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Techniques in Writing Alternate History

For the past several months, I’ve been having a lot of fun reading recent alternate histories and historical fantasies (I’ve reviewed a couple in earlier posts). As a result, I’ve been thinking about how alternate history works, and what techniques apply to the sub-genre.

Divergence as the Elephant in the Room

At some point, all of us wonder about the road not taken. In our private lives, we wonder how life would have turned out if we’d gone to college B rather than college A, if we’d gotten (or kept) a particular job, etc. The same “what if” question gives rise to alternate history, where we try to imagine our world as made different. Whether the portrayal is fairly realistic (as in Harry Turtledove’s Timeline 191) or completely fantastical (e.g. Jonathon Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy), alternate history gives us the chance to consider what our world would be like in entirely different circumstances. And that’s fun, because it can give us insight into our own world, culture, and history today.

Because alternate history is so centrally concerned with what sets the imagined reality apart from our current reality, how the timeline diverges must be established very early on. Thinking about it, I’ve spotted a kind of spectrum of divergence in alternate history:

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

Spectrum of Divergence Techniques in Alternate History

On the one hand, we have what I call fulcrum divergences. This method is most commonly found in “realistic” alternate histories, which lack magic, monsters, or really anything that could not exist in the real world. Some event is identified as a fulcrum on which history swings, and when creating the story we have things work out differently.

The best example I can think of for this type of alternate history has to be Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain. In our real history, a Confederate messenger lost General Lee’s plans for the invasion of the North. The Union found the plans, and General McLellan was able to turn the Confederates back at the Battle of Antietam. Turtledove asks “what if the message never fell into Union hands?” and proceeds to create an excellent series of realistic novels that paint a Confederate victory and map out the consequences through World War II. Such “little differences” need not be so minor, however: Philip K. Dick posited a world where the Axis Powers won WWII in his classic The Man in the High Castle, nor need the resulting world be particularly realistic (consider Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, where Darwin discovers DNA). Even fairly fantastical stories like Clay and Susan Griffith’s Vampire Empire series still rely on that one point where history changed. Universal within these stories is that the world’s history follows the familiar path we should all know up to that one key fulcrum moment when it skews Doc Brown-like into an alternate timeline.

The other end of the spectrum are foundational divergences. Typically used in more fantastical alternate histories, foundational divergence occurs so far back in the story’s timeline that its effects percolate through all aspects of the world. The place names, some of the personalities involved may be familiar to us, but they are already skewed relative to our timeline based on events that happened significantly prior to the events of the story.

In Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, or Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command magic has been known and applied within the world for centuries. There is no “point of divergence” with our known history, because instead the impacts of magic diffuse throughout all aspects of society, history, and cultural development. The key difference between such alternate histories and those relying on fulcrum divergence is that all recorded history has to be different from what is known. In these books, the foundational difference (e.g. the presence of magic) occurred or was discovered so far in antiquity that its consequences have percolated throughout the world. As a result, such books can often be enjoyed as secondary-world fantasies.

Between these two poles lie a variety of techniques that authors can use to establish that divergence. Often, authors use a time traveler from our timeline to introduce the divergence. Once in the past, the time traveler proceeds to change (or – sometimes not) the past as we know it.

Excellent examples of this kind of alternate history include books like Eric Flint’s 1632, Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man and Mary Gentle’s First History sequence. In many respects, these books are similar to those that use a fulcrum divergence: in this case, the time traveler becomes the fulcrum. However, they differ significantly in that typically the protagonist (the time traveler) is aware of the divergence or its possibility. This changes the dynamic of the story and significantly alters the reader’s relationship with the hero.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, one can have an “alternate history” that completely recasts our known reality, which does not take place in any kind of recognizable version of our history. Here, the events of the book are modeled on actual events in our history, but they are depicted in a completely secondary world.

Turtledove’s World at War series employs this technique, depicting the events of WWII in a completely secondary world. Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World (see my earlier review) similarly (though less historically) models aspects of his world on the American frontier.

