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Why write Alternative History?

By Gary Oswald

Sea Lion Press is built around producing Alternative or Alternate History content and implicit in that goal is the assumption that there is value in Alt History literature. But obviously nobody would suggest that every single story has to be set in an alternate timeline. Pride and Prejudice would not be better if there was a subplot about how the Union of Crowns had never happened.

So what is the advantage of it as a literary device? What does it add to a story, when is it useful and when is it not?

First, lets talk about what we define as Alternative History. To an extent all fiction is alternative history. Jane Eyre depicts a plot that did not happen in our own timeline because events before the start of the book, in this case the birth of Jane Eyre, have altered the country the book is set in. But you wouldn’t advertise it as such because it depicts the same culture merely with added fictional people. What we are talking about is a story set in a recognisable Earth country, so Vietnam rather than Westeros, but one in which there are visible societal and political differences to our own. It’s essentially a middle ground in terms of societal depictions. Trainspotting, on one end of the scale, puts its fictional characters in a real society, Lord of the Rings puts its fictional characters in an entirely fictional society, AH uses instead merely an altered society.

Tom Black, the founder of Sea Lion Press, said in a youtube interview a few years back that in his view AH wasn’t a genre like Romance but a setting. Genres often dictate story beats, a Romance starts here and has this and then goes here whereas an action story covers this instead. AH doesn’t dictate the beats of the story to the same extent, instead you can tell either a romance or an action story within that setting.

George RR Martin, in his book Dreamsongs, went further still and argued that most genres have the same beats. You can write a scene wherein a traveller arrives in a new area and fights an unfriendly stranger and depending on the setting that is sci-fi, or a western or a war story or a fantasy or a gang story. The genre according to Martin often isn’t dictated by the story beats but rather the set dressing. AH is a set dressing genre the way Westerns are, not a story beat genre the way Romance is. To an extent this goes back to the monomyth idea, Christopher Booker has argued there are only seven basic plots in terms of story beats in the world and so it’s the set dressing where innovation happens.

Hillary Clinton as photographed by Gage Skidmore in 2016. Image shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Which takes us back to the idea of AH as a middle ground between realism and fantasy. Say you want to write a political drama wherein the main character is an intern in a political campaign based on Hilary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign. Now in terms of plot, you have lots of options, romance, intrigue, action, coming of age etc. But in terms of setting, you only have three.

A: You set it in the actual Campaign as it happened, Clinton beats Sanders and loses to Trump.

B: You set it in a completely fictional campaign, wherein a vaguely centrist woman is fighting against men on both her left and right but they all have different names.

C: You go AH, it is still Hilary Clinton but she either doesn’t beat Sanders or does beat Trump.

So what does C give you? Well vs A it gives you suspense, you are not constrained by the political outcome as it happened in reality. Your reader does not know where you are going to go.

And vs B you do not have to explain who these people are because everyone reading it knows who Trump is. You can use shorthand, Donald Trump acted like Donald Trump.

You have events and personalities that already exist and you can build off but also the freedom to break from them if required.

This, in a nutshell, is where AH is useful. Take for instance a WWII story, if you’re writing a straight war story you can take huge liberties with the historical record but you can’t have D-Day fail or Hitler die in 1941 so your characters can only succeed to certain limits. Write WWII in Space or on a fantasy planet and you have much more freedom but you don’t get to use Hitler or Roosevelt and you don’t have the audience straight away understanding the stakes and the situation. But, you can always do what Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds and set it in an alt WWII wherein you still have Hitler but the stakes are higher because your characters can win or lose the entire war.

A Ninja as drawn by Hokusai

Or take a Regency Romance, a classic upper class romantic story set in the Georgian period. Georgette Heyer would often use real historical events, such as the Jacobite risings or the Peninsular Campaign, to put drama into those romance but the historical record meant she couldn't depict say a French invasion of England. Ursula Vernon has often talked about doing a version of that story but in an AH England where she can change the historical events. In particular she has written some of a story where instead of the hero going off to join the Army, it’s the heroine going off to fight for a ninja clan, based on the supposed all female ninjas used during the Segoku Judai period in Japan. Now Vernon has written plenty of romances set in pure fantasy worlds wherein faux-ninjas and faux-Georgians could rub shoulders but part of the appeal of the idea is it isn’t faux. Its real ninjas and real Georgians thanks to a different path for the British in Asia. You have both the structure of the familiar and the freedom of the unexpected collision.

