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

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History, part III: Chronology and the problem of genre

When does a story set in an imaginary past stop being alternate history? As I noted in part II, alternate history stories, at least those found on the internet, tend to take an explicitly chronological form. Even when they do not, there is an assumption that the plot derives from a particular alteration in the actual events. But what if it doesn't, or if the deviation lies so far in the past that any but the most tenuous sense of irony or comparison with reality is lost? Even chronology, the most rudimentary tool of historical analysis, eventually loses its meaning. Charting one's way through time is rather like charting one's way through space: without fixed points of reference, both the writer and the navigator find themselves directionless.

The example from my last post illustrates the point. A Roman Empire squaring off with a Mongol China twenty centuries after the death of Julius Caesar would exist, in the chronology of Dionysius Exiguus and of our own civilization, in the twentieth century. That imaginary world need hardly, however, have the particular cultural and technological trappings--the narrative feel, if you will--of our twentieth century.

After all, when we refer to the "twentieth century," we don't just mean to refer to a block of time relative to an arbitrary point; we are referring, by a kind of shorthand, to the cultural, political, and technological circumstances that have obtained over the years 1901 through 2000, or over some span of time roughly congruent with them (perhaps 1914 through 1989 or 2001). It is, in short, a historical period, and periods gain significance when set next to other periods. The twentieth century of our imagined Romans and Mongols might look nothing like our own; it could look to us like the High Roman Empire or the High Middle Ages or the Renaissance or Regency-era England or any other period of which we have a stereotyped vision, or like none of them.

Should we still call this kind of story alternate history, then? The question is not purely theoretical: in my first completed novel (still unpublished, and likely to remain so), I imagined a university town, a thinly disguised Oxford, set in a Roman Empire that had neither fallen nor become Christian. No specific "point of departure" from the historical series of events was mentioned in the final version of the story, and, in any case, so many centuries had passed since that time that it would be misleading to see the contemporary state of affairs as the direct result of any one choice made, or chance suffered, long before. Perhaps we could imagine that Constantine had never been born or had been smoothly elevated, with Maxentius, to the rank of Caesar (what Lactantius, our best source, says everyone expected to happen), and had never seen fit to overthrow the Tetrarchic system or acknowledge Christ as his all-conquering divine patron.

When, then, was the story set? There were few absolute indications: the events had to postdate the reign of Diocletian by some great length of time, enough for an epic on his reign, mentioned in passing in the text, to have become a classic. The general tenor of social relations was gentler than in the real Roman Empire; slavery existed, to be sure (the main supporting character was a slave), but we saw neither the rigid social stratification nor the brutal punishments typical of Rome. Here, the feel lay somewhere between Rome and my imagined 1920s Oxford or Harvard.

Not so the rest. The Americas, as we call them, had been discovered, but there were, it seemed, no great overseas colonies; avocados and chocolate drinks remained follies of the nouveau riche. The central plot-arc involved proof of the heliocentric model of the universe and the first gropings toward a theory of gravity, discoveries of our sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The key proponent of heliocentrism was an irascible scientist of a profoundly nineteenth century mold, a distant spiritual cousin of Professor Ransom's friend, MacPhee, in Lewis's Space Trilogy. There was, however, no industrial revolution, though there were gas lamps (perhaps unrealistically) and the very beginnings of a germ theory. Philosophy, on the other hand, remained solidly Stoic, Epicurean, or Platonist: ancient, in short.

In absolute terms, the story could have been set at almost any point; perhaps a millennium could have sufficed to bring about the changes I imagined. The story would thus be set in what we would call the fourteenth century. The chronological datum reveals nothing, however, about the actual character of the story and its setting. Perhaps "gas-lamp historical fantasy with a Roman twist"? But that is a description, not a genre.

I have been going on at length about my own work, I know, but precisely because writing it forced me to think, for the first time, about the limits of the alternate-historical genre. I once tried to get advice, on a writing-related blog, about the novel's genre, and was solemnly informed that there was such a thing as alternate history, and that this was probably it. I doubted the idea then, and I doubt it now (and, in fairness, so might the giver of the advice, could she read the whole thing). It seems to me that this kind of chronologically indefinite story is not the same thing as "hard" alternate history at all; if anything, it is more akin to fantasy, even if it has no magic.

It, like many other such stories, is a piece of fiction set in a world that is self-consciously not quite our own, not a piece of fiction that attempts at every turn to underscore its similarity-in-difference to the real world. Alternate history is part of the setting, not part of the plot. Some might call it "speculative fiction," but, as Ella has pointed out to me, all fiction is in some way speculative; "historical fantasy" suggests Napoleon fighting werewolves (now there's a plot idea!). Perhaps "soft" alternate history is the best name for it. In any case, it is not quite the same thing as rigorously chronology, pseudo-historiographical "hard" alternate history, and the difference has implications for how it should be written, as I'll discuss in more detail in the next post.

No comments:

Post a Comment