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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: At the Queen’s Command by Michael A. Stackpole

At the Queen's Command by Michael A. Stackpole Title: At the Queen’s Command
Author: Michael A. Stackpole
Pub Date: November 16th, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fantastical alternate history with major differences from accepted history.

In At the Queen’s Command (the first installment in a new alternate history series designed to span a re-imagined American Revolution) Michael A. Stackpole strikes a careful balance between historical source material and fervent imagination. Stackpole’s book combines engaging characters, a palpable sense of place, and a strong sense of Georgian voice and mores to create a compelling alternate history that draws you in and leaves you eager for more.

One of the great challenges in writing an alternate history is to strike a balance between recognizable history, and the central conceit that sets the story apart from accepted truth. Sometimes, as in Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain, the conceit is a tiny difference which leads to significant divergence: a message that in reality was intercepted, gets to its intended destination and as a consequence the Confederacy wins the American Civil War. In other alternate histories, like Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, the known world is entirely re-imagined by introducing a pervasive fictional element (like magic). The more foundational the alternate history’s conceit, the harder it becomes to maintain consistency with both the facts and values of acknowledged history. Which is why At the Queen’s Command, which adds dragons, magic, and necromancy to a re-imagined Colonial America is so impressive.

At the Queen’s Command follows Captain Owen Strake, a soldier in the Queen’s Own Wurm Guard. He has fought against the Tharyngians (read: the French) on the Auropan (read: European) continent, and now has been sent on a reconnaissance mission to the colonies in Mystria. He must win over the colonists, survey the frontier, and return to Norisle (read: England). Of course, the mission does not go as planned and the colonies are drawn into war with the Tharyngians on their frontier.

The publisher makes it very plain on the book’s cover that the series is meant to re-imagine the American revolution, but Stackpole made a brilliant choice to set the first book during his world’s analog to the French and Indian War. First, most readers are not going to be as familiar with that war as they would be with the American Revolution. If Stackpole had jumped right into historical events that most American readers are already acquainted with, he would have had a much harder time getting readers to accept his central conceit. By setting the book several years prior to the American Revolution, Stackpole has the opportunity to take more liberties with acknowledged history, draw the reader into his re-imagined world, and get reader investment in his characters.

The characters are one of the strongest aspects of this book. This time period in real history is fraught with the consequences of history, a burgeoning streak of independence among the colonists, a sense of financial peril amongst the colonizers “back home”. Stackpole manages to capture the complex social, economical, political, military, and philosophical interactions of this time period through his well-realized characters. Whether it is through Owen Strake wrestling with his loyalty to Norisle, Prince Vladimir insisting upon the scientific method, Caleb Frost pushing for self-determination, the frontier trappers bridling at rumored taxes, Stackpole places a filter on Colonial America but still captures its colors. It is through these characters and their values that Stackpole addresses his themes, which are – in effect – the themes of John Locke, Thomas Paine and the other Enlightenment philosophers.

The central conceit of this alternative world is the existence of magic. In Stackpole’s world, this is not a recent discovery but instead dates back to before the Romans. It has affected – to some extent – all technological and societal evolution that precedes the events of this book. For Owen Strake and the the other characters, magic is as much of a fact of life as breathing. While on the one hand this helps to ground the reader in the world, it also leads to one of the few moments that rings off true. Specifically, the magic of the colonies is wilder, less controlled, more free than the magic Owen Strake is familiar with. The narration supporting Strake’s initial explorations, especially the first introduction of the wendigo concept, are clumsy by comparison to the rest of the book’s smooth execution. In the hands of a lesser author, I would still consider them quite well done. However, once past the initial introduction, Stackpole’s seamless narration kicks in again and the book strengthens as it gathers pace.