Maintaining Suspension of Disbelief in Alternate Histories

The key to constructing an effective alternate history is to keep the reader locked in what Gardner calls the “dream” of the novel. This task is particularly challenging in alternate histories, where the reader knows they are reading something inimical to their pre-existing knowledge of the world. As a result, readers are likely to quickly pounce on perceived flaws, places where the author’s research or techniques fell short. There are several tools that can be used to maintain the reader’s acceptance of the alternate history.

The perspective that the book is written from, and the narrative voice that is employed, are both essential tools to maintain the reader’s disbelief. This is doubly-so if the book is written in first-person, but even when written in third the speech patterns, word choices, and value systems that our narrator employs contribute to the milieu of the era we are depicting. Recently, I read two alternate histories that execute on this aspect perfectly: Cherie Priest’s Dreadnought and Michael A. Stackpole’s At the Queen’s Command (see my earlier reviews here and here, respectively).

In both books, the narrative voice and the dialog employed by the characters rings (at least to my ear) true to the period when the books are set. The words key characters employ, the value systems inherent in their views, the differences in how different characters speak, in both books the quality of voice and dialog help to lock the reader into the alternate history. In At the Queen’s Command, the dialog is strongly reminiscent of other accounts of the late 18th century. As a result, I am able to believe that while there may be magic, I am still reading a story set in the 18th century I am familiar with. The same applies to Dreadnought, which follows a southern Confederate nurse across the frontier.

Nailing the voice like this is partly a question of the writer’s natural ear, but it is also heavily influenced by research. Reading books written in and written about the time period can help provide the “feel” of that time period. And solid research on word use and etymology can help make sure that the dialog is period-appropriate (as Mary Robinette Kowal pointed out recently, people swore differently even one hundred years ago). Research and extensive reading are the keys to nailing this aspect of an alternate history.

But there is a flip side to this coin: When we write alternate histories (or even historical fantasies) there is an understandable temptation to shoe-horn massive amounts of research into the text. After all, not everyone is as familiar with the time period as the author. But this natural tendency has to be handled very delicately because people who enjoy alternate histories are likely those who enjoy history. As a result, they are likely to already have substantial knowledge about history, and thus overloading them with historical information may weaken their engagement with the story.

In historical fantasy, this is a danger that I recently observed in Jasper Kent’s otherwise excellent Twelve. Kent clearly knows the history of 19th century Russia, however in many places he assumes that his readers do not. For some readers, this is likely not a problem. But for those of us who are familiar with that time period, the extensive expository background that Kent provides detracts from the rising action of the story. Striking a balance between that need for background and the forward motion of the story is key to writing any story based in history. When I think about the authors who do this well, they apply the rule of “less is more” and leave the reader to infer whatever background they do not already know. If we have to pick between momentum and background, I say always go for momentum.

Imagining a Different Today

If futuristic science fiction is about imagining a possible tomorrow, then alternate histories are about imagining a possible present. This at once constrains our world-building (to a greater or lesser degree, we have to conform to known history) while providing the opportunity for very focused imagination. When I read excellent alternate histories, I often think that it is much harder to paint a maserpiece by coloring within the lines. But the best authors of alternate history manage to do exactly that.

If you’re looking for fun alternate histories, below is a list of the authors and books that I’ve mentioned in this post. I strongly recommend you pick up a copy, from your local bookstore or your library and enjoy:

REVIEW: The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman Title: The Half-Made World
Author: Felix Gilman
Pub Date: October 12, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Exciting, adventurous, thoughtful steampunk fantasy.

The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman is the gripping story of war on a brutal frontier. This is Gilman’s third book, after his excellent 2007 debut Thunderer and its disappointing sequel Gears of the City. Set in an entirely different universe, The Half-Made World shows that Gilman has clearly disciplined his imagination and gained a focus that had been lacking in his last novel.

