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

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History V: Bats from Planet X

Unbeknownst to the Puritan pirate captain, the ring of power had fallen into the hands of the warlord of a distant planet whose name is made up entirely of phonemes in shaded areas on the International Phonetic Alphabet chart. The warlord bided his time, gathered his armies. Then one day, a cloud of fire-breathing bats descended from the sky, wreaking havoc and burning all the countryside. The warlord rubbed his hands together—or rather, the ends of his wings—as he looked down and saw the Earth burning like a little firecracker, and he sat back in his throne and laughed and laughed and laughed.

--Ella Hansen, In Enigmate, "False Ending" (revised)

Ahem. I'll let Ella explain where that little gem came from, and why, someday. Let's just say that Young Adult fantasy sometimes gets old, even for the authoress herself. What I mean to draw attention to is the paragraph's protagonist: our trusty alien warlord, whose presence in the story I apparently inspired. "Alien Space Bats" were--so the story goes--invented in a usenet discussion by a contributor who wanted to underscore just how impossible it would have been for Unternehmen Seelöwe ("Operation Sealion"), the planned German invasion of Britain in WW2, to succeed: only the intervention of extraterrestrials could have brought the Germans victory.

What began as a sardonic metaphor has become a trope of the alternate history genre, to the point that the Alternate History Forum has a whole board devoted to "Alien Space Bats" (really, two boards, now that they spun off the fanfic into its own dedicated subforum). The term is now used in two distinct ways. In the first, it still holds its original sense. "That's so ASB!" is the standard objection to any scenario held to be too implausible to be taken seriously.

The second use is much more expansive. Here, the metaphor, meant as a kind of dismissive joke, is taken as the premise for a different kind of alternate history. The "Alien Space Bat," sometimes figured literally as an extraterrestrial character of great power and greater caprice (and often, for some reason, named Skippy or Ziggy or the like), intervenes in the course of human affairs to bring about a a world that could not have been.

The repertoire of "ASB" scenarios is vast. On one side, we have empty-headed banalities: "What would have happened, if, in 1945, an ASB made everyone in the USA have an insatiable desire to ally with Japan and Germany and conquer all countries beginning with the letter B: Britain, Belgium, Brazil, Burma...?" To which I can only say, in the eloquently pithy jargon of the internet: LOL. In truth, however, such scenarios abound, and very little can be said in reply to them. If everyone in the world went mad, what would there be to say?

On the other side, we find elaborate timelines and novels of persons or cities or countries transported to the past or to other worlds, or otherwise affected by impossible events (or by events considered outside the purview of "history": on the Alternate History Forum, geological points of departure are "ASB" by administrative fiat). Some of these, like some of the serious alternate historical timelines, are genuinely good stories. Though perceived as less serious on the Forum, the genre also includes some of the best known published pieces of alternate-historical fiction: many of the novels of Turtledove and Stirling, for example, or Eric Flint's 1632 series (which, like many of the internet novels, has aliens as the literal agents of the transportation that is the story's premise). Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time even lent its name to a new word: a character or place transported back in time may be said to have been "ISOTed."

"Alien Space Bats," as setting if not as plot device, are absolutely central to the alternate historical genre as it actually exists. Again, the alterity of the story resides to varying degrees in the premise and in the plot: some stories start with a simple transportation of an individual person, for example, then try to let the events unfold as naturally as possible. An excellent example is Poul Anderson's short story, The Man Who Came Early. Others are more free-wheeling, and can even (as in Turtledove's Worldwar series) involve continuous involvement of alien characters. "ASB" is thus oblique to the hard/soft axis, and the genre, taken as a whole, overlaps extensively with both fantasy and science fiction.

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