By Gary Oswald
Advertising a book or movie can be a tricky thing. A good narrative often relies on surprise, on making the audience think that certain things will happen and then pulling the rug underneath those expectations. This is especially true of works of fiction that switch genres mid-way through. And yet accurate advertising relies on informing you as to what you are actually going to get, so as to attract an audience who is looking for those elements.
A lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s Horror movies, such as Psycho and the Birds, start with a long opening act introducing you to the victims with the horror elements only being introduced later. This is obviously an effective technique at making you care, but it also works as a bait and switch in which the horror is revealed within a story that has not been up until that point remotely scary. And yet, both movies were advertised, in terms of posters and trailers, by talking about the horror and its terrifying effect. After all, you don’t actually want people looking for romantic comedies to come see your horror-thriller film, they won’t enjoy it and the people who will, won’t come.
This in many ways is one of the great pleasures of discovering films through watching them on TV, having never heard of them before. You do not know where the film is going to take you. And yet that’s also somewhat of a potluck in terms of quality, Sturgeon's Law would dictate that you'd mostly watch bad films. It is natural to want to search out stories which are like those you enjoy but by doing so, you bring with you expectations that makes you less easily surprised.
Take Alternate History, for instance. The genre is ripe in many ways for the shocking reveal that the book is Alternate History. That something you have taken for granted, that the world of this fictional story has basically the same history as our real one, is not true. But if you have found that fiction through searching for AH content, through for example a publishing company devoted to the subject, then that twist can never be truly shocking. Only in a book not advertised as AH, can that be surprising and yet if it’s not advertised as AH would I have found it in the first place?
It also creates something of a conundrum for this article, which is about how and where AH fiction not advertised as such reveals that their world is AH. You do not have to know the twist for that twist to be spoiled. Just knowing that there is a twist is often enough, because it means you question the assumptions you would otherwise not do so. And in this case, there’s no way to mention a book that fits the criteria without spoiling it. I can think of a few different examples of media which have successfully surprised me with the reveal that the world we were looking at was actually an Alternate History one, but to bring them up here would be to ruin that surprise. And so the very act of recommending stories that do that reveal well, damages their effect.
So I will restrain myself with one major example of it being revealed late in the story before we mostly concentrate on Authors who reveal their hands on their work being AH quite early. And that example is a not particularly successful science-fiction book written 40 years ago, Strata by Terry Pratchett. Strata is set in the far future when Humanity is exploring the stars and by focusing our attention on the world building of this future society, Pratchett subtly distracts you from the hints about the different past. The plot involves our protagonist, Kin Arad, discovering that someone has created a model earth with their own guinea pig population of humans aboard made to re-enact earth’s history. But that they made some mistakes and changes and so, as a result, history is playing out differently. Christianity, which Kin doesn’t recognise, has emerged while the Viking settlement of the Americas, which Kin views as incredibly important, is inadvertently strangled in its cradle by Kin and her crew.
There is no big reveal that, oh this is our earth, and so Kin’s isn’t. Kin would not have the references to care after all, she finds her own secrets in the identity of the people behind this 'new' earth but it is drip-fed throughout the novel. Kin talks about Reme and Vinland but she also talks a lot about future events and alien races, so the first time I read the book, I genuinely didn’t notice until my sister told me, though I was quite young and uneducated in terms of history. The second time I read it, I realised it actually became really obvious about a third of the way through and you were meant to get it when a chapter ends with the reveal that Kin thinks this reconstruction of the solar system is missing a moon on Venus. Regardless, that cleverness of the twist is something that can only happen because it has never been advertised as an AH book.
Which is the great advantage of when books outside of the genre include AH elements. They get to pick when and how they reveal that information. So if the advantage of the late reveal is to blow readers away with the twist, why would you reveal earlier? Well, partly it's about setting a mood. Most fantasy tends, however unrealistically, to assume that the existence of superheroes and wizards and the like would still leave the world basically the same. It’s a ridiculous concept that most readers, myself included, tend to just go with to get to the fun stuff. After all the point of low fantasy is to get those fantastical elements within out world and it’s more fun when they are interacting with elements we recognise, otherwise why not just go high fantasy and set it in a completely different world.
