Friday, July 3, 2020

Green Phoenix - Why I Enjoy Alternate History?

Hello everybody!

I hope that your June was as relaxing as mine. Actually, given everything that happened in June, I hope your month was even more relaxing than mine. I kept myself quite busy, between participating in protests, attending city government meetings, and a lot of fiction writing and reading, I've also been working quite hard on building a stockpile of articles for all of you to enjoy.

In the hopes of easing all of us back into the habit of reading my incredibly entertaining articles, I thought it would be quite fun for me to begin with a short editorial going over one of my favorite topics of all time and one that I wish got a lot more respect in this day and age.

And who knows, maybe my discussion on it may inspire you to look more into it and create even greater works in the field.

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What is Alternate History?

I have probably explained this in my various literary reviews of alternate history stories, but this editorial gives me the opportunity to go into a little more detail into what exactly qualifies as alternate history and the various sub-genres and fields within the genre.

At its most fundamental level, alternate history is a category of speculative fiction, oftentimes synonymous with science or historical fiction, which deals with a world where one or more historical events are altered and explores the fallout of such a universe. How these changes occur can differ from world to world, but the fundamental idea of a single major point of divergence, or POD, is rather common.

From this basic definition, we arrive at some of the more subtle of fantastical elements of alternate history that help distinguish certain stories. I like to call these subdivisions "hard" and "soft" alternate history, much like we have "hard" fantasy" and "soft" fantasy subcategories. "Hard" alternate history is grounded heavily in reality, relying on few, if any, fantastical elements to create its stories (no aliens, no time travelers, etc.). The best-known example in my mind would be Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191 series, which details a world where the Confederate States never fights the Battle of Antietam because General Lee's battle plan is never recovered by the Union. A fairly reasonable alteration that eventually leads to a wildly chaotic and dark future for the globe.

On the other end of the spectrum, "soft" alternate history can run the gambit, often taking full of advantage of what the community refers to as "alien space bats", or elements of pure fiction that enable impossible outcomes to occur. A great example might be Eric Flint's Ring of Fire series, where an alien artifact accidentally sends an entire West Virginia coal-mining town in 2000 back in time to 1631 Germany. The artifact never makes another appearance or is ever really mentioned, and other than the time travelers the world stays fairly grounded in reality afterward, but that initial POD is so fantastical and impossible that it can't be defined as anything other than "soft" alternate history.

As one can imagine, the line between "hard" and "soft" alternate history is a spectrum and there is no single type that is better or worse than any other, though I personally do enjoy "hard-leaning" alternate history more than "soft" (I love the Ring of Fire series, however).

But what is it about alternate history that makes it so compelling to read and think about?

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Why Alternate History is Great

"Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

This is a quote by the Spanish-American writer and philosopher George Santayana. In this quote, Santayana stressed the importance of critically analyzing history and noticing the patterns of behavior and causality that lies at the heart of history. By applying past events with the context of present conditions, it is hoped by many historians that a sense of predictability of the future might be possible.

In a sense, it is a similar process that writers apply with regards to alternate history. By using history itself as a backdrop for fictional narratives, a writer is able to explore the nature of our present and the culture that we have developed in the present through the lens of an alternate present.

A common alternate point of divergence, almost to the point of cliche, is whether or not the South won the American Civil War or the Nazis won World War 2. But there is a very good reason for exploring these two particular moments in history. For Americans, which the majority of alternate history fiction is focused upon, these two wars represent perhaps the most critical moments in the development of the American cultural identity. The rise of the United States as a single unified and industrial polity and the rise of that same nation into a global superpower.
SCV News | April 20: Book Signing with Harry Turtledove at CSUN ...
Harry Turtledove
The Father of Alternate History

It is with that in mind that exploring how American culture and global relations would be fundamentally altered by changing the outcome of events as major as the Civil War or World War 2. How would the independence of the Confederacy and the preservation of de facto slavery on the American continent impact the relationship between the United States and its newly independent neighbor? How would that impact Europe and the 20th century and beyond? How would our society be different if Nazism and totalitarianism became the style of the time, rather than liberal democracies?

These are the kinds of questions and considerations that good alternate history can explore. But in my mind, the really good alternate history are those that cover subjects that are far smaller than a lost war. The death of a single person who lived, one most people don't even remember, the change of one single event that butterflies into a world that is almost completely unrecognizable, is the true scale of alternate history.

