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The Road to a New Alternate History. Part 2.

By Adam Selby-Martin

The long and winding Road to New Alternate History.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Reflections on the Current Atomisation and Decentralisation of the Alternate History Genre – and its Complex Potential Future(s)

Part 1 – Parallel Realities and Professional Memberships

My previous essay generated a not-insignificant amount of controversy, so for this one I thought I would turn away from complex subjects – like the embedded nature of Fascism and racism in the Alternate History genre – and instead spend a few thousand words looking at something far simpler and less controversial. Specifically, the question of whether Alternate History is actually its own distinct genre in fiction, or a sub-genre of an actual genre like Science Fiction; and if it is its own genre, then why does it appear to be so fragmented and atomised (at least professionally) in comparison to almost every other genre in existence?

To begin this entirely anodyne exercise, I think that it would be beneficial to have a test subject that we can use to experiment upon; and as this is my essay, then I suppose that subject will just have to be your most humble correspondent: Adam Selby-Martin, amateur fictionaut within the treacherous word-oceans of Alternate History (yes, folks, it’s another 1am writing session. How did you guess?) At the time of writing, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have had three short stories (vignettes, really) published by my hosts here at Sealion Press. Now I personally think that’s quite an impressive record, but from reviewing the membership requirements of various professional writers’ organisations within the genres, there appears to be a general consensus that to be an ‘active professional’ writer that you need a number of short stories of a certain word count and/or a novelette or novella or two under your belt to formally qualify. For example, the Horror Writer’s Association has a membership level (one of many) titled Active Pro Writer that has such a requirement.

[Note: This is absolutely not an essay about the concepts of ‘professionalism’ or exactly what qualifies one to be seen as a ‘professional author’ within any genre. That’s an entirely different debate that is both highly subjective and controversial, and honestly to me seems more than a little silly. For this essay, the concept of a ‘professional author’ is merely being used to indicate membership in a formal, professional society of authors, publishers and reviewers – working towards a broader point.]

Professional writers with an idea. They come in all shapes and sizes. Writers, not ideas. Although come to think of it, ideas do as well.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I certainly don’t meet those requirements – or at least, I don’t meet them in this reality, so – seatbelts please!

[Ominous rumblings and a distant screeching that is definitely not reminiscent of a beloved British science fiction show about time-travelling and parallel realities].

Not appearing in this article.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

If you’re feeling at all nauseous, confused, or are missing body parts (or have gained body parts) then please note that this is a common side-effect of traversing to a parallel reality and should subside soon. For we have now travelled to another reality in which this reality’s Adam Selby-Martin has been far more successful in terms of being published by Sealion Press. He now has half-a-dozen short stories of the appropriate word count published in various anthologies, as well as a recently-released novella focusing on an alternate history of The War of the Triple Alliance (“Terrifying in both its historical and geographical ignorance” – The Morningside Review of Books).

As such, Adam Selby-Martin in this reality is now ready to take the next step forward in terms of his engagement with the Alternate History genre, and wishes to join a professional organisation within the genre in order to meet with fellow peers, network with authors, publishers, and reviewers, and perhaps working towards achieving the sort of well-known awards – like the Hugo Award and the Bram Stoker Award – that can boost one’s sales and public recognition.

Now this would be a very simple process if he were writing in any number of other genres. If he were a science fiction writer, he could simply apply to the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) for membership, or even an organisation like the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) if he wished to be more region or country-specific. If he wrote horror stories, then the aforementioned Horror Writer’s Association would be ideal for him. If he dabbled in tales of the romantic type, then the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) or the Romance Writers of America (RWA) might be in order.

If he wrote cross-genre fiction then he might be best served by something like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association (SFWA) – perhaps the best known of the professional organisations representing authors in a genre. I could go on – the Crime Writers Association and its CWA Dagger Awards perhaps, or the Mystery Writers of America or even the Western Writers of America . Almost every genre has its own professional organisation that an author can join.

Almost every genre.

