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The Alternate Lavender Island: Guest Liam Connell

Marooned Guest: Liam Connell.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This time on Lavender Island, we turn our attention towards the academic side of things. Our guest today is Liam Connell, who goes by the name Senator Chickpea on the forum.


Welcome to the island, Liam. You use the nom-de-plume Senator Chickpea, presumably after the Roman statesman Cicero. Why Cicero?


I’ve always been amused at the way names change their meaning if you bother to translate them. The famous example is Giuseppe Verdi – that’s a name that seems to fit a composer; it’s fancy and European and has a nice flow to it to anglophone ears. But literally speaking, it’s just ‘Joe Green’. So, on one level, I chose the name because back when I got into the alternate history space, lots of people were picking names with titles like ‘general’ or ‘basileus’ or ‘emperor’ or what have you. I felt like gently undercutting it.


I also think that Cicero is a fascinating figure: a man who believed in justice who could be the slimiest of lawyers; a hard worker from the provinces who became the most arrogant and snobby of Roman elites; a brilliant rhetorician and writer who wrote some of the most dull and interminable texts of the ancient world. He was a pompous stuffed shirt, he was unbearably insecure, he sided with aristocrats and reactionaries against the Roman people, he had an absolute terror of the mob – and yet for all of that, he was a true republican who tried to save his state from the collapse into autocracy. And he came closer than we generally think!


I suppose he’s a challenging figure that way – at the moment of his death, the great charismatic populists are all tearing down the Republic. Caesar, Augustus, Agrippa, even Antony – in many ways they’re far more likeable and relatable than Cicero. But it was the obnoxious conservative who was actually closer to being right.


It’s reasonably well known that you’ve acquired a PhD and are now a Dr (not to be used in medical emergencies). What was the doctorate about? Indeed, what was the experience of doing said PhD. Are you planning on taking the studies further?


My PhD is in the History of International Relations. My dissertation, fancily put, was on ‘Australasian Imperial Identities, 1892-1902.’ Put more simply, I looked at Britain’s self-governing colonies in Oceania – that’s the six colonies that became the states of Australia and New Zealand – and how they understood the British Empire at the end of the 19th Century. That is to say – what did they think the Empire was? What did they think it was for? Where did they think it was going? Did they feel there was a meaningful difference between being British in that part of the world as opposed to in the UK itself?


What was doing a PhD like? It was the most meaningful experience of my life, and the most soul-destroying. It’s a lesson in your intellectual limitations, and can offer you the true validation of fellow scholars. It’s awful, wonderful, will drain your soul and bank account, and I’m still not sure if I’d recommend it to anyone.


Will I do anything more with my work? I hope so. Right now, I’ve been doing policy and research work for an NZ government body – as I said, the PhD drains your finances – but I’d love the chance to turn my dissertation into a book.


A very, very niche book.


How did you come into the AH genre?


I come from a bookish family. Along the way, I inherited boxes and boxes of old paperback sci-fi and fantasy novels that my uncles and aunts had had back in the 1970s and 1980s. So, I’ve got a fairly decent grounding in lots of authors of that era who aren’t read as much any more – and among them was Michael Moorcock. I honestly don’t remember much about Corum or Elric or his other series. But there’s a minor work of his – very minor – that really fired my imagination when I was about ten. But I’ll return to him in a moment.


The other thing was discovering Red Alert and Harry Turtledove, in that order. I think Turtledove is a great example of how many fantasy and sci-fi authors are best understood as what we’d now call ‘young adult’ writers. Robert Jordan’s another one. It’s trendy to pick on Turtledove for the stylistic ticks, the sometimes flat prose and plotting, and certainly the outdated historiography. But he could tell stories! He knew how to plot an action sequence; he could pull off a bit of comedy and pathos when required; he understood how to set up a historical allusion in a way that makes the young reader feel smart for understanding it. When I was in my teens, I’d go down to the Christchurch Central Library (sadly gone now) and work my way through his books.


I still don’t get the appeal of the ones with lizards invading Earth during World War II though.


What’s you first choice for an AH book?


The aforementioned Michael Moorcock book, The Warlord of the Air. It’s a slim volume. It’s rather strange. Very of its time, and yet very of today. Essentially it’s the account of one Oswald Bastable, a minor military officer in the Raj in the early 20th Century who goes into the wrong part of a temple on an expedition to a Princely State and winds up in 1972. He’s immediately picked up by a British airship with a young Lieutenant Michael Jagger, and it turns into an alternate history where the Western Empires never fell. But somewhere in China,a a nationalist general has built a fleet of airships to challenge the colonialists.


