Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History, part II: "Hard" Alternate History

If alternate history has little to do with the writing of actual history, what makes it work? I've noticed a striking effect when reading alternate history scenarios online. As a rule, posters on the Alternate History Forum prefer timelines of varying elaborateness to traditionally organised novels or novellas. Their stories, except those that fit under the broad category of fantasy alternate history (more on this in another post), are usually organised not around the actions and psychological development of particular characters, but according to a sequential, chronological arrangement of events. Coupled with this structure is a tendency, not universal though sometimes hotly defended by purists, to make the events of the timeline deviate from a single "point of departure" (POD, in the parlance). Alternate history is thus presented, in form, as a fictitious analogue of the straightforwardly "factual" narratives of modernist historiography, albeit without the supporting structure of footnotes and sources.

Now, what I have noticed is that such timelines often start strong, holding interest for the account of the first several hours, days, or weeks after the POD, but usually fizzle out as the story deviates away from the real events into pure invention. The pattern is doubtless common in unedited, serialized writing on the internet, but I suspect it still reveals something about the nature of the genre: alternate history of this intentionally pseudo-historical kind is most effective, as a story, when it can be compared to the history of the real world (or "original timeline" (OTL); note the explicit characterization of the historical, as of the alt-historical, account in sequentially chronological terms).

Why? This kind of story operates, I would suggest, through dramatic irony of a very specific kind. We, as ideal readers, know "what really happened," or, if we do not, can learn enough through quick perusal of Wikipedia and other online texts to appreciate the basic outline of real-world events, and what is different in this story. The pleasure of alternate history is found in a delicate combination of alterity, its otherness to the actual history, with similarity, its likeness to what really happened.

A couple of examples may show what I mean: An alternate twentieth century that has a surviving Roman Empire fighting a Neo-Yuan China for control of Persia might make for a good story, but it has nothing to do with the real history. An alternate twentieth century, on the other hand, that pits Britain and Japan (not an implausible alliance!) against Imperial Russia, France, and the United States for control of the Pacific allows much more scope for imitation of real events and for the appearance, at least in the early years, of real, historical persons (including the juiciest type, the man who should have died or failed, but didn't). Most importantly, it makes possible an (at least superficially) rigorous prediction of the probabilities of what would or could have happened: it is an alternate history in a strict sense, as our imagined story of Romans and Mongols is not.

There is a good reason that the Second World War and other areas of twentieth-century military, and sometimes political, history remain a perennial focus--I am tempted to say, the perennial focus--of alternate-historical writing, at least on the internet. The twentieth century is documented well enough, and in texts accessible enough to the ordinary person, for this kind of probabilistic account to be made. Not that there aren't alternate histories of the ancient, medieval, or early modern worlds, but even I, as an ancient historian, don't really see much interest in them, I'm afraid. We simply don't have a great enough density of facts to produce a very plausible account of what would have happened, had any one fact been different: it is much more difficult to control for the "POD." It's also difficult for such an account to hold the inherent interest that a narrative of our own world, or our grandfathers', does. If Augustus had died as a young man, the Roman commonwealth, the res publica, would have looked very different in what we call 30 B.C. or A.D. 30 or 300. What of it? How many of us know enough to tell that story, or even to appreciate it? Will it just founder on our very real ignorance of what Augustus and his contemporaries did and thought?

This sort of scenario invites unguarded speculation and repetition of half-forgotten nostrums from high school history classes. Better, maybe, because safer, to stick with technical matters such as the throw-weight of a battleship broadside or the equivalent thickness, in millimeters of steel, of the frontal armor of a T-72, or, for those more inclined to narrative, with decent modern accounts of the Battle of Midway or the Battle of the Bulge.

I may sound dismissive, but, really, I am not: this kind of ironic pseudo-history, alternate history proper, as I would call it, can make for a very exciting story. It can even do so without involving well-drawn characters; it can consist of more or less pure plot, and arouse strong emotions of pity for the unfairly vanquished or of elation at the victory of those who should have won. Who would not be moved by the destruction (the horror!) of the U.S. landing forces at Leyte Gulf, after the heroic and hopeless defense by the men of the Samuel B. Roberts and the other U.S. Navy vessels, in a world in which Kurita did not retreat? Who would not be thrilled by the contest for which every military-history buff has secretly longed, a clash between the Iowa and New Jersey and the Yamato, in a world in which Halsey had not chased down the Japanese carriers, or had sent Lee back early? Like the mystery stories of Dorothy Sayers' famous essay, this kind of tale, well-told, has about it at least some of the tightness of plot and the cathartic power of an Aristotelian tragedy. It also, I suspect, has some severe limitations, but that is a topic for another post.

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