Adam searches for such an organisation that represents the Alternate History genre, but can find none anywhere. There is a genre award that is given out every year – the Sidewise Awards – but there’s no genre-specific organisation behind like like the Hugo or the Bram Stoker, and it’s given out as part of the World Fantasy Convention – an entirely different genre! He’s not sure how that happened, exactly, but the truth of the matter remains: the genre that he writes in doesn’t have a professional organisation that represents it, and which he can join in order to try and bolster his writing career.

Disheartened, this reality’s Adam wonders if Alternate History is perhaps the most profitable genre for him to be writing in after all. Maybe he should reconsider and pivot towards other genres – the Erotica Readers and Writers Association seems to be quite active...

Part 2. Associating with an Association

As with my first essay, having cunningly utilised my striking wit and subversive humour to draw you into this discussion, I now intend towards the deeper and potentially (well, definitely) more controversial part of this essay. In this case – the question of why there isn’t an Alternate History Writers Association in existence, and the possible wider implications of the absence of this organisation for the Alternate History genre as a whole.

Why can't New Alternate History have one?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Now you – my dear, beloved and ruggedly handsome reader [Editor’s note: Are you sure you don’t write romantic fiction? And what about our distaff readers? Are they also ruggedly handsome?] – well throw up your well-manicured hands to the heavens and ask why membership within – and indeed the very existence of – such a professional writers association within the genre matters so much? After all, you would rightly enquire, hasn’t the genre existed for over a century without such an organisation being formed? Thousands of novels, tens of thousands of short stories and novellas have all been published down through the decades without the support or intervention of any association or other formal framework. Why, then, would the absence of a theoretical Alternate History Writers Association be of such a concern now?

After all, you could also point out, it’s not like these organisations only provide benefits to its membership and its wider associated genre – one merely has to search online for the name of one of these organisations and add the phrase ‘controversy’ in order to uncover various unpleasantries. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia – not to mention more pedestrian issues such as plagiarism and misattribution. The list is quite extensive. In addition, such organisations can become hidebound and fossilized, doing little inventive or innovative with their collected membership dues; and they can even collapse inwards in the event of some major scandal, as has happened multiple times this century.

These are all excellent points and should be made when discussing this concept. And yet for all of that, I believe that the absence of such an association is an important piece of evidence pointing towards a central yet unacknowledged truth about the Alternate History genre: that it has become atomised and entirely decentralised. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that it has always been atomised and decentralised, and that this is at the core of the current problem with the genre – and the issue that has allowed the current fascination with Fascism, racism, and totalitarianism to utterly dominate the genre at the expense of anything radical, innovative, or original to flourish.

Let us consider the current state of the Alternate History genre when it comes to its authors, its publishers, and its readership. I know of only one publisher solely dedicated to publishing and promoting Alternate History, and I am writing this essay on that same publisher’s blog. This is in comparison to hundreds of publishers solely dedicated to releasing titles under almost every genre that exists, not to mention dozens of publishers that are flourishing by releasing titles under relatively niche subgenres. As I write this, there are more publishers dedicated to Extreme Horror titles – itself a very niche (and highly controversial) Horror subgenre – than there are dedicated to the entire genre of Alternate History.

Not only does our genre lack more than a single publisher, but it also lacks what I would term the literary backbone for a genre – those magazines and anthologies that are solely dedicated to Alternate History short fiction. At the time of writing, the fantastic Alt Hist: The Magazine of Historical Fiction and Alternate History has been closed to submissions for more than three years; I can no longer even locate the website for AHF Magazine, which was edited and published by the author operating under the pseudonym of “Grey Wolf”. And while Inklings Press does amazing and often unacknowledged work in releasing its superb Tales from Alternate Earths anthologies, they are the only ones doing so – it has been 13 years since Ian Watson and Ian Whates The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories was published. Sealion Press regularly releases anthologies with superb stories based around under-utilised themes – yet through no fault of its own, it has a highly limited reach, crucially due to that lack of centralised infrastructure.

Indeed, and perhaps uniquely amongst every other published genre, Alternate History as a genre exists in a state of atomisation – hundreds of tiny islands that rarely connect with each other and either stagnate or self-cannibalise by focusing on only the most popular and yet simultaneously the stalest themes, such as the twin victories of the Swastika and the Stars and Bars. We are a genre of Facebook groups and subreddits, of Internet forums that are either half-hidden in obscurity thanks to that very same decentralisation or poorly administered and rife with the same obsession with Nazis and Confederates that dominates the rest of the genre.