For instance, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series is set in a world where sentient dragons are used as soldiers by most armies and yet the situation in 1804 when the first book starts is exactly the same as in OTL. Napoleon is fighting the same War of the Third Coalition only he's fighting with Dragons as well as Men. The fun of the concept, 'Napoleonic War but with Dragons', is enough to allow you to ignore the absurdity. Now when I say the history of Europe is the same, I mean up until the beginning of the book. This isn't Sharpe where in our heroes fight in the battle but they happen as they did historically, post 1804 things are very different as the main characters spin the war into different directions.
In that way, the AH reveal for Temeraire does not come at the beginning when we learn about the sentient dragons but at the end wherein the preparations for an OTL battle are revealed to be a ruse as Napoleon is actually trying something different. Now it makes no sense for things to be suddenly different in 1804 but not 1799 but this is a great reveal because the more you know about the history the more you get out of it, it's a wry comment on Napoleon's OTL tactics but it's still exciting if you don't. And the power of this is because most fiction set in the past, even when it involves time travel or superheroes or magic or huge historical liberties will stick to the basic historical narrative. The 2017 Wonder Woman film, set during World War I, changes history to the extent that logically WWII should not start but obviously it still does because later films want to keep the political background recognisable. So when that rule is broken, such as in a notable 2009 war film, it has power in terms of surprise.
This, media set in the past which don't start as AH because the pre-media backstory is the same as ours but stop being historical because within the course of the story things play out differently, is a surprisingly common form of AH, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. A Superhero story set in WW2 in which the heroes, instead of fighting the war as we know it, use their powers to end the war early would be an example. This tends to be how late AH reveals work in practice, it's not the revelation that we're in a different world pre story but that the story is an AH story and so we're not going to see history play out as it does in the textbooks. A major 2019 film used that reveal to great effect. It flips an assumption you make about historical fiction which you don't even think about, that whatever changes around the margins the big historical events still happen, though it relies on innate knowledge by the audience to have an effect. What this type of AH doesn't often do is dwell on the consequences of the change. The reveal isn't a genre switch to exploring the AH but a punchline. The earlier the reveal the more time you get to explore the consequences.
This is especially true when the AH element also exists in the backstory rather than just during the timeline of the story. Later books in the Temeraire series visit other continents and it turns out Novik has been a little bolder with the changes her Dragons have brought in those places, arguably a mini AH reveal in itself. There's some interesting discussion to be had about the way in which she felt more free to be bold about the changes while writing about Africa or South America than Europe where basically everything is the same. Possibly because major European figures of the time period such as Napoleon and Nelson are better known and so there's more pressure to include them, possible because the success of the first books meant she could be more free with the later ones. And well, the genre conventions are such that what she does with Europe is the standard not the drastically different South America.
Other fantasy authors run further with the idea that these fantastic elements have changed the historical and political landscape as a result, resulting in what I call soft AH, and they tend to reveal that early. After all if this element is what separates you from the crowd, then why not emphasise it? Most fantasy writers who do lean into an altered history are much less concerned with well thought out historical changes than the power of unexplained historical changes as a way of setting the book's tone. For instance The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde, is an aggressively surreal sci-fi fantasy in which numerous nonsensical elements such as time travel, the ability to enter fiction, and genetically modified super-humans are thrown at the reader with gay abandon, but the first chapter is almost all about the different history (an independent socialist Wales, a French Isle of Wight, a continuing Crimean war, a Nazi Germany which conquered the UK etc.). This isn't the main focus of the books, most of the information the reader gets is in that first chapter, but it very clearly sets a mood which the other elements build upon. It tells the readers that this book isn't going to play by the rules you think it is and everything's up for grabs.
Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights has a similarly early reveal and for much the same reasons. Alan Moore’s Watchmen though, has the opposite motives, it wants to sell you on being a more serious and less wild take on superheroes and so the AH element, that these superheroes have changed the politics of the time by their actions, actually sets the opposite tone, the things that happen here, we are told, will have effects. The film goes so far as to open with a, very effective, montage of all the ways the superheroes have already changed history prior to the story, though in the book it’s more subtle and drip-fed over the first few issues. The Superhero Anthology books 'Wild Cards' do the same, with the first book acting as a prologue covering 40 years of geopolitical change due to superheroes and aliens, before our main characters are introduced, and for much the same reasons. To set a tone that differs it from the kids media that Superheroes were seen as at the time. Compare that to say the Marvel Films where in 'Iron Man' is set very much in our world, despite the fact the first Superhero emerged in the 1940s.
Joan Aitken moves her AH reveal even earlier, to before the book. She opens her gothic children’s book ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ with a short paragraph telling the reader that this is an alternate history with a Stuart King on the throne and then this is not mentioned again for the rest of the book. We do however know we are in an alternate history from the vast amount of dangerous wolves who have invaded England and harass our heroines throughout the book, a literal representation of the way the country has gone to seed. In later books in this series, we also have slaver gangs coming from an independent Yorkshire to take children to use in their factories, Guinevere, from Arthurian legend, acting as a junta leader of a country in South America while she waits for Arthur to return and a telepathic hivemind.
There is no real reason for any of this, in terms of the actual plots, which are mostly about evil villains trying to steal the girls' inheritances, but Aitken always got rather bored of telling anything straight so her standard gothic plots are backgrounded by weird fantasy with killer wolves. Much like Fforde, the reveal of the AH comes early to set a mood and thus relieve the author of any attempt at realism or restraint and both books are much better for their lack. The surrealism around the edges of the story are far more memorable than the actual stories. And it's because the plots are unrelated to the world that the author wants to show their hands about the world early.
What you often see in mainstream stories is the use of AH elements primarily to emphasise the surrealism and anxiety of the setting, where you can't trust anything, rather than to explore the logic of those elements. Given that an obvious choice for using the reveal of the book being an AH, in terms of removing certainties form the reader, might be Kafkaesque horror such as 1984 or The Trial, but while the former has become honourary AH and is much appreciated by the community, I think any explicit reveal actually weakens the work. The whole point of that kind of horror is that you do not know the rules, the government does and they can change them at will. Explaining how we got there in terms of an altered history rather than removing certainties actually makes the horror more understandable by giving it context. I think these stories are stronger when we do not know how the government got there, because that’s not the point.
But horror itself as a broader genre is a natural fit for AH. The Power of AH, I've always said, is the way it mixes the familiar with the alien. So you have a country/person that you know only they're different. And that makes for effective horror because that feeling of being unable to trust something you thought you could rely on, that the handrail you are reaching for isn't there, is innately horrifying. It's why so many horror books rely on being attacked by something you trusted, your friends becoming vampires, your dog becoming rabid, your car turning on you etc. So an AH version could be a monster story in London but then when you think the police can step in, it turns out the government is a Nazi one and so are also a threat and you cut away that safety ladder.
The problem with that is mixing real horrors and fantasy horrors is a tricky business. Once you have Nazis, how can you still be scared of the monster? In the excellent Sea Lion Press Horror anthology Travellers in an Antique Land, there is a wonderful story which solves this by revealing simultaneously that the Nazis do exist and the monsters, which we’ve been following so far, don’t. They were just disguises under which the human evils could hide. It was a perfect example of the power of the AH reveal in flipping the story on its head and it made you wish to some extent that it could have been published in a straight horror anthology where the audience would be more surprised. And maybe that more mainstream AH fiction could take advantage of that audience to have more momentous late AH reveals.