However you think that sounds, the book is quite different. On the one hand, the 1970s British left counterculture stuff has dated reasonably well – you can imagine a modern author doing a socially conscious steampunk swashbuckler in much the same way. On the other hand, the historical allusions are leaden. Moorcock hates Ronald Reagan, so he appears as an awful Californian scoutmaster in a scene that’s there because, well, Moorcock hates Ronald Reagan. The actual plot doesn’t stand up to internal scrutiny either – not in any trite world-building sense, but rather in that Bastable largely watches events happen; he doesn’t really do anything. Then at the climax, off Bastable pops to the next timeline.


The next two books in the series, The Land Leviathan and The Steel Czar, are alright, though it’s a case of diminishing returns. They have all the first book’s problems (Moorcock also hates the Kennedys) but once the trick’s been done once, it’s not as engaging.


But they’re still an odd little trilogy that are worth the few hours to read – anti-imperialist psychedelic globetrotting alternate history. They also have the only Oswald in alternate history who isn’t a Mosley.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

And the second AH book you’ve selected?


This one’s something of a swerve. People who have read my short fiction on the forum will know that I have something of a fondness for the literary pastiche. I also enjoy seeing fictional characters put together in odd combinations. Done well, as in the first volume of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s a fun mode of writing that invites the readers to look at familiar stories from new perspectives. Done badly, it’s, well, it’s literally everything else in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that frankly deserved its excretable film.


ANYWAY, the book I’ve chosen in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula. This is a real delight of a series. There’s a half dozen books with only the loosest of continuities.


The premise is that at a crucial point in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a key confrontation goes badly and the Count drives off the vampire hunters. Left unchallenged, he does what any feudal patriarchal aristocrat does and looks for the best match he can, and the book picks up several years later with Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Dracula ruling an increasingly authoritarian Britain.


They are delightful books, adventure horror comedies. Every character is in the public domain and it actually works. Pastiche can be very tiring, and I’ve just criticised Moorcock and Moore for letting their stories grind to a halt with a new flourish of “it’s that person you recognise!”


No one does it better than Newman. Again and again, he’ll make you smile as some new character is introduced – wince as you realise who that unnamed person who just died horribly really was – but above all, he’ll keep the plot moving so the book doesn’t become a collection of magic tricks. Crucially, he also commits to the literary style of the pastiche rather than just dropping in characters. His book in 1950s Rome, Dracula Cha-Cha-Cha, doesn’t just continue as normal but with Fellini references, the actual prose style changes to mid-century Highsmith.


And along the way he somehow builds a really interesting alternate history of the 20th Century. By the later books, he’s really got into the way vampirism has affected popular culture. What happens to Hollywood when the creatives don’t die? What happens to British democracy when Vampirism becomes a class signifier? The world wars take on new dimensions. This is no surprise – Newman also wrote the charming and slightly more traditional alternate history volume Back in the USSA, so he has a clear affection for the form.


You can’t read these books all at once. Think of Newman as a very skilled dessert chef – he makes these tremendous confections that are charming and clever and will overpower the palate if you have too much at a time.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Moving on to your third book. What is it?


A book that is decidedly not a confection. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a gripping noir whodunnit based in the premise that in the 1940s many Jewish refugees formed a settlement in Alaska – and now in the early 20th Century, the lease is running out.


It’s absolutely first-rate. It’s beautifully written. Sometimes bleak, sometimes funny, but very much in the best traditions of noir.


Frankly, I shudder to imagine the discourse if this book had won the Hugo Award today; one part of the world building is that with a smaller population base, Israel only lasts three months before it is bloodily overrun by Arab armies, and the region remains locked in internecine conflict to the present.


I note this only because I think that it’s an unusually subtle book for alternate history. It’s deeply interested in the morality of colonialism, Zionism, what the idea of Israel means to non-Israeli Jews, what it means for a culture to have land that’s their own, what it means to have taken that land from someone else. It’s not a timeline where everything has gone badly; it’s not a timeline where everything has gone well.


It’s also great because it’s a grounds-eye view of an alternate society. One of my hobby-horses is that we need more stories that are from the points of view of “peasants, not kings”. The pushback I get is that kings are just more interesting, that leaders get the wider view. This book shows how hollow that idea is – our POV is of Meyer Landsman, a detective and working joe. The brilliance of the alternate history is spelled out through little asides, through the things that ordinary people know. Yes, later on we get a broader lens because it’s a noir story and that does mean well-connected conspirators – but the meat of the novel lies with our protagonist’s journey through the lower part of society. And that’s really the point – anyone who thinks that peasants can’t be interesting figures has betrayed their own lack of imagination, or the fact that they’ve never heard of Martin Guerre. Ordinary people, working people are great vehicles for fiction – so long as they have an author who treats them as a protagonist, not a camera tied to an exposition machine.


