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The Perils of Fantasy Alternate History

July 27, 2010 at 11:07 am

Over at Making Light, Debra Doyle and Jim Macdonald have posted about their brand-new "alternate-historical fantasy" novel, Lincoln's Sword.  They discuss the genesis of their novel, as well as some of the pitfalls of writing alternate history with fantastical elements.

It will come as no surprise to some folks that the writing of fantasy alt-history novels is a topic of no small interest to me.  So I was absolutely delighted to see Debra's discussion about what it's like to tackle such a project. 

In their case, Doyle and Macdonald took up the American Civil War, as opposed to the Second World War in Bitter Seeds.  Even so, Doyle's discussion had me jumping for joy.  Because she's right on the money.  I've heard exactly the same set of objections since the publication of Bitter Seeds.   And her take on the subject is pretty much the same as mine.

Below the cut: Testify!

Quoth Debra Doyle:

Some people dislike alternate history on principle: they feel, so far as I’ve ever been able to follow their arguments, that making counterfactual assumptions about historical events and personages for the purpose of entertainment is disrespectful of something.

This thing?  Absolutely yes.  I've actually heard people say they like alt-history in general except when it pertains to WWII because of this very issue.  Which is neither right nor wrong-- every reader is 100% entitled to her or his reactions and interpretations.  But it does come up from time to time.  If people have strong feelings about the Civil War, which took place in this country 150 years ago, they have really strong feelings about a war that took place all over the world only 70 years ago.  As is only right.

Quoth Debra Doyle:

Other people consider it unseemly to use fantasy as a vehicle for writing about certain subjects—the logic chain there apparently being that fantasy is inherently trivial, and that therefore to write fantasy about a subject is to trivialize it.

And this?  Yep.  Some folks are offended by the notion of introducing fantastical elements into something as somber as WWII.  And again, that's entirely their right.  Because, after all, depending on how it's handled, such an approach could indeed become an offensive trivialization of the subject matter.  In my case, I really, really didn't want to write a fantasy version of Hogan's Heroes.

Quoth Debra Doyle:

Also, the Civil War is a subject about which a great many people feel very possessive. They do not like it when somebody gets it wrong, and “wrong” in this case can mean anything from “she screwed up the uniform flashes and buttons” to “she failed to speak kindly of X/unkindly of Y.”

If we consider this quote under the mapping "Civil War" -> "Second World War"... Again, yep.  But this one is a little more bothersome because "wrong" is a gray area when you're writing an alternate history.  What stuff stays carved in granite, and which stuff do you change?  There's no hard and fast rule for this.  The location of that line relies entirely upon the writer's approach to the subject.  Which doesn't make the writer automatically right.  Rather, it makes the writer's job extra difficult.

Quoth Debra Doyle:

Furthermore, the Civil War is a subject with an awful lot of there there. Concentrating on any one aspect of it, within the confines of a novel, is inevitably going to mean not dealing with any number of other aspects, and at that point you’re a fit victim for the “there is no mention of Z in this book” line of criticism. For which the only honest answer a writer can give is, “A book about Z would have been a different book, and the book that I wanted to write was this one.”

This?  Yes.  Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Times a million.


Susan July 28, 2010 at 7:34 am
Wow. I'd never really thought of all that... Maybe because I consume alternate history enthusiastically. The last quote really hit home for me. I've been working on a historical novel for a while now that's set in 1900 Peking during the Boxer uprising. There are a lot of touchy subjects in that particular area of Western/Eastern history -- first and foremost, who was good and who was bad? And if no one was good, then how do I walk the fine line of showing both sides in all their glorious goodness and badness? It took me ages to come to terms with the fact that I couldn't cover all the issues and portray both sides fairly...AND write a good story...AND squeeze it all into 100,000 words. Thanks for the interesting post and for sharing Debra's.
Ian July 28, 2010 at 9:40 am
It took me ages to come to terms with the fact that I couldn't cover all the issues and portray both sides fairly...AND write a good story...AND squeeze it all into 100,000 words. Exactly! At the end of the day, the best thing we can do is write the stories we want to write. The stories that challenge and intrigue us and get our juices flowing. It's clear from your blog posts that you take your research very seriously. So take comfort in knowing you're doing the very best job you can, and resign yourself to the fact that there will always be a small handful of people who live to tell you you've done things wrong, no matter what. And don't worry about the readers who fall outside your target audience. They're not seeking the same conversation you are through your writing. Having said all that: wow. I thought the European theater of WWII was a bear. The Boxer Uprising? Peking in 1900? I salute you! That sounds like a huge research challenge. And what a great setting for a novel!
Susan July 28, 2010 at 12:16 pm
Did you notice, sir, this list?? Yay for you. You deserve that for sure.
Ian July 28, 2010 at 1:12 pm
No, in fact, I hadn't seen that. It would have slipped right past me if you hadn't brought it to my attention. Thanks very much! That just made the day a little brighter.
Melinda August 9, 2010 at 12:11 pm
I hear you. I have an (as yet) unsold WWII novel about a Jewish magician who is swept up right after the Anschuluss, rescued the by the Mossad (which by the way began right before the war), they realize he bears an uncanny resemblance to an SS general so they switch into the man's place so he can try to save a few victims of the Holocaust. There is also a big personal love story that runs through this, and doesn't have a happy ending because the main character was just too badly broken by the end. The criticisms I received seemed to hinge around the fact I wasn't Jewish, and I hadn't survived the Holocaust. But as more and more of these survivors and witnesses die someone has to keep speaking out against cultural amnesia. And I guess, ultimately writers have to tell the stories that move them, and it shouldn't matter if they haven't been a policeman, an astronaut, an Indian chief or an alien from a distant planet for that matter.
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