By Adam Selby-Martin
Taken from the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" march. This isn't Alternate History.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Permanently Resolving the Problems of Fascism and Racism in the Alternate History Genre: A Perfectly Simple Solution in One Short Essay
Part 1: The Problem and the Solution
In recent years, there has been an increased focus in the Alternate History community around the dual problems of Fascism and racism within the genre: both as settings and as ideological attitudes running through the entire field. In particular, there have been some superb, highly nuanced and thought provoking essays and reviews written on these controversial subjects on the Sealion Press blog – I would particularly recommend a thorough re-read of Monroe Templeton’s duology of essays: The Marble Man: The Guns of the South, The Lost Cause, and Harry Turtledove looks at the on-going issue with a lack of critical analysis of the Lost Cause narrative and the uncritical usage of the ‘Confederate Victory’ scenario within the genre; and The Borders of Genre: The Glorification of Fascism Within Alternate History is a thoughtful, controversial, and long overdue analysis of how Fascism runs as a thread throughout the genre. Taken together, a late-night rereading of these two essays – and their accompanying discussion threads on the Sealion Press forum – led to me mulling over the problem of the Alternate History genre’s near total focus on Nazis and Confederates to what I believe to be its detriment.
Season 2 of the Man in the High Castle was voted the worst TV show of the year by the readers of Vox. Good for the readers of Vox.
Picture courtesy Vox.
It cannot be denied that there is a wound festering at the very heart of the Alternate History genre, with endless stories being published over the decades that seem to exhilarate in adopting the iconography and core concepts of Fascism and southern slave-holders in order to sell books and anthologies, without ever even attempting to critically examine the murderous ideologies they are using to make money. One need only look at Amazon’s recent juggernaut, the multi-series adaptation of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle to see how a complex and genre-breaking work was stripped down and repurposed into a glorification of Fascist ideology and imagery – to the extent that the Mayor of New York City had to intervene personally to ensure that a subway car bedecked in Nazi imagery (down to the very seats) was removed after an ill-fated attempt to advertise the show .
There are, unfortunately, only a very limited handful of authors within the Alternate History genre that attempt to critically make use of Nazi Germany and the Confederate States of America in stories to demonstrate just how morally and ethically horrifying the reality of ‘The Swastika Triumphant’ would actually be for the average person. Here I would particularly like to highlight the works of my friend Paul Leone, whose novella In and Out of the Reich is a rare example of this. Leone gives us three interconnected novellas that offer an unflinching critical analysis of what a ‘triumphant’ Nazi Empire looks like: not the slick, attractive, and highly efficient apologia of The Man in the High Castle; but an even more explicitly genocidal version of the Soviet Union, internally corrupt and broken and increasingly tottering externally as it fights endless, unwinnable conflicts at the ragged edges of its genocidal empire. For a similar critical analysis of what a ‘successful’ CSA would actually look like (rather than the masturbatory racist fantasies of a Golden Circle found amongst Stars and Bars-clad adherents on social media), then look no further than Paul Ciccone’s masterful Red Delta in which, a century later, the Confederacy is locked into an endless internal conflict with the slave population it attempted to exploit as the basis for its existence, with each State fighting its neighbours rather than effortlessly working together to create a racist paradise in North America.
Leone and Ciccone are, unfortunately, the only two names that immediately come to mind when it comes to critically analysing the Swastika and the Stars and Bars – and for every one of them, there are a hundred authors unthinkingly writing the next instalment in: Here’s How Hitler Could Have Done It Right: Waffen-SS Boogaloo, guest-starring Upright White Citizen Jeb Stuart IX. There is an endless amount of discussion about all of the above on social media, and these very forums, and yet no solutions have been found.
It's not normally fair to criticise the blurb on the cover of a book, but....
Who decided Harry Turtledove was "the Master of Alternate History"?
The South winning the Civil War was "the ultimate reversal"? Really?