The book itself is a handsome product released as a trade paperback from Night Shade Books. The book’s cover, with design by Claudia Noble and art by Ryan Pancoast, is beautiful. I was particularly struck by how Pancoast seamlessly introduced a dragon and Native Americans into John Trumbull’s The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton. Looking at Pancoast’s cover image, it is difficult to imagine that they don’t belong there in reality, which adds to the book’s sense of an alternate history:

The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, by John Trumbull (circa 1795) via Wikipedia

The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, by John Trumbull (circa 1795) via Wikipedia

At the Queen's Command, by Ryan Pancoast (2010)

At the Queen's Command, by Ryan Pancoast (2010) via

At the Queen’s Command is an excellent new entry in the field of alternate history. Like any good book, it offers no easy solutions at its conclusion. Partially, this is to set up tension for subsequent books in the series, but in a very real sense it is because we still wrestle with the same questions as Stackpole’s fictional Mystria: where does the state’s responsibility end, and where does the citizen’s begin? I am eagerly looking forward to seeing how Mystria and how Stackpole’s characters wrestle with these questions in the books to come.

REVIEW: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Pub Date: April 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Fairly literary, slight fantasy and probably appropriate for young adult and up.

Under Heaven is a very good fantasy, heavily-inspired by 9th century (T’ang Dynasty) China. Its plot is solid, interesting, and the pacing moves well. The characters are complex, richly drawn and wrestle through questions of loyalty to family, self, and country. The setting is painstakingly crafted, and easily one of the most compelling elements of the story: for me, half of the fun lies in puzzling out what “real” things have been co-opted into Kay’s analog world.

I loved Kay’s earlier works, especially other history-based fantasies like A Song for Arbonne or The Lions of al-Rassan, until I abandoned the Sarantine Mosaic half-way through the second book (I rarely do this). I found that his Byzantium-inspired series moved very slowly with a plethora of uninteresting characters. Since then, I had avoided his work until picking up Under Heaven in a Boston bookstore. The cover drew my eye, and I thought “I might as well give him another shot.”

I’m very glad that I did.

You will like this book if you enjoy other well-written fantasies set in well-researched historical settings/cultures. Consider looking into books like On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (pirates + magic, carefully researched), Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe (ancient Greece), or Liam Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series.

If you’re looking for more of a China fix and you enjoyed Under Heaven, then I can strongly recommend Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was.

Under Heaven follows Shen Tai, the second son of a respected general. When we meet Shen Tai, he is nearing the end of an obligatory two years in mourning for his father. He has been living in a remote mountain valley, site of one of his father’s greatest battles, quietly burying the bones of the thousands who died there. For his piety, he receives a gift worthy of an emperor: two-hundred fifty Sardian (Persian) horses. Considering that a handful of these horse is a princely gift, two hundred fifty represent unheard of riches. This unwanted bargaining chip thrusts him into the dynastic politics of Kitai, and makes him the target of assassins, military governors, and civil servants vying for control of the nation’s wealth and future.

The story is told in close third-person, primarily from Shen Tai’s perspective. The writing is crisp and the insight into Shen Tai’s own thought processes gives us a delightful glimpse into his character. Practically from the first page, I found myself caring about Shen Tai and wanting to see how things worked out for him. Excellent job.

However, there was one weakness that made me give this book four stars rather than five. At the end of the book, I felt like there was little character growth on the part of Shen Tai. Generally the Shen Tai at the end of the book was pretty similar to the Shen Tai at the start of the book. There was some growth, don’t get me wrong: just less than I would have hoped for. Other characters change – often significantly – but our hero stays steady. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: I stayed engaged in the book and continued to care deeply about the hero because I still liked him. But some more evolution would have been nice.

I had only one stylistic quibble throughout the book. I admit, it’s a quibble: it might just be me. But Kay chose to write the narrative told from Shen Tai’s perspective in past tense, and side-plots told from women’s perspectives in present tense. I don’t know why. Just to differentiate them? I think the voices were distinct enough without that, and I found the tense shift jarring when first encountered (I thought it was a typo). This might just be my idiosyncrasy, but it did stand out as I was reading the book.

On the whole, I’m very pleased that I picked this book up. Kay’s writing style and technique are great, and the pacing is flawless. I was turning pages well into the night, and recommend this book for any lover of history.

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