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The Alternate Lavender Island: Nathan Goldwag

Marooned Guest: Nathan Goldwag


In this episode of the marooning process we’ve all come to love (and we love it, whether we like it or not), we look to cast adrift someone who has developed one of the “must-read” blogs of alternate history.


“Just a blog?” I hear you ask. Well, Bret Devreaux does “just a blog” covering a wide range of military history. And our guest this time, Nathan Goldwag, pens a blog on AH that is every bit as informative.


Welcome to Lavender Island, Nathan. You will, of course, have Agent Lavender as a complimentary issue for your stay on the Island. Aside from that, what have you chosen as your first AH book?

A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (1889). This is kind of a fascinating piece of media to me, because it’s the same premise of so much classic AH (Lest Darkness Fall, Island in the Sea of Time, etc) but done nearly a century earlier by one of the titans of American literature.


Our hero, Hank Morgan, is hit on the head in a fight at a steel mill, and finds himself transported back in time to Arthurian England, where he has to introduce modern ideas of technology, science, and democracy while contending with primitive superstition. I first read it years before I discovered alternate history as a genre, but I think it sparked a lot of that same interest in me.


It’s a book that is equal parts hilarious, brilliant, beautiful, and cynical, with a darkly prescient ending that goes against the grain of the techno-optimism inherent on a lot of books of this genre. It’s both a stirring defence of modernity, and a satire of our misguided belief that we can simply impose our ideas on everyone else that I suspect was influenced by Twain’s subsequent anti-Imperialism activism in regards to the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. It’s a book that every alternate history fan should read.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

And the second AH book you’ve selected?

My next choice would be Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley. This is a book I’m always a little shocked isn’t better known. The premise is that the United States develops inter-dimensional travel in the 1960s, and begins opening gateways to other versions of America – many of which were nuclear wastelands, or ruled by Fascists or Communists, or otherwise not doing so hot.


Under a succession of Republican presidents, the United States forges the Pan-American Alliance, waging war across the multiverse in the name of Freedom, Democracy, and the American Way, staging an endless series of covert operations and interventions against other Americas, until an exhausted public elects Jimmy Carter on a peace platform in 1980.


Not everyone is willing to stand for this, however, and a right-wing conspiracy within the CIA soon draws our protagonist, retired trans-dimensional secret agent Adam Stone, out of his peaceful life and back into action.


It’s a great thriller, with some really fun and interesting commentary on US foreign policy and ideology, unabashed ideology, and fantastic world-building. America invades America! What a concept. I can’t recommend it enough.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Moving on to your third book. What have you chosen?

My third choice is The Mirage by Matt Ruff. This book starts on 11/9/2001, when Christian fundamentalist terrorists hijack two airliners and collide them with the Tigris and Euphrates Trade Centre in Bagdad. The United Arab States responds with a global ‘War on Terror’, and an invasion of America. A decade later, agents of Arab Homeland Security begin encountering a new, disturbing belief among terrorists, a claim that the entire world is just a “mirage”, created by Satan to hide the true Earth, one in which America is the true superpower.


Initially sceptical, our heroes soon realise that powerful people are searching for this mirage too; men like Senator Osama bin Laden, the Iraqi gangster Saddam Hussein, and the Texan secret police director Dick Cheney.


Like Cowboy Angels, this is a commentary and critique of modern American foreign policy, using the conventions and tropes of alternate history to turn the tables. It’s also a great read, with some amazing twists that I’m not going to reveal here, and some extremely funny takes on pop culture, my favourite being references to the hit TV show Bagdad Police Story, with the tagline: “Shafiq: He’s Sunni. Hassan: He’s Shia. Together, They Fight Crime.”


It’s not a flawless book, and I’m not sure what I think about the ending, but the missteps come from ambition, and I’m willing to forgive a lot for that.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

Can you talk about your fourth book?

My fourth pick is The Peshawar Lancers, by SM Stirling. This is just a very fun, pulpy throwback book, a kind of bizzaro-steampunk take on Kipling, set in a world where the British Empire never fell and rules half the world from New Delhi, after a meteor impact in the northern hemisphere in the 1870s forces a mass migration to the South. Stirling is a... problematic writer, to say the least, but he’s one of my guilty pleasures, and I think this is one of his better books (though not my favourite of his, which would be the Nantucket series. But I don’t want to use up three of my slots!)


This is a highly enjoyable book, filled with exciting airship chases and political intrigue and gunfights with ninja assassins, mixed in with some genuinely very interesting discussion of cultural and political fusion – one of the major themes is that by the 2020s, the British ruling class in India has mostly become culturally Indian themselves, without fully realising it. If you too enjoyed The Jungle Book as a kid, but wish it had more Satan-worshipping Russian noblemen attempting to undermine British rule in India, then this is the book for you. It’s the kind of novel you can reread almost endlessly, and always have a lot of fun.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

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

Like a lot of people, I first got really into alternate history through the works of Harry Turtledove, and so for my last take, I’ll pick How Few Remain. This is the first book in his Southern Victory series, and I think it’s the best one.


Set twenty years after the Confederate victory in the American Civil War, How Few Remain chronicles a second War Between the States, this one triggered by the Confederate annexation of two states in Northern Mexico. It’s a tightly-plotted, well-written book that tells a complete and satisfying story while still setting up the rest of the series, and it’s full of just really fun alternate history storytelling, from Abraham Lincoln as a Socialist agitator, to Alfred von Schlieffen drawing up the Schlieffen Plan based on Robert E Lee’s campaigns, to young Theodore Roosevelt fighting alongside George Custer against General Charles “Chinese” Gordon in Montana. It’s the kind of book that I think you could give to anyone who wanted to know what alternate history is even supposed to be, and I love it for that.

Picture courtesy Amazon.

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

My choice for this would be Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, because it’s been sitting on my shelf for years now, and this would finally give me time to read the damn thing.


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

This was a tough one. One of my all-time favourite bands was the folk duo Dave Carter & Tracey Grammar, which sadly ended when Carter had a heart attack in 2002.


About a decade later, Grammar revealed in interviews that Carter had been struggling with gender dysphoria, and had made the decision in 2000 to transition, after which they would re-unite as “an all-girl band, calling ourselves The Butterfly Conservatory”.


I think Dave Carter was an extraordinary songwriter and musician, and it would be fascinating to see what they would have done if they’d been able to complete their journey. I wish we could have heard it. There is an interesting article Here on the subject.


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

This might be stretching the definition of “luxury” a little bit, but I’m going to go with an Austro-Hungarian Cyklop Stormwalker from the Leviathan Trilogy; Scott Westerfield’s steampunk-versus-biopunk WWI epic. It combines shelter and mobility in one convenient package, and it’s heavily armed, just in case this deserted island isn’t quite as deserted as I thought. Besides, what other excuse to get my hands on a mecha am I going to find?


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

Honestly, an enforced break from work sounds really nice and relaxing about now. I think I’d do alright, as long as I wasn’t there too long.


Discuss this interview Here.




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