"An expert exercise in speculative history?" More like one tired trope after another.
"What really happened"? It's called fiction for a reason.
Picture courtesy Amazon.
For there is actually an incredibly easy, simple, and exceedingly obvious solution to this problem – and apparently it takes a dullard such as myself to actually explain it. Inexplicable!
As such, follow me dear readers as in the final 500 words of this essay I guide you through a series of simple steps that will permanently and irreversibly solve the issue of...
As I was saying, a simple set of steps that will finally-
Hang on, one minute please.
[Puts finger to earpiece and frowns].
Wait, no, sorry...
[An uncomfortably long period of silence].
Ah, no, my apologies. I’m in fact being told by the editor that this is, in fact, a highly complex and controversial issue that is actually a Gordian Knot residing at the very heart of the genre; one which many people far smarter than me – bit hurtful really – have attempted to solve without success due to the inherent popularity of stories featuring Runes and Racism which strike at the heart of the human psyche itself.
It turns out that there is not, in fact, One Simple Solution Doctors Don’t Want You To Know About Solving Fascism and Racism in the Alternate History Genre, and I will now bring out a miniature ukulele in order to sing an apology for my foolishness.
Part 2: The Reality of the Genre and The New Framework
Let me start the second part of this essay by apologising for the dark and cynical humour found in the first part. But I felt it necessary – perhaps even essential – to begin with this sort of approach, rather than the far more critical approach taken in previous essays and discussions around the Internet. Because it would be very easy for me to pour out another 5000 word essay to contribute to this discussion that bemoans the state of the genre without proposing a solution – or at the very least, a framework towards a solution.
I think I have such a framework in mind, though I won’t pretend even for a moment that it is:
(B) Even vaguely complete.
(C) Easy to implement.
Indeed, it wiil, by definition, not be easy to implement, nor will it be quick even if a critical momentum can be placed behind it. Yet I feel like I must try to do something to propose a solution, even if it both starts and finishes solely with the words being written for this essay. And otherwise spending several hours in the early hours of the morning due to crippling insomnia will have been utterly pointless.
As such, I give you:
NEW ALTERNATE HISTORY
The short version:
In order to transplant the current focus on Fascism and racism within the Alternate History genre, we cannot simply argue about it – we must instead propose a solution that will actually offer an alternative that readers – and eventually authors and publishers – will want to focus on instead of Nazi Germany and the Confederate States of America. Only then will we be able to truly deal with the dominance of the Swastika-Stars and Bars in the genre.
The slightly longer version
As I noted in the paragraphs above, the solution that I am proposing is not particularly novel or original, and has in fact existed for almost as long as the current obsession with Fascism and racism. It’s all around us, in fact.
Have you guessed what it is yet?
I’ll clue you in, then: it’s the rest of the genre.
Yes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of novels featuring a triumphant Hitler bestriding the world stage, or a Very Definitely Not Racist Robert E Lee leading the Confederate States to glorious slavery throughout the genre. But there are also hundreds, if not thousands, of novels that don’t feature either of our genre’s favourite Racist-Fascists. There always have been – they just don’t get the attention that they deserve because they don’t benefit from the endless media and public obsession that the Nazis and Confederates do. Why that is true is an entirely different and far more complex subject that I am already writing a companion essay about, so we won’t focus on that here. But the truth is – there is an almost infinite supply of Alternate History to focus on, much of which has already been written about, that we simply need to utilise in a different manner.
Let’s be very generous here, and estimate that together, the Third Reich and the Confederate States of America lasted about twenty years. Two decades. 240-odd months. By comparison, there are millions of years of human existence that are there, ready to be speculated about and have stories written about their own alternatives. Or maybe it’s hundreds of thousands of years. I don’t know – I got a ‘C’ in GCSE Maths and it’s currently 1:57 am at the time of writing, so I’m not going to check the figures.
