Monday, August 07, 2006

Interesting Alt. History Debate

What do you all think? I find that I like alternate history in some forms, but in others it's just dreadful. Part of that is my dislike of certain historical periods; the American Civil War is a prime example because it just doesn't interest me. Take note, oh future authors... do not send me a civil war novel. =) I also think that there's too much emphasis on Western history in the current alternate history novels that are being written. Where, I ask you, are the novels about ancient Indonesia or central Asia? That would be interesting because it's so different from what's currently being published. Would a publisher buy it? That I don't know.

But one of my favorite novels as a child was CARAVANS by James Michener (yes, I was a highly advanced reader; my mother taught me to read when I was three years old, and I had read the entire unabridged JANE EYRE by the time I was in fourth grade), and that was largely because it was such an exotic setting that it drew me in. I'd love to visit Afghanistan still, to this very day, but trust me, I'm not going there any time soon. Unmarried Jewish woman in Afghanistan=not a smart idea. Sadly, it's also why I can't visit Pakistan either, which I would dearly love to do.

(And now, it's time for a very early breakfast. I am unable to sleep and I have a lunch meeting with an editor in seven hours; oh woe is me.)


Scott Washburn said...

I see what you mean about most alternate history being about standard and familiar Western History. But isn't that to be expected? Far more Western readers are going to know about those periods than Indonesian or Far Eastern history. I mean the author doesn't want to have to keep telling the reader: 'Okay, this is what *really* happened and this is how my story changes things'. But he might have to.

But alternate history can be fun. I can remember reading "Lest Darkness Fall" when I was a kid and I've read others since then, some good and some bad. Actually my one professional sale was for the "Ring of Fire" anthology set in Eric Flint's "1632" alternate history universe. Of course, my co-author and I wrote about alternate history potato chips, so we didn't change things too much :)

James Dashner said...

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of alternate histories. But it's probably because I've only read one, and it was so stupid I swore it off for the rest of my life.

It was "Guns of the South", I think, by Turtledove. People went back in time with machine guns and helped the South win the war. It was the only period of my life in which I would've favored reruns of "Joanie Loves Chachi" over reading.

I'm sure the stuff by Eric Flint is much better.

Jenny, I was advanced, too. I read the complete Superfudge series by the time I was eleven. Yeah, that's right.

Actually, I do remember reading "Winds of War" when I was ten, because the miniseries had just come on TV. My older brother thought I was Einstein reincarnated.

Laurel Amberdine said...

Well, Stross is witty as always, so it's a fun post. I've noticed the same thing he has with American SF. No shiny new future, and so demanding with the science that it's hard to make one up.

I never liked alt-history. You know, maybe it's the a symptom of being a Michener fan? (Heh, I read THE COVENANT when I was ten, and SPACE is engraved in my memory for ever. That solar flare!)

SF is about what could be. Fantasy is... well, fantasy. Mythical, allegorical, just plain fun story telling... whatever.

Alt-history is absolutely what didn't happen. I hate that.

Disguised as SF, I'll take it... if it's good. I liked 1632 and ISLAND IN THE SEA OF TIME.

Hope you get a hold of some suitably sustaining caffeinated beverages today. :)

BuffySquirrel said...

I write alternate history, so I suppose I'm biased in its favour. I fail to see why alt hist, like SF, can't be "about the world as it is", even if it's set altwhere or altwhen. I have wars in my novels, does the real world not have wars? Are plots involving love, betrayal, honour, freedom, etc, not engagement with issues we confront in the real world?

Isn't one of the big criticisms the uninformed make about SF that it's "escapist"? So now we're attaching that label ourselves?

I read the comment about alt hist being used as a tabula rasa for any story you want to tell, and I confess my reaction was, and what's wrong with that?

What IS wrong with that?

Okay, the first novel has a European setting but it's not a Civil War novel, so maybe I'll send a query :D.

Jenny Rappaport said...

scott washburn, I don't think that you need to constantly keep telling the reader "this is what really happened and this is how my story changes things". A good author will weave the reader into the world of the story, they'll get engrossed and read the whole thing, and then there'll be an afterword explaining how it differs from real history. It's the story that matters when you're reading the book, not exactly how much you know about the history behind it.

And in terms of working with more familiar history, then where is the novel that extrapolates what happens to Europe, if the Mongols neever made it there? Or what happened to the Mongols themselves then? THAT'S what I want to read.

laurel, I adore Michener, although I don't know if his books would sell nowadays. They're not high-concept enough, but damn, they're good. My favorite is HAWAII, which I read when I was eleven and in sixth grade.

buffysquirrel, I have no problem with European settings whatsoever. I'm very fond of Europe, and I want to go visit there one day. But the American Civil War just bores me. I can't help it; I've never really found it intersting, which isn't a comment on the emancipation of slaves, etc, since that was wonderful; just more of a comment on the fact that I find it tedious. Now the Revolutionary War, on the other hand... that I adore. I live five minutes away from where the Battle of Monmouth took place, and Molly Pitcher's well is just down the street. =)

JonathanCresswell said...

