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

Monday, 15 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History, part IV: Writing "hard" and "soft" alternate history

If the observations I have made in the last two posts are accurate, there is an important practical consequence for the writing of alternate history: every "hard" alternate-historical narrative is in danger of going soft. Once the timeline has diverged sufficiently from the main narrative, only authorial fiat prevents it from diverging further. Once John F. Kennedy has given the order for an all-out response to Soviet aggression off Cuba and Thomas Powers has flattened everything under Moscow's sway with the full might of the Strategic Air Command, there is no telling what the world will look like even five years later, let alone fifty.

Not everything, of course, has effects so extreme as a "hot" Cuban Missile crisis (a perennial favorite of the speculative), but every story must eventually cease to stand in any direct relation to real events and become simply a story of a different world. This, I think, is why I at least often lose interest in timelines after a certain point: the original "hook" that drew one into the narrative has long-since been left behind, and no compelling character or plot has arisen to take its place, if the chronological, pseudo-historical format even allowed one to.

Strict alternate history is thus at its best (or, at least, most to my taste) in a narrative of relatively narrow ambit. It need not be a short story: World War III in the 1950s or 1980s is a plausible subject, and one I have seen done well, in narratives that held interest well for at least some tens of thousands of words (that they went on for hundreds shows the need for an editor, not, I think, a failure of the story in itself). It does need, however, to focus most of its attention on a relatively brief sequence of events, and only show the aftermath through some kind of quick summary (a good place to introduce more dramatic irony). Otherwise, it will have develop into a novel in a stricter sense, with the requisite characters, plot, and so on.

"Soft" alternate history, by contrast, simply needs to be a good story. One hopes that the setting will not be too implausible, which means, importantly, that it needs to be sufficiently different from our world. Turtledove's whimsies aside, there probably would not be a Richard Nixon in an alternate British or Roman or Bantu America, though some ironic nods might amuse the reader.

At least this is so for the more fanciful kind of story. A middle course may be possible in others. Ella's first novel, once serialized on a now-defunct website and equally unlikely to see the light of day again, was set in an imaginary south-east Asia of the future. Once, I proposed to her, as we discussed a possible re-envisioning of the story, that she could actually set it in an alternate south-east Asia in a mid-twentieth century that had gone very differently, or, perhaps, in the future of that world: a world in which the ethnic Chinese minority of Malaya, Singapore, and perhaps the Philippines had become the master-class of an empire that stretched to the border of a (unified?) India.

Here, one might work in some references to real figures such as Ho Chi Minh or Lee Kuan Yew, and certainly would want a more detailed account of how the world had become what it was, if only to render the politics coherent. Nevertheless, the success of the narrative would still rest solely on its actual merits as a narrative, rather than on any alternate-historical ironies.

In the end, an alternate history novel must be a novel first and alternate history second, and I think that this is sometimes forgotten. Not, however, by the followers of the Alien Space Bats, but more on those next time.

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