Even if we only go back into the distant past of the early 21st Century, there are so many highly talented authors who have written stories not set in that twenty-year period that I don’t know where to begin listing them – but here’s just a tiny fraction of them – many reviewed here on this very blog:
Aztlan: The Courts of Heaven by Michael Jan Friedman, which focuses on a 21st Century Aztec Empire with a gumshow detective protagonist.
Pangea (Anthology) , in which a variety of authors explore the alternate history of the entire planet in a reality that saw the super continent of Pangea split up into wildly different forms to ours.
Everfair by Nisi Shawl, which considers what might have happened if the Congo Free State was overthrown by Native Africans before it got sold to Belgium.
After Hastings (Anthology) which sees authors consider the many different ways in which the battles of 1066 might have gone and changed English and European history.
River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey – a novel (and its sequel) that looks at the ecological, political, and social upheaval that might have resulted from an abandoned proposal to import hippopotami into the United States in the 19th Century.
There are surely many, many more examples that can be considered – it’s been several years since I’ve been at the cutting edge of Alternate History fiction, and many amazing novels, novellas, and anthologies have surely passed me by without my even noticing.
Taken together, the exemplars above and their near-infinite multitude of similar works offer an alternative solution to Fascists and racist white men, with a rich, diverse, and mind-blowing collection of imagery that would easily rival swastikas and pointy white hoods. The colourful pageantry and culture of the Aztecs; the endless diversity, complexity, and richness of innumerable African nations; the indigenous peoples of North and South America. The virtually untapped potentials to be found in Japanese, Chinese, Korean history, and the histories of so many other nations in the Pacific and Far East.
And even the many other periods of history in European countries – from Charles the Great to Alexander the Great (there were a lot of ‘Greats’) to the examples of distinctive regions like Catalonia and Ukraine that haven’t even been considered, at least in the English language that I’m using for this essay.
We must unite the disparate and far-flung excellent, innovative and thought-provoking AH fiction that is NOT Nazi- or Confederate-based under a new banner – in order to create a new period for Alternate History. Just as the Science Fiction genre went through its various periods – the Silver Age, the Golden Age, the New Wave – now is the time for us all to come together to create a new period for Alternate History – the New Alternate History, one that explicitly rejects the obsessive focus on that mere two-decade period of history. When we write essays, or short stories, or novels or any other form of fiction based in Alternate History – we must label it as New Alternate History to bring it under that new banner, that new title, that new period in the genre if we are to have any chance to revitalise the genre and steer the focus away from Nazis and Confederates once and for all.
Starting now, we must unite under that banner and begin forging a new period in the history of the Alternate History genre. By writing, promoting, and actively discussing non-Fascist and non-racist Alternate History fiction. This will not be under a single author, or publisher, or even group: this must be an activist-led solution that spreads across the Internet and into public spaces. It will not be quick; it will not be easy; it will not be free of conflict by any means. But it must be done in a collaborative and united manner if there is to be any chance of changing the direction of the genre we love.
So, can it be done? Who wants to try?
To be continued...
Editor’s footnote: Many of the books published by SLP, and a few from my company, Sergeant Frosty Publications, meet the criteria. I suggest you check them out:
To use a few examples:
Confronting the Barbarians , by Tim Venning. An alternate history of Ancient Rome.
The Blood and The Ghost , by Alexander Rooksmoor. Anglo-Saxon England.
Alternate Australias , edited by Jared Kavanagh. An anthology of stories about different histories of Australia.
The Oregon War , by TT Drewett. Mount St Helens in Oregon Territory explodes in 1842.
Smithtown Unit , by Colin Salt. Action adventure in the 1990s.
Bearfish , by John O’Brien. Hippopotami are introduced to America in 1911.
Building Jerusalem series, by David Flin. Follows the adventures of four soldiers in the British Army, set in a 1920s where WWI never started.
Six East End Boys , by David Flin. Thirty years after the 1984 Brighton bomb successfully kills the PM Margaret Thatcher, things aren’t going well in London.
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