There Will Be Warheads

I’m going to propose herewith that we attempt in some fashion to rein in the pseudo-sf subgenre known as the alternate history. Or maybe bludgeon it to death. I’ll bring the cudgels. Here’s why. I was recently on a panel at a convention with a batch of alternate history writers. The topic was supposed to be “Alternate Histories Not About War.” That seems to me to be an interesting topic. After all, people were writing things that fall into that category long before Harry Turtledove took on the Civil War and created a sub-genre that subsequently has devolved into something that appears to be one step away from actually playing on a miniature battlefield with toy soldiers.

I didn’t appreciate how much it had devolved until that empaneling. Because, despite the ostensible topic heading, the guys (and they were all guys) making their nut writing alternate history were all about war, war, and nothing but war. The opening statement seemed to be that it doesn’t matter if you alter anything in history, what you will ultimately get because of that is war. So, everybody all together: War, war war. It’s the only subject that matters.

And there I was, sitting alone at the end of the table with my list of alternate history novels not about war. The first of these was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which, while predicated on the notion that World War II resolved in a dramatically different fashion, is not about war, but about the social changes following that war–a novel that was guided in part if not total by Dick throwing the I Ching to find out where the story would go. An interesting experiment. The second was Michael Swanwick’s extraordinary Jack Faust, wherein Faust asks Mephistopheles for a heap of advanced technologies instead of a glimpse at the pudenda of Helen of Troy. The result is an industrial revolution on steroids and the rise of an early fascism across Europe that well surpasses the Nazis. And finally I managed to mention Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, where a time-traveller looking for the historical Jesus inadvertently (because he knows where Jesus is supposed to be on any given day) becomes misidentified as Jesus and so kicks Christianity into motion. Brilliant novels all, and certainly alternate histories. These few titles were met with sneers and derisive sighs by the alt-history authors assembled. Near as I can tell, since none of these novels involved the appearance of submachine guns at Agincourt, they didn’t qualify. Remember: War. War. War.

What really convinced me, however, was the guy beside me, author of swingin’ military skiffy novels starring Cap’n Jack Flooby or somebody, who explained with deadly seriousness that the Harry Potter books were themselves alternate history novels because J.K. Rowling had bothered to map out some of how having wizardry in the world might have altered it. By this definition, most every book by Charles de Lint, Tim Powers, John Crowley, James Blaylock, Jonathan Carroll, Holly Black, John Kessel…well, really, by this argument anyone who has written a fantasy where what we think of as our world actually incorporates and has been altered by the existence of some fantastical element is an alternate history writer. Pity the poor South American magical realists who’ve never heard of the term but are now trapped inside it like insects in amber.

It seems to me that as near future sf has become more and more problematic to write, and in the semi-vacuum that existed before Brits–Karen Traviss and Iain Banks to name just two–had come up with new and improved space operas, a lot of military-in-space writers split off and began writing alt. histories. Their immediate defensiveness delivered via their obvious derision would seem to suggest that they know on some level that what they are writing is piffle of no consequence. Then again, I could be completely wrong from this small sampling. Maybe I just got empaneled with the biggest jerks in the sub-genre.

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  1. 1. Alma Alexander

    At least you didn’t get blogged down in terminology – a similar panel I was on couldn’t even make up its mind about what alternate history was – as compared to, say, historical fantasy or slipstream or the new weird or whatever else was flung around on that day – it was a fascinating panel on what makes us name things the way we do but it was emphatically not a panel on alternate history…

    That said, if I had been on your panel I would have bludgeoned your fellow panelists with a blunt object. War might well be one of the defining issues of the human race – we’ve fought enough of them to prove that – but all wars are the same, in the end. People die. What makes a book interesting is what happens to the people who live.

    Dammit.

    Bludgeon those panelists with something. Or lock them in a virtual reality room with some version of Nintendo and let them annihilate themselves.

    Writing is so much more than a cloak for mass murder and destruction.

  2. 2. Cheryl

    Isn’t this just another example of how history is presented to us? Look at the typical output from the History Channel, for example: one war documentary after another. I don’t think that A/H writers are particularly at fault, they are part of a much wider malaise.

    P.S. Shadowbridge rocks!

  3. 3. Constance

    War is so much easier to write than, say, a plausible scenario by which we get out of the catastrophic cycle of violence-consumption into a sustainable, humane, progressive cycle.

    War doesn’t need anywhere near as much imagination — or even historical information.

    Love, C.

  4. 4. S.C. Butler

    Sounds to me like your co-panelists were confusing alternate history with secret history when they decided to encompass JKRowling et al. If the altered history fits within the framework of what we know as ‘history’, then it’s secret history.

    Or ‘shadow history’, as Kage Baker migh call it.