It allows us to analyze whether the cultural identity of our society was an inevitability or the product of random chance and predictable outcomes to past events. To question whether the world we live in is the best timeline, the worst, or somewhere in the middle. And most importantly of all, it can allow us as both authors and readers of alternate history to question how to approach our own timeline's future in a new way, by re-contextualizing history in terms of speculative fiction.

And I believe this is the heart of good alternate history. A person is, in many ways, the sum of their memories and experiences and how those chain of memories shape that persons interactions in the world. By that same measure, a society is a collection of people all simultaneously acting on their individual and shared memories in such a way that shapes future events and future memories.  By alternating a single one of these memories, perhaps a single persons or a collective shared memory, how would the world and especially people's internal identities change? This question lies at the heart of alternate history and every author, whether they use a natural event or space aliens, fundamentally conjectures on the nature of this question.

And it can be mind-blowing to see the vast scale of the possible iterations of each changed event, many of which are in fact the products of each others own personal experiences and agendas as well, to add a further layer of complexity.

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Where Can I Find Alternate History Stories?

Unfortunately, despite how important and culturally relevant alternate history can be, it is largely ignored and misrepresented in popular media in favor of more fanciful fiction. On some level, this does make some degree of sense. Part of the appeal of many alternate histories is an appreciation of the context of the original actual history that is being changed. Given the general lack of historical literacy in the American population, this appeal also becomes quite a debilitating weakness.

Who cares to read a timeline where Person A survives in a timeline where they died if 99% of your potential reading audience don't even know who that person was? This is why many authors spend a great deal of their time either removing the historical context of the story and structuring it like a fictional setting, as Harry Turtledove is want to do, or by spending lots of time explaining the importance of the characters or places involved in the story, either in story or in appendices, much like Eric Flint. While I prefer either or, if you possess a particuar preference, these two authors are likely a great starting place for you.

With regards to Harry Turtledove, Guns of the South or Worldwar is great if you enjoy heavy science fiction elements in your alternate history, with the first dealing with time travelers and the latter dealing with aliens. If you prefer the more grounded form of alternate history, then his Timeline-191 is a perfect first choice, though I am also partial to his novel, The Man With the Iron Heart.
Amazon.com: 1632 (Ring of Fire Series Book 1) eBook: Flint, Eric ...
1632 by Eric Flint
One of my personal favorites.


For Eric Flint, his Ring of Fire series. I know he has written a ton of other stuff but 1632 and its many, many sequels are easily my highest recommended. Saving the absurdity of the concept, the series remains fairly grounded and realistic, rejecting the notion of "great man" history in favor of anthologies of very human, flawed, and expendable characters. It really is fascinating to watch this series evolve over the years.

In terms of other authors, you really can't go wrong with the classic alternate history by Phillip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle. Or you can go with Andrew J. Heller's Grey Tide in the East, which I have written about in the past.

But lets say you don't to have to go out and get a book. Thankfully, the internet has truly become a breeding ground for alternate history. You can watch AlternateHistoryHub on YouTube, where the creator Cody Franklin goes over his thoughts on certain hypothetical histories (you can also check out his own science fiction alternate history The Atlantropa Articles). You can also have a blast listening to the TalkernateHistory podcast on YouTube.

But for online alternate history, AlternateHistory.com is probably the most easily accessible alternate history on the market. These are products of love for their creators and while the forum certainly has its moments of toxicity and bad mojo, the general attitude is one of collaboration and positive reinforcement. The recommendations here are two many to count and new story concepts are being created daily so its impossible to accurately put any specific highlights and be up-to-date.

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Conclusion

With the advent of the internet, alternate history truly is reaching its peak in terms of democratization of the concept. The biggest limiting factor has always been its reliance upon historical literacy in its readership. The internet does offer a realm by which historical context can be better integrated, but I do believe that alternate history is unfortunately doomed to be a rather niche market as long as history is not widely promoted in our culture in general.

I hope the time will one day arrive where it is, as alternate history truly grants us as readers an opportunity to ponder upon the precise nature of our personal or cultural developments. Through alternate history, we are allowed a safe space to explore difficult possibilities for our society and truly question human nature. History is considered the sum total of the good and bad without favoritism towards either. Alternate history grants us as authors and readers the freedom to play with history in hopes of better understanding it, and perhaps with predicting future events through it.

And it is for this reason that I hold alternate history in such high regard as a genre and enjoy it so much.

Next week, we will go back to reviews with a look at yet another documentary. It should be a lot of fun.

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