goes the other way sometimes as well – I’m pretty sure I was the one who realised when mapping out the area that a set of treaties left a tiny corner of Louisiana which nobody claimed ownership of in a suitably realistic way.

Moving on to your third book. What is it?

I’m going a bit more ‘soft’ AH with this one: Terry Pratchett’s Strata. I’m not going to go into too many details because the AH elements here are sort of integral to a pretty major plot point that’s not obvious initially, but I love the way how they’re very subtly woven in from the start. You don’t really notice them initially – they feel like the sort of thing that just ‘background sci-fi’ details, but the more prominent they become, the more you realise just what Pratchett’s actually doing with them. It’s also a really fascinating look into some very proto-Discworld ideas before he’d started writing that series.

Can you talk about your fourth book?

I’m going back to the SLP stable for this one, but Iain Bowen’s Dislocated to Success is honestly my definitive ‘ISOT’-type novel. I think partially because ‘1980 United Kingdom’ is just something that feels like a much more relatable area for me than either Nantucket or ‘random town in West Virginia’ – there’s a cultural disconnect there perhaps. The whole Arose from the Azure Main timeline is beautifully researched in many ways, but the presentation in the form of Norman St John-Stevas’ fictional memoirs just gives this work a real sense of character while allowing for a deliberately much more confined scope. It also means we get a nice blend of both the major geopolitical events but also the smaller, personal effects that such an event would have on people – something which such a fantastical concept really needs to help ground it.

What’s the fifth and final AH book you’ve chosen?

A small shoutout here for SA Chakraborty’s City of Brass. It’s not AH in the slightest, but the world needs more love for fantasy novels using non-European myths as the basis. She’s drawn heavily from Arabian and Persian stories, so coming to this after the Thousand and One Nights and the Shahnameh is an utter treat.


Instead I’m going to go for Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library, though they’re quite short books, so ideally the whole series. It’s again pretty soft-AH-as-background, but while the actual plot is mostly about the main character – who has taken the name Irene – as she navigates around a conflict of Order and Chaos and ancient enemies, the setting is what I can only describe as literary Doctor Who.


Pratchett came up with a concept in Discworld of L-Space – that all libraries are slightly magical extensions of one big library and connect to each other, eventually. Cogman runs with this by having a extra-dimensional library whose librarians seek to stabilise the multiverse by acquiring copies of whichever unique works of literature exist in any given iteration of Earth.


So, what you end up with is a series whose average plot involves jumping between wildly different settings. There’s never a lot of detail to how any given world ended up like that, but it’s a great way of being able to pack a lot of different ideas in one narrative.


You’re also allowed one history book of OTL history. What will you be taking?

Peter H Wilson’s Europe’s Tragedy. [8] It’s a very well-written, very comprehensive history of the Thirty Year’s War. Needless to say, my own copy is extremely well-thumbed and I couldn’t have written the articles I did on the war without it.


I’d absolutely recommend it for anyone who read those articles, enjoyed them, and wants to go beyond my little ‘primer’ on the period [Editor’s note: The “little primer” consisted of a series of 50 articles, each around 2000 words long. I don’t have a Maths Degree, but I make that around 100K words. I hesitate to ask how long an in-depth look would be?] into something that’s longer, somewhat more academic, and also includes a lot more source references.


Those are your books. We move on to Music. What AH music would you like to have with you?

This one is extremely difficult to pin down. There’s some of the obvious options – Mozart’s completed Requiem Mass, Shostakovich’s operas if he’d been free to carry on after Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk without censorship, what Lily Boulanger might have created had she not died so tragically young. I’d love to see what would emerge if Harry Lawrence Freeman’s dreams of an African-American Bayreuth on the outskirts of New York City had come to fruition – a lasting tradition of American Jazz Opera perhaps? Although given that Freeman was more of Black folk music/Italian Grand opera blend in his own compositions, perhaps Blues Opera might be more likely.


If we’re going for a single composition though? Something I can actually picture rather than speculate? At the moment, I think I’d go for Verdi’s King Lear (or in Italian Re Lear). Verdi absolutely adored Shakespeare, but also had this knack for managing to do very good adaptations of his plays into opera – his Falstaff in particular is a sublime and utterly hilarious adaptation of Merry Wives of Windsor that slims down the 22-scene play to just 6, trims a few characters, but still remains very true to the original.


For his more serious works, we have both Macbeth and Otello – of which I’ve been fortunate enough to see the former in the original 1847 version (it’s honestly better without thr additions done for Paris). They’re both very good character pieces, beautifully well-written and again really feel like they’re written by someone who understands both Shakespeare and opera.


Verdi was quite keen on adapting King Lear – the idea was first raised in 1843 and kept coming up for a couple of decades – and actually got as far as having a libretto produced. It would have focused on a core cast of Lear, Cordelia, Edmund, Edgar, and the Fool, and given how good the father-daughter relationships are in works like Aida or Nabucco, you can really see how that would have given him something to get his teeth into. Alas, it just never came to fruition.


The final item you are allowed is a luxury item taken from Alternate History. What have you chosen?

OK, this one is going to take a bit of explaining. Basically, there’s this whole complication with how you tune instruments that means that the intervals between notes on a standard keyboard instrument aren’t actually perfectly even, and there’s been a lot of debate on whether this needs resolving and, if so, how to do so. And one experiment on this ended up with Nicola Vicentino inventing a microtonal harpsichord in 1555 which he called the Archicembalo; which has got 36 notes per octave instead of the standard 12.


The history of keyboard instruments (well, any musical instrument) is one where it turns out that there’s a whole load of occasions where what ended up being the version that became the standard is just the one that managed to become successful at any given moment. Granted going from a traditional 12 note octave to a 36 note one is a bit more out there, but it’s quite possible that this could have ended up being adopted as the standard, and in similar manner to history, resulted in a sort of “Archicembalo microtonal pianoforte” by the late 18th Century – about 150 years before people started experimenting with the idea of microtonality in the mid-20th Century.


So, I’ll take one of those and a stack of music.


Those are all your items. How well do you think you will cope on Lavender Isle?

I think I should be alright for a short break. Assuming I can manage to scrounge some survival skills together. I can be pretty independent minded, so the isolation shouldn’t be a problem.


You’ll probably be able to tell how accurate that assessment has been by whether I’ve just built a simple sandcastle or replicated the entire defensive structures, gardens, and palace of Heidelberger Schloss in the meantime.


Discuss this interview Here.


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