  5. 5. Eleanor Lang

    Thoughtful, and well-put, Greg. As someone who once worked for a publisher that thought all profits could be bolstered with a good (or crappy) alt-history novel, I can say that you hit all the bits that always bothered me. You did leave out one of my favorite works in the sub-genre, Pavane, but it’s pretty obscure.

    It sounds to me like some of your co-panelists were unfamiliar with the basic defination of alternate history: a key element of factually recorded history must be different and must change the world as we know it today.

  6. 6. Patrick Nielsen Hayden

    Goodness! You were on a panel with some nitwits who read and write alternate history. Therefore, alternate history is a “pseudo-subgenre” that has “devolved,” and needs to be “reined in,” or perhaps “bludgeoned.”

    From where I sit, “alternate history” also contains books like Jo Walton’s FARTHING and HA’PENNY, which are (1) not about war and (2) not by a guy. But what do I know? Obviously your reasoning is superior to my mere Earth logic.

  7. 7. Constance

    Wasn’t that what GF meant? That alt history was so many subjects and approaches, yet these fellows only saw it as fiction that involved war? That’s what I took from his post, anyway!

    So he vented then, about the blinders this group wore, coz, you know, it was so annoying that they didn’t want to consider anything but war.

    Love, C.

  8. 8. Diatryma

    Julie Czerneda edited an anthology called ReVisions about alternate history based on techonology. Germ theory at the time of the Black Death, AIDS in Victorian England, and so on. I liked quite a few of the stories.
    There’s also “Voice of Steel” by… um. Forgetting. But I loved the story in Scifiction, and it was my introduction to steampunk, though not called that.

  9. 9. Johan

    Well, I feel somehow, that I need to add there something, despite the last entry is quite old. I’ve read Jack Faust, because of this blog, as this author apparently thought, that Jack Faust stands out in this genre.

    I do not particularly like alternate history stories unless they have some good entertainment or humour in it that has cojoined with some idea and enriches your reader experience about something, that you wouldn’t think of yourself. But that applies not only to scifi, but other genres as well. I classify them to “time travel” genre stories, that are expluated by authors as some kind of magic, who do not really understand, that time does not exist without a space and matter and time flow is just a movement of matteria.

    First part of Jack Faust was enjoyable – there were some hilarious lines in it. Ending of this book was torture – I was reading it, at the same time glancing on remaining pages and waiting for something with conclusion and felt, that author has lost all inspiration and there was no ending and there was no story about main character – just compilation of history and that it leads to destruction whatever path humans would take, it would end in disaster, even when Jack Faust wasn’t following all of the Mephistopheles advices. As a matter of fact this turned me to do some research of original Faust and script is somewhat copied from original.

    The main love story was a bit awkward there:
    1. Margarita was not morally pure here – if she was, she would reject Jack Fausts ideas about any seductions and would ban him forever from her heart and probably end tragically or find new love after a while, but Faust there suggested them(on the basis of Mephistopheles visual reality broadcast), because of her unability to control sexual desires and it follows, that actually she didn’t knew what was Love and she really wasn’t ready to love Faust and she didn’t loved him as a person, but as a celebrity.
    2. The only question for Jack Faust would be if he was really responsible for that what turned out to be Margarita and this question is really from alternate history, schrodingers cat or alternate reality – it was her choice, not his. Goethes Faust pitied Gretchen and didn’t love her anymore and that was classical greek tragedy that should end with death of Gretzhen and ascend to heaven, because everything for all that she hoped was lost and not because by her free choice. In Jack Faust version was some chaos of thoughts and required some effort to read it through to the end.

Author Information

Gregory Frost

Gregory Frost's latest book is LORD TOPHET, the second volume of the SHADOWBRIDGE duology from Del Rey (Random House). Fantasy Book Critic calls Lord Tophet "a richly rewarding experience, it is also one of the few must-read fantasies of the year." And Paul Witcover says of the tale ""His pages bristle with the kind of lively energy I associate with Miyazaki films, and his delight in the stories his characters hear and transform and retell is palpable and contagious." His short story collection, ATTACK OF THE JAZZ GIANTS & OTHER STORIES (Golden Gryphon Press) was hailed by Locus as "a notable collection, likely to stand as one of the best of 2005" and Publisher's Weekly once again,in a starred review(*), went even further in saying, "Frost demonstrates his mastery of the short story form in what will surely rank as one of the best fantasy collections of the year." Recent short fiction can be found in the anthology POE, edited by Ellen Datlow, and upcoming in URBAN WEREWOLVES, edited by Darrell Schweitzer. Visit his website for excerpts, publishing info and appearance dates. He blogs here and here. More on Shadowbridge here. Visit site.

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