Friday, September 25, 2015

Editorial: Five Things I Hate Seeing in Alternate History

If you are reading this blog, it's a pretty good chance you are doing so because you like Alternate History, and decided to put up with my twice a week rambles on topics that as of yet is not World War Two or the American Civil War (don't worry, I have a plan for them...). If not, it's because your a family member or a friend and I asked you to look at this blog. In that case, HI MOM /DAD/ BROTHER/ GRANDPARENT/ AUNT/ UNCLE/ COUSIN/ FRIEND/ ACQUAINTANCE!

However, I decided to take a moment and write what I think are some of the most important things when it comes to writing and enjoying Alternate History. This is not because I haven't read anything really historical in the past week to help me research a topic, or I'm holding onto ideas for just the right time, forget about them, then never actually do it. Neither of those.

But consider this perhaps a somewhat short and concise explanation of some of the pet peeves and cliches that I see popping up over and over again that just makes me cringe and want to set whatever I'm reading on fire. I've always wanted to get it off my chest, so might as well do it sooner or later.

1: The Lack of Plausibility. The best praise an alternate historian can get for something they write in the genre is "This is really plausible." My favorite line, one I got for my short story "From Enigma to Paradox" published in Substitution Cipher was "chillingly plausible" by Publishers Weekly. Publishers Weekly! This is an acknowledgement that the story that has been written is not only good, but the background and plot work together to present an effective "what if?" scenario, and one that, if events happened differently, could be real history.

That said, there is nothing that will destroy my personal interest in a story quicker than if the scenario isn't plausible, or isn't well explained, or feels like it was shoe-horned in just to seem "cool." One example is the novel His Majesty's Dragon, also known as Temeraire, where dragon's are placed in the Napoleonic War. When I was first reading the book, it just irked me. It took a while to figure it out, but I eventually figured out that it was because dragons were just put into the timeline, and though it's mentioned that dragons have been used by militaries and nations for centuries, human history developed exactly as in our timeline, which I think completely destroyed any sense of plausibility for me. I'd think that if dragon's had always existed, that it would do a lot more than just establish air warfare a bit earlier.

2: Alien Space Bats and Deus Ex Machina. In general, I don't like "serious" alternate history stories that thrown in a Alien Space Bat. What is an Alien Space Bat? Well, basically it's a deus ex machina. What's a deus ex machina? Click on the links I provided and stop asking silly questions! But basically it's when something otherworldly or unnatural comes in, either to start a story, provide conflict, or help clean it up. There are times when it works, like "The Race" that invades Earth in the middle of World War Two in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series, but it's one of the few times it works. After the aliens are introduced as having somewhat modern weapons and technology in 1942, Harry then keeps it all grounded in reality, or as close as he can imagine it to be.

But the bad ASB stories, like Harry Harrison's Stars and Stripes trilogy were, suddenly, the UK is not only at war with the US over the Trent Affair, but also the Confederacy, then the US and CSA invade England... yeah, that's not happening. Scenarios that pull magic or advanced technology or aliens out of no where, have it fix a problem in the story, then never heard from again, is not only sloppy writing, but very, very, very bad alternate history.

3. The Butterfly Effect. If you have read my big timeline on the Alternate History Wikia, French Trafalgar, British Waterloo, you'll realize that I'm not a huge fan of The Butterfly Effect. Besides the fact that it's hard to find pictures of people you make up to place in something like the List of Presidents of the United States in a TL, it really doesn't make sense to me that if one very tiny thing changes, like say a butterfly that flapped it's wings in our timeline is killed before it can do it in another, it will rewrite all of human history... I don't think so. This is usually used when dealing with Time Travel stories, but it also pops up in more serious alternate history as well.

However, I also know that if something changes in 1805, say the French win the Battle of Trafalgar, that there will be consequences, and changes up to 1905, 2005, 2105, etc. But I don't think it will be as big or as drastic. After all, unless Napoleon winning a sea battle is actually the signal of the End Times, people are still going to be born, grow up, have children, do something important, then die, leaving a generation behind to continue on. So, even if the date of birth, death, name, and their importance in history changes (like say Richard Nixon not being the President but a used car salesman, to use a popular trope), I think that most of the people we know may still be around, just, you know, different. This isn't to say that people that may have lived in our Timeline wouldn't be born in this time, or people not born wouldn't be born either way, but I don't want to say "Oh hey, I killed a dinosaur in the Jurassic, now chickens will  rule the earth when I get back!" The Butterfly effect is something that has to be used carefully, and not just to make everything different for the sake of making something different. It should make sense. It should be... well, plausible.

4. "Ameriacentric" Everything. From the stats on my blog as of last night when I wrote this, the largest single group of people to view my blog are from the United States. 1,349 to be exact. The next closest, my home country of Canada, is a minuscule 193. So, I'm sure this will hurt some feelings (and lose me some views when I say it) but the US is not the center of the universe, and certainly shouldn't be the center of every single Alternate History scenario ever. Yet... it happens. I know I've done my fair share of Alternate History scenarios that focus on the US, but I also try, more often than not, to provide a more fair, balanced, and international view.