Of all these books, this is the one I would most strongly recommend – it’s a real novel, one that’s both entertaining but also requires you to engage intellectually or emotionally.


It’s Chinatown in the snow, and JFK married Marilyn Monroe.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Can you talk about your fourth book?


A parochial choice this one; Sealion Press’ very own Freedom’s Rampart: The Russian Invasion of New Zealand, by Katherine Foy.


My mother’s family came from Dunedin, the setting of this story. Those sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks I talked about were all purchased from grimy second-hand bookstores near the Octagon, or in library sales, or in the first few Regent’s Book Sales.


I have a lot of memories of visiting the city as a child – if you could say any place in New Zealand or Australia has a faded grandeur, it’s Dunedin. It was briefly a thriving provincial capital of the Empire, the biggest and most vibrant place in New Zealand, and Freedom’s Rampart is set at the waning of that time. When I was young, I once went and saw the old fortifications constructed on the heads when the city fathers believed that a Tsarist attack was a real threat. Freedom’s Rampart is based on that attack actually happening.


I love this book. It’s got a real feel for its location and an eye for period detail. I’ve never met Katherine Foy, but I would love to buy her the authentic Dunedin meal of a cheese roll and a bad coffee, and just talk and talk about her ideas for this story.


It’s exciting, it’s funny, it takes its premise just seriously enough, and it’s a great example of alternate history using odd little might-have-beens instead of the endless recycling of big events everyone already knows about. I’d happily give up timelines set in 1940s London if it meant more books like this one.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

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


Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt.


I’ve bounced off several other Robinson books – I enjoyed Antarctica and Escape from Kathmandu, but I read Red Mars and thought “gosh, that’s clever” and then never touched the rest of the trilogy. He’s a very intelligent man, and he’s technically a very good writer. He’s very STEM in his mindset, but he’s clearly got a lot of respect and interest in other ways of thinking. But there’s an odd coldness to his style, and it sometimes feels that he’s making works of craft, not of art.


After a preamble like that, why am I taking this book? Because it’s such a womderfully ambitious, gonzo, broad-minded, humanist brick of a book. The premise is basically that almost all of Europe dies in the Black Death – how does history develop if that continent gets snuffed out?


Now, the first problem there is that looking at such a huge question is a problem for any story – what’s the narrative throughline? And Robinson’s answer is that our first two protagonists will go through a continual cycle of reincarnations through the afterlife of Mahayana Buddhism. Each time they are reborn in a new location at a new time to give us a window into the altered timeline. It’s bonkers. It’s a mess. It’s great.


The book is first and foremost a great work of imagination – Robinson’s chapters take us from the voyages of Zheng He to alchemists in Samarkand, to Samurai meeting the Haudenosaunee, on and on. But it’s also a book that doesn’t use many of the staples of the genre – there’s very few sly historical allusions here, especially for Anglo-American readers. It’s a difficult book, but it’s gloriously varied in style and place and character.


And yet, that slight coldness.


What can I say? This is a book I admire and respect. I’m just not sure that I like it. Still, what a feat of writing.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

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


I suppose the simplest answer would be Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, because it’s funny, you won’t worry about missing out on current scholarship, and taken together it’s a handy pillar from which to wave down passing ships.


Something closer to my PhD would perhaps be better. Perhaps James Belich’s Replenishing the Earth, which is for my money one of the best books you can read for understanding the modern world – it seeks to explain the demographic explosion of the English-speaking world in the 19th Century. Readers will probably have a vague idea about this, but I think they’d be surprised at how this book drives home the transformative nature of the change. If there’s a way in which the legacy of the British Empire is distinct from other colonial powers, it perhaps lies in this period and the sudden growth of places like Melbourne – a few scraps of stolen land in 1834. By 1890, it was the second largest city in the British Empire.


If that sounds like dry stuff, I assure you it isn’t. Belich is one of the few historians who does history on a grand scale well. He’s got a great eye for the telling detail, and his story here is largely about the reshaping of the entire globe. It’s really worth a read, but be aware that it is an academic work.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

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


I’ll take a successfully completed version of Stephen Sondheim’s Here We Are. Sondheim is wonderful, but Here We Are premiered posthumously last year and... well, by all accounts it shouldn’t  have. There just wasn’t enough there.


Except in my version!


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


I’ll lean into the theme and take The Complete Works of Shakespeare, with the proviso that Queen Mary lived long enough to have a Catholic heir. What does Will’s output look like if he’s pleasing a different establishment, and if he can lean into his (probable) Catholicism?


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


I’m flatfooted, have a bad back, terrible coordination, am on medication, and my eye sight is a hair away from legal blindness.


I might last five minutes longer than Amelia Earhart, but I wouldn’t count on it.





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