Or take biographical fiction. There have been plenty of Historical fiction books giving their take on important figures, what they thought, what they wanted but AH allows you to take those portraits formed by primary and secondary sources and yet still tell a new story. By putting those figures in different situations and giving them different challenges, you can take familiar old people and still surprise the audience with their actions. This is the essential appeal of say the Draka series in which Hitler, Stalin et al have to pit themselves against a new superpower.

But not every story requires this. By and large the further removed the point of your story is from what you're changing is, the less useful going AH is. If the politics of the society aren't the main subject of the story than having to explain the AH differences is just an unneeded distraction. If the results of the political campaign your heroine is working for are largely incidental to the main thrust of her character arc then you don't need to have suspense regards to its outcome and you don't need to lean on familiarity. So there's no real advantage to going AH and using either the real campaign or entirely fictional characters will be less confusing than introducing this new element.

But this is purely thinking in terms of plot and that’s incomplete because it forgets about theme. And here, it's important to remember that a lot of AH isn’t narrative, it's essay writing. Sea Lion Press has published nonfiction as well as fiction. AH is useful to make a point about history and politics.

If you are writing about History, you might want to emphasise the importance of a decision by talking about the counter factual, if they hadn’t done this then this would have never have happened. And to an extent all political campaigning talks about counter factuals. It's about saying ‘last time you picked me and we got this’ or ‘you didn't pick me and we got this’, and ‘if instead you had picked differently, look what would have happened’. It's not about writing a narrative, it's about revealing a truth about reality. About how the world we've got isn't inevitable, it's because of choices made and priorities set and people making choices. And that maybe if we'd made different ones, we'd have something different instead.

And that idea is often expressed through fiction. It’s not a plot, it’s a theme. AH at its best tells you something about our world. By exploring the way things could have been, it shows you how the world as is works. You see the bullets dodged but also the bullets that could have been dodged and weren’t.

A lot of AH is about writing scenarios wherein the UK and the USA, two of the great winners of modern history, are instead occupied and brutalised the way many other countries were and they weren’t. And the argument is why? Why not just tell those stories in Vietnam or the Ukraine or the places where that happened for real?

Partly it’s about using the familiar to build a framework, for a reader in the UK an occupying force in London means something emotionally that one in Muscat doesn’t. And partly it’s about building empathy by showing a dark mirror to reality and saying ‘we’re not special, it could have been us’ you shine a light on those real atrocities.

And the flipside works too. By taking a society that hasn’t been successful, such as many of the societies outside Europe, and by showing what could have happened, how that culture could have evolved then you say something about the way colonialism has culturally flattened those areas.

The theme, the message, of a lot of AH is ‘do not take for granted the world we live in’. A lot of what we consider natural; that we have two genders, that we don’t have slaves, that we own cash and work for bosses, is a choice that we made. Plenty of societies were ran very differently and it just so happened that this is how the world ended up. And given that, there is no reason for it has to stay that way.

Begum Rokeya

That is a message that has often been delivered through Science Fiction. The Sultana’s Dream, written in 1904 by Begum Rokeya, depicts a society in which new technology has nullified the traditional strength advantage men have and allowed women to take become the dominant gender. But by setting it in the far future, you distance it from the reader. It’s a long way away and so differences are expected. It is like how Arab writers would set their extraordinary tales in distant China to allow suspension of disbelief. By doing the opposite, and making it our country in our year but different, you bring the message home.

In both theme and plotting, the advantages of AH over other speculative fiction is that it is tethered in the real. It is based on real events and real people and real places. It is your town being destroyed and that man on the news who is making those decisions. And yet it still allows you to build worlds unlike anything seen in real life. John W. Campbell said the aim of Science Fiction was to show "Something that thinks as well as a man but not like a man", AH does that. But it also takes it one step further and points out that the thing that does not think 'like a man' could well be you if you'd grown up in a different environment.

It is that combination of the familiar and the alien which is the power of AH.



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