But when you have mostly Americans writing and consuming Alternate History, then you get "Ameriacentric" Alternate history, and then you have something like the god-awful Spike TV Alternate History TV show (of which all I could find were links to the terrible reviews of it, including by Matt "Mitro" Mitrovich over at the Alternate History Weekly Update), where, since the US (and the UK and Canada, but are never mentioned) failed in D-Day, the Nazi's bombed New York and won the war. Forget that the USSR had several million men nearly to the borders of pre-war Germany, and the US had the Manhattan Project... because the US lost, the world lost. The US had a big factor in World War Two, but if the US never entered World War Two, I highly doubt the Nazi's could have taken on the Soviet Union and won, or even lasted much longer than Hitler's death.

5. Never Enough Research, Never Enough Time. One thing I've found out time and time again when I was working on my alternate history, on the Wikia, for "From Enigma to Paradox" and now here on this blog, is that no matter how much I know about a subject, or what I think I know about a subject, it's never enough. When I started French Trafalgar, British Waterloo in high school, all I really knew about the Napoleonic Wars was Napoleon, Nelson dying at Trafalgar, marching into Russia in the winter time is a bad idea, and Waterloo. When I started writing it, I quickly found Wikipedia was my best friend. So many things I didn't know, and that I sort of winged as I worked on it, until by now, while maybe not an expert of the Napoleonic Wars, I have a pretty good understanding of it. However, I also couldn't research everything about the Napoleonic Wars, because I talked about much more than that: I've gone up to at least 2010-2011, so I need to have a basic understanding, or better than average knowledge, of over 200 years of history. And even then there are a lot of gaps and places I never talk about. I've had people write to me since I started this blog pointing out things that I never thought of, such as the effect of the Space Race in my first post, What if The USSR Never Got the A-Bomb? Since then, I have a list of things other people have asked me about in my different scenarios that I never talked about, but to some people is more important than what I wrote about. I'm not saying I'm right and their wrong, but that I just simply didn't have the time or knowledge to write about it.

It is so vital, so important, that you know the real history before you start changing it. This ties into everything else I talked about: without adequate research, the willingness to change and edit things, and the ability to connect the dots between people, places and events, you will write implausible, ASB, willy-nilly Butterfly effected, 'MURICA driven timelines and stories that to the average person won't make sense and to alternate historians make us cringe and shout at our computer screens in impotent rage.

This isn't directed at one person or anything, but it's supposed to provide maybe an idea of what new Alternate Historians should be looking at to develop their writing and understanding. It's also really important to state that everyone has a different idea of how an AltHistory scenario will play out, and often times more than one. If you ask a group of 10 Alt Historians something, say "What if the Nazi's won World War 2," you'll most likely get a hundred different scenarios, all different from each other.

Perhaps the most important thing I will say to a new Alt Historian that's reading this for the first time is that no matter what you write about, as long as it's plausible and not full of ASB and decently researched, I would read it and think it's alright, if not fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. I always appreciate when people can rant intelligently; I've indulged in a few myself, though usually I chicken out before posting. You posted several good points, the ones I agree with most being #4 & #5.

    But ... a few thoughts, just to play devil's advocate:

    I'll admit I'm biased, since I'm a huge Temeraire fan, but I was actually very impressed by the amount of historical research Novik did on her work; in other words, I thought her portrait of dragons in an alternate timeline did a good job of matching a real historical feel, with each culture and nation adapting to their usage in believable ways, rather than simply plomping them down and making it all D&Dish.

    In fact, I dare say this series is a perfect example of your point #3, since while there are real changes to the world of Temeraire (the Incans never fell to the Spanish, Chinese society is heavily codependent with dragons, and African slavery looks to be taking a different course), the world hasn't suddenly titled off its axis simply because another species exists on it. It's just similar enough to our world that the changes Novik makes are subtle but stark for their utter ordinariness.

    Also: I've never even heard of this TV show you spoke of, though I'd trust Matt's opinion in terms of quality. The idea of a US defeat resulting in Nazi rule is a common enough misconception, though, including a work considered a classic of the genre: namely, "The Man in the High Castle," now set for a full series by Amazon. See, I couldn't plausibly by this work for the same Westerncentrism that I found fought with in "1984;" somehow, the Soviet Union is completely destroyed and Africa/South America are basically nonexistent. But both of these books are considered masterpieces.

    That gets to the heart of my timid objection, since I actually do think you've hit on many good points: the basic problem with a lot of stories (let alone alternate histories) is the lack of, well, a story. I was at a writing conference this year and one of the speakers made the bald claim that if you write a good enough hook with good enough characters, it really doesn't matter what the "quality" is. I don't know that I'd go that far, but without an engaging story (even a docustyle drama/timeline or non fiction work), there's no interest, and the resulting pristine correctness can feel as interesting as a hospital wall.

    I guess what I mean is: the Temeraire books and "Man in the High Castle" are well-written thought experiments. They may not be everyone's cup of tea (I personally have a hard time enjoying Philip Dick's works), but they are engaging, entertaining, and even at times enlightening. I personally think plausibility/accuracy/details help provide that entertainment/engagement value, but they have to be woven into the story in an organic way that makes a story come alive.

    Just a few cents from a non family member, who is enjoying your timelines (especially those set not in her country of origin).