If you are looking for steampunk with Victorian mannerisms and airships, look elsewhere. While it shares elements of the steampunk aesthetic, it is firmly rooted in the oily, Wild West and Sinclair’s blood-stained Chicago stockyards. For those critics who complain that steampunk never has anything important to say, I recommend they read this book. It takes place in (as the title would suggest) a half-made world, where the east is settled and established, operating along “realistic” lines. The west remains wild, and reminds me of the aboriginal Dreaming. The rules that govern it are shifting, changing, and magic (of a sort) is real. From a thematic standpoint, The Half-Made World is a serious examination of the complex and conflicting values inherent in the romantic and manifest destiny movements of the 19th century. But despite its important themes and artful writing, it is an entertaining and exciting read, striking that rare balance between adventure and literature.

Gilman’s frontier is torn apart by an unending war between the Line (railroads, trains, manifest destiny) and the Gun (guns, fatalistically doomed heroes, romance). When the book opens, it is entirely plausible that the Line and the Gun are merely the colloquial names for a set of combating ethos: symbols, and little besides. But it quickly becomes apparent that these opposing forces are in fact very real spirits or demons, who embody particular mores and values and who attract particular types of followers. The opposing cultures of Line and Gun, and the setting they create, are some of the most important characters in this book.

The story is told from three perspectives:

  • Lowry, an agent of the Line,
  • John Creedmor an agent of the Gun, and;
  • Liv Alverhuysen, a “neutral party” from the settled East swept up in the frontier conflict.

While each of the perspective characters is engaging, the Line and the Gun themselves provide the text with a foundation. Gilman’s writing is extremely tight, and the natures of the Line and the Gun come through in the little details: the methods their agents employ, the territories they control, the people who live under their rule. Even the slight shifts in narrative voice used for the different perspectives help cement the setting. The Line and the Gun are not ephemeral constructs, or religious ideologies. They are real: dirty, smelly, and intensely human forces for all of their inhuman power.

Gilman does something very difficult with his three perspective characters. Each personifies a particular ethos: Lowry is the embodiment of the Line, with all its systematic and methodical values. Creedmor embodies the Gun, with its heroic strengths and tragic weaknesses. Liv personifies a third set of values (still nascent, I would say), which seems designed to balance the Line and the Gun. To paint characters who personify abstract values well is very difficult. It is so easy for them to become caricatures of their mores. Hugo pulls it off exceptionally in Les Miserables. Ayn Rand does it well, though less-reliably than Hugo. While Gilman is not quite as powerful as Hugo, nor (thankfully) as insistent as Rand, his characters remain true to the forces they personify, as well as to their own humanity. They are flawed and identifiable, in a most beautifully human way.

The jacket, designed by Jamie Stafford-Hill and with art by Ross MacDonald, drew my eye in the bookstore, reminding me of the futuristic designs drawn by Albert Robida in the late 19th century. While I don’t think the image depicted on the cover appears at any point in the action of the book, the design is elegant and understated. It captures the spirit of the text, if not its literal action. The book opens slowly, but gathers steam after the first eighty or so pages. The prose is dense, and rich throughout, and Gilman fleshes out his principal and supporting characters gradually over the course of the book. The last third is especially well-paced, and I found myself on the edge of my seat. The perspective and writing remain crisp, and at no point does it come off the rails (no pun intended).

While on the whole this book was excellent, I was mildly disappointed in how Gilman dealt with one of the characters at its end. It is difficult to explain the details without giving anything away, but this is clearly the first book in a larger whole, and to make it self-contained, certain strands needed to be tied up. I understand that, and I understand that there were equally-good or equally-bad options for how to do so. Gilman chose one of them, and his choice is not in and of itself bad and I suspect other readers might be satisfied with it. But when I read it, I found elements of its ending to be slightly anticlimactic, almost bathetic. However, it is entirely possible that bathos was part of Gilman’s point, and while it was disappointing, I find myself waffling on whether it is a weakness or not.

The book ends poised for a continuation of the adventure, without crossing the liminal boundary into cliff-hanger. As a result, I am eagerly looking forward to the sequel. I strongly recommend The Half-Made World to anyone looking for thoughtful steampunk, or who enjoys the frontier adventures of Emma Bull (Territory) or Jeffrey Ford (The Physiognomy). If (like me) you were turned off by Gilman’s earlier Gears of the City, I’d suggest you give him another shot: The Half-Made World is incomparably stronger in every way.

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