I'm guessing that specific areas of AH can become mined out quickly because the fundamental question "what if this had happened?" can only carry a story so far. Beyond that point it's relying on all the other qualities required of any story -- plot, character, style, etc -- and it may just as well be set within a known history, where the reader may have a stronger sense of attachment. If it's not, there should be a valid reason why.

Here's a hypothetical example. I've got an entry in an idea file whimsically tagged "Huns on the Run". At the peak of conquest and expansion, the Great Khan dies, and the empire disintegrates. A military unit deployed at the edge of Europe, loyal to the dead Khan and not to those now fighting over the throne, settles in an isolated valley, conquering the locals; ruling, protecting, and eventually intermarrying with them. Things go well. Then the news: after 20 years of strife, a New Khan has begun conquest again. What do the sons of the original warriors do when that army comes over the plain? Join it, or fight it?

You could set a story like this in real history, in AH, or in a fantasy setting. It's really a question of what you want to explore with it. Abstract ideas like loyalty or cultural identity would work in any setting. Specific notions like "what if a local population knew how to fight Mongols effectively and had light cavalry of their own to do it with?" would need an AH setting. And, perhaps, if you wanted to explore the situation of people facing this onslaught, but in a different way, you'd choose a fantasy setting and have terrifying magic as part of it. Or, maybe, after extensive research you'd decide that real Huns or Mongols would never face a serious moral conflict, and that you need to move away from a specific known culture to a fictional one with different strengths and weaknesses. But there ought to be a reason.

For non-Western AH novels, there's Kim Stanley Robinson's _The Years of Rice and Salt_, which takes off from the point of the Black Death killing not one-third of the European population, but 99% of it, leaving a wasteland. The Renaissance happens in China, India and Arabia, with similiar tensions between religion and science being played out in a different setting.

BuffySquirrel said...

I could have written my novel with a Fantasy setting, but the characters are so obviously Romans that there didn't seem a lot of point in pretending otherwise.

I enjoy the freedom of the alt hist setting while having the story grounded in the real world. Works for me!

(mind you, my father says I'll never sell it)

Jenny Rappaport said...

buffysquirrel, pay no attention to the mutterings of fathers! My father insists that I will never sell one of my semi-hatched novel ideas since it requires too much research and would be set in the past... I shall prove him wrong, one of these days... =)

And jonathancresswell, I would love to read "Huns on the Run". There's also Steven Barnes' novels, where America is largely colonized by Islamic Africans and the white Europeans are the slaves; it's quite interesting. The titles escape me at the moment, however.

JonathanCresswell said...

There's also a possible fourth choice of setting: history with the serial numbers filed off, but enough clues left that readers can distinguish the origin. I'm thinking of Guy Gavriel Kay's treatment of Byzantium and Vikings; or Jaqueline Carey doing "Kushiel's France".

buffysquirrel, I think this is partly what Scott was getting at: the word "Romans" has a kind of brand recognition. It triggers a whole set of perceptions immediately, depending on the reader: centurions, Nero, gladiators, dull history classes, Russell Crowe, whatever. But it's fast. If a reader is giving your cover blurb six seconds to convince her, then if she likes Roman settings, you've got an immediate foothold; she'll look further. If not, she won't like the story anyway, so nothing lost. Same principle with instantly recognizable words like elves, wizard, vampire, etc. If the story fits comfortably within that setting, I'd say it's advantageous to leave it there.

Baen Books published quite a bit of "Romans 'n' Aliens" material, mostly by David Drake, including the definitive _Birds of Prey_. And they are taking slush, both long form and (AFAIK) short for their Universe e-mag. Might be worth a look if you haven't already. :)

jenny, thanks for the encouragement on the Huns notion. I have a novel to finish up this fall, and it'll be time for a new project next year, so I may kick this idea up a few layers in the attention pile. :) Meantime, there should be a query email somewhere in your Inbox. There's a civil war involved in it, but not American, or human for that matter...

Stephen Barnes' book is "Lion's Blood". Looks...interesting.

Did you ever catch the trailer for Seinfeld's _Comedian_? It has a lot of the feel of wrestling with a query description, I think:

Bruno said...

Gotta admit, alternate history never really turned my crank. I guess that was because there was so much historical fiction to write that wasn't all that alternate. I suppose, like AH, it answered the whole "what-if" question but it did so on a micro scale. There are so many interesting areas of history out there it really is somewhat disappointing that writers have to be so blatant about making stuff up (Turtledove being a prime example). Oh and Jenny, although I wouldn't recommend travelling their now, Afghanistan is a beautiful place and the food is absolutely incredible. If you ever get the chance try to find raisins or dates that have been grown there. There is a particular flavour to them that puts North American store-bought ones to shame. When I asked an Afghan woman once why this was she told me it was because they let all their fruit dry while it's still on the tree before picking it. Incredible. Anyway, all this talk of historicla fiction's got my itching to finish another piece I'm working on based on Mongol history. It was actually documented that the Caliph of Baghdad sent Genghis Khan 1000 captured crusaders as slave infantry. When Ghengis Khan received them he immediately freed them as he had no need of infantry. However, of those 1000, it was never recorded what happened to them. This part is historcial documetnation. I'm just picking up where the documentation ends. Oh well, got to go.