As both an author and reviewer of Alternate History fiction, I have often struggled to figure out an effective way to promote both my own written works and the works of those I wish to praise as original, thought-provoking, and high-quality. In every other genre I review – science fiction, horror, fantasy, crime – there is an existing network of highly visible publishers, reviewers and professional associations that I can liaise with to submit works or reviews of other works. Yet when it comes to my own genre, this entire framework is almost entirely absent and I am at the mercy of hashtags on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit in the vain hope that the secretive and mysterious algorithm (with its own concerning and often outright horrifying biases) will circulate word of my writing to those who might be interested.

I do not wish to claim in this essay that the formation of an Alternate History Writers Association or equivalent would suddenly and miraculously resolve all of the issues I have listed above, and lead to a utopian future focused around New Alternate History. As a bureaucrat embedded deeply in an organisation of the state, I am well aware that change – true change – can only come in fractions, step-by-step, over a period of time most accurately measured in years and even decades. But I do fervently believe that the creation of such an association would have both immediate and long-term benefits for the genre as a whole.

Professional organisations such as the Horror Writer’s Association can act as formal, wide-ranging and highly-influential platforms from which genres can be influenced on a direct level by providing and promoting inter-genre discussions between publishers, authors, and reviewers; as well as providing annual awards that can highlight and reward the best fiction – short-form, long-form, visual, and audio-visual – published in a genre. They can also more generally support and promote a genre’s writings, assisting by providing a centralised source of resources for publishers and individual authors around a variety of themes and issues.

Imagine an Alternate History Writers Association that had a website that was regularly updated with the latest details of the genre’s publications and releases on a weekly – monthly – annual basis. A centralised resource where new or veteran readers alike could review a list of the latest short stories, novellas and novels that had been released; where publishers could highlight their latest magazines and anthologies and announce their current submission periods; where discussions about the direction and focus of the genre could be hosted centrally and then promoted once completed. An association that could create a new annual award for the best of Alternate History across a variety of categories – an award that could in time become as influential and well-known as the Hugo and the Bram Stoker Award.

The Sammy's. Who doesn't enjoy a Red Carpet?

And in the longer-term, this could be an association that helps to centralise and redevelop the Alternate History genre for the better – helping its readers, authors, and publishers to refocus on the more positive aspects and themes of the genre. An association that helps to launch a New Alternate History, a new period in the genre’s history that refocuses away from the Swastika and the Stars and Bars and towards the sort of fresh and engaging content that it so desperately needs.

Perhaps this is nothing more than the fevered dreams and semi-literate ramblings of a man dealing with rampant insomnia. Yet it seems to me that if there is to be some evolution of the genre in a positive manner – be it New Alternate History or some other embryonic form that has yet to be recognised or developed – to sweep away the old prejudices and obsessions represented by the Third Reich and the Confederacy, then an association is almost a pre-requisite for this evolution. For if not, then the Alternate History genre will remain as atomised and decentralised as it has always been – almost completely stagnant and with no way to effectively promote the original, thought-provoking and engaging fiction that I, for one, know exists in some of those tiny islands.


Three Alternate History books that avoid the Swastika and the Stars and Bars:

Lest Darkness Fall , by L Sprague de Camp.

One of the earliest “hero out of time” novels, and a look at ancient Rome. Reviewed here on this blog.

With Iron and Fire , by David Wostyn. Published by SLP.

A look at a different China emerging from the early 20th Century.

Alternate Tastes of London , by Andrew and Kat Flin. Published by SFP.

Reviewed here on this blog. This looks at 12 different versions of London that could have arisen with a history that diverged from our own. Presented as a tour guide for time-travelling tourists. Complete with usable recipes.

Comment on this article Here.

Adam Selby-Martin has three stories in SLP Anthologies: Comedy Through the (P)ages, Fight Them on the Beaches, and Grapeshot and Guillotines.


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