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

Friday, 19 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History VI: the limitations of a genre


I've read some pretty good alternate-historical stories, rigorous, "soft," and more or less fantastic. I've often felt discontented with what I read, however, for reasons on which I've not quite been able to put my finger. I suppose I can only say that the fantastic settings and plot-devices reveal two key intellectual limitations of the genre: materialism and chronological snobbery. In what is, for now, the final post on the topic, I'll try to explain what I mean.

I think the problems become clearest when one focuses on the broad "ASB" genre. One thing that's troubled me is the often flippant objection that something is "ASB" and so out of the bounds of real alternate-historical discussion. It's not unfair to argue that an event is implausible, but "so implausible that only extraterrestrial powers could bring it about" is a very high bar indeed. The assertion seems philosophically under-determined. History is not a story of likelihoods, but of actual events in their infinite and sometimes (to us, as now see them) inexplicable particularity.

Again, we can never say what would have happened. Could anyone have predicted, on the basis of what we know about the Mediterranean world in, say, 50 B.C., that anything like Christianity would have arisen in a hundred years, and, if so, that it would have entirely transformed the religious mentality and practice of the Roman world in four hundred more? How about Islam, from what we know of Arabia even as late of the era of Justinian? What about the industrial revolution--as we, by shorthand, call the many interwoven technological and social changes of the long nineteenth century--a hundred years before the invention of the first useful steam-engines?

Writers of alternate history do a good job with logistics, technology, and other nuts-and-bolts practicalities (better than I might, to be sure). They tend not to grapple with the unpredictably human side of affairs, sometimes just because it is unpredictable, sometimes because (one suspects) they don't actually believe that people of other times and places were any different from themselves.

In a typical "ISOT," past peoples gleefully embrace democracy and liberalism (for just about any political or economic value of "liberalism"), and, if they don't, it's because they are benighted, self-absorbed nobles. Take Flint's 1632 as an example--and that has more reflection on the matter than most online stories I've seen! The disregard for cultural and anthropological particulars extends to the humanistic side of alternate history scenarios, too. The calibers of battleship secondary armaments matter. Latin mottoes for fictional organizations can be left to Google Translate, and too often are.


I don't mean to be unfair. It's not as if writers of alternate history simply disregard human experience. I certainly have seen scenarios that speculate about how popular culture would have been changed, for example, by the occurrence of a World War III, or that show a different civil rights movement arising out of a different World War II, or indeed a few scenarios focused on aspects of popular culture. I don't think alternate-history writers are uninterested in the human side of their stories. That side simply doesn't predominate in the stories as actually told, at least on the internet. The history of which an "alternate" version is being told remains primarily technical, military, and sometimes institutional history; the wider fabric of human mentalities and cultures and experiences is largely excluded, or forgotten.

Nowhere can the tendency be seen more powerfully, as I have already hinted, than in the grand "ISOT" scenarios of the Alien Space Bats genre. With a few signal exceptions, these stories ignore the psychology not just of past peoples, but of the person transported to a foreign world. The character or characters transported become agents of technological progress, not real persons living in the past or a parallel world or (as often) in the setting of a published piece of fantasy or science fiction. How would a person transported to the Middle Ages really react to what he found there?

The question is rarely explored. The real concern, after all, is whether or not our transported protagonist will invent a superior way of refining alcohol, cause a revolution in money-making and bookkeeping, and bring on the Renaissance a few centuries ahead of schedule (and yes, I'm pretty sure I've seen that precise wording), or whether he will put his energy into making gunpowder weapons and so centralize the state or found a republic or some such.

A corollary of this focus on the technological and material is a profound vulnerability to what C.S. Lewis, following Owen Barfield, called chronological snobbery. Even in a forum that leans strongly to the political left, where one might expect more concern about the dangers of "colonialism" and so on, it's taken for granted that characters who find themselves in the past will devote all of their energies to raising the benighted persons of their newfound century to the glories of the present--usually including modern social causes as well as technology. No one ever goes to the past and finds anything about it that, lack of plumbing aside, is better than what we have now. He rarely even finds that there is anything to learn or understand, dislike it though he may.

It needn't be this way, of course. One could imagine a scenario in which the protagonist very naturally wanted to make his new present look like his old one, but eventually came to see that he could not, or that the order of his new present was not his to disturb, or that it was actually preferable, in some important ways, to modern (post-)industrial society. That might make for a good story, but it virtually never happens: the Time-Traveler's Burden remains squarely on his shoulders. The protagonist of the modern "ISOT" is Twain's Connecticut Yankee, without his loss of confidence at the end of the work, and (usually) without the challenge of past people who catch up with him.

Nor does the protagonist reflect on the theological or spiritual or even moral significance of his transportation, beyond, perhaps, a perfunctory superstition that some "purpose" must lie behind it. This, I think, is the final, and maybe the fundamental, weakness of the "ASB" conceit as a premise for a narrative. The Alien Space Bat, being an extraterrestrial being, is immensely powerful; he is not, however, God in a classically theist sense, or even a benevolently perspicacious guardian, like Homer's Athena, for the objects of his cosmic meddling. His actions are thus, as a rule, the result of simple caprice. The story occasioned by his actions can thus, at best, be a kind of existentialist attempt to overcome the empty diktat of fate or of fortune. It can never be a saga, as in Tolkienian high fantasy, of the war between good and evil, and it rarely, if ever, attains to any kind of mythic grandeur.

Maybe that is why the dream of technological progress plays so central a role in the ASB story (and often enough in its more "historical" cousins): it not only grants the story the excitement of growth and expansion, and thus its initial interest, it is also still a central part of the mythology of modern Western civilization. We may not believe in human moral progress anymore, but, by George, we all still believe in antibiotics and aeroplanes and astronauts!


The objections I raise are not fatal for the genre: a lot of enjoyable reading can be found here, and that is not nothing. Light-hearted pleasure is a good deal better, in the end, than self-important profundity. Nevertheless, I hope that more will be written in the genre that shows a more, shall I say, Chestertonian imagination: one in which good and evil really do matter, and are not simply identified with present and past mores, and the protagonists transcend the limits of our own time, which as Lewis liked to say, is also a historical period. Alternate history, like detective stories, may remain light fiction, but it, too, needs its Father Brown, or, better yet, its Professor Ransom. Maybe there is one to be found somewhere. If so, I've not found him yet.

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