Friday, August 7, 2015

500 Alternate Histories More Interesting than Most Alternate Histories I read, in four short tables

There are a good solid hundred things that make alternate histories fascinating to me, but there are 3 reasons why, every week at my local bookstore, I sadly return most alt histories to the shelf, unbought and never to be read:
a.           a huge fraction are about what are viewed as the critical moments in making the modern US: the Civil War and World War II.
b.          an equally huge fraction are about a simple reversal of  result: the other side wins a critical battle, an election, etc. and emerges in charge
c.           almost all are about either very high level people, or nobodies caught up in the sweep of events, and
(c2) the whole future of the future history (or returning to our timeline) depends on that main character, OR the main character is truly a nobody and the story is just about their personal adjustment.
c includes c2. Technically speaking it's two things I don't like, and the total should be four. But I'd say c and c2 are two faces of the same problem.
There are just too many times when I pick up the book and read
When the South won the war in 1862, General Custer thought he'd retired forever, but the Lakota who was standing straight and proud on his front porch seemed too obstinate to turn away. 'My nation would like to hire you,' the man said, without preamble.
"Terrain so perfect for tanks, since Russia I have not seen," General Guderian said, to nobody. I was the nobody. My job was to fetch his things when he yelled for them. He'd grabbed me out of the rubble after the Germans atom-bombed St. Louis and forced the crossing at Eads Bridge. I didn't know if Mama or the little ones were all right, but since they'd been in St. Louis that day, I tried not to think about it much. "Is not Oz in Kansas, girl?" When I tried to explain, he laughed and slapped me. I didn't really mind. As long as I was careful to speak German so badly, he'd never realize how much I understood of what he said.
and in the first case I think, "dull exercise in stuff blowing up, assuages white guilt if they don't think too much, Custer's a pretty bizarre and interesting man so they're going to use their research on him to liven it up."  In the second case I think, "Coming of age story, Nazi US, heroic girl in Resistance."
And in both cases, back to the shelf it goes, not so much because the ideas are intrinsically bad but because, as Elton John would put it, I've seen that movie too. 
We are in a decade when every brazen idol has clay feet and yet gets to remain an idol (though we assure ourselves a better understood one). Nowadays our stories assure us that the powerless will eventually receive some kind of grudging half-justice, that all pain and suffering happens somewhere else to provide amusement for our jaded palates or self-gratulation at our own ability to empathize, and the most interesting thing in the universe is what it all means that we are who we are.
And you may have all that, and welcome to it. I realize that's what most of you want to read (as a marketing intelligence analyst, I must concede the evidence is overwhelming on that point). I like other things, and I'm not finding a lot of other things among the alternate histories.
Now, I will freely admit most of the alt history I've written suffers from these three-almost-four problems, too. At one time I thought I wrote to please people (and get money), and read to please myself (and get some very different things), but as I grow older I find my compartment walls are collapsing, and I really only want to write books that it would make me happy to read. So feel free to apply everything I've just said to Finity, Union Fires, Wartide, or Patton's Spaceship. Truly, it's only fair.
Nonetheless, professional as it may have been for me as a writer to suck it up and do that, as a reader, it sucks, and I wish I'd done something more interesting.
The fundamental problem with all those Roads Too Often Taken, IMGDO, is that they're worn down by successive passages of Dumb. Lots of other things could have happened besides what did happen and the One Popular Alternative. There is life, meaning, and interest between the ranks of Generalissimo and Scullery Maid Third Class. 
Goodness, my writing has certainly been attacked by capitals in the last paragraph.  Worse than bedbugs -- they suck just as much blood and are harder to get rid of.
Well, anyway, back to the topic: in most of the great conflicts of history, most people haven't been fighting about the great conflict at all. That's a point so simple that even the movies can grasp it: no matter how many times Tom Hanks recited the importance of taking Cherbourg in Saving Private Ryan, in fact almost all the motivations in that pretty-good movie, beginning with his desire for a summer Sunday hammock, were immediate and personal (as most likely were the motives of the people in the real world).
So a plea to my fellow alt-history writers: Let's go somewhere else this next time, okay, guys? One too many trips to Disneyland can make me think I might want to go on the microbrewery tour of Omaha, at least, if not spend a year learning tango in Buenos Aires or take a photo expedition to Bhutan.
 So with that in mind, and because one of my tutees is struggling with combinatorics currently, I started thinking ...
five different historical turning points, and let's throw in some that didn't happen, times
five ways things could be different instead of simple reversal, times
•a combination of twenty (five roles other than the standard kings-or-nobodies, times four issues that are neither fate-of-the-universe nor just-we-few),
would be 500 possible alt histories.
Which would supply me with plenty of reading for a long time.
So, fellow writers, before you read on ...
1.      What's your favorite toe?
2.     What's your favorite vowel?
3.     What's your favorite continent?
4.     Jeans or slacks?
5.     Chocolate or maple?
Bet you can figure this out on your own. Your next alt history novel features an alternate outcome to the event in Table 1 (which your piggie selected), of the type found in Table 2 (your favorite vowel), with a hero/heroine from Table 3, and whose goal/drive/main purpose is a permutation of your answers to questions 4 and 5.
TABLE 1. Divergence Point. Note that two of these are could-have-beens that didn't happen in our timeline, a much-neglected subgenre.
Went to market
Great Turkish War (or War of the Holy League)
Stayed home
US Election Crisis/End of Reconstruction 1876-77
Had roast beef
Taiping Rebellion
Had none
Navigators from the Mughal Empire discover gold in western Australia, circa 1600
Went wee wee wee all the way home
West African religious leader proscribes slavery and slave trade circa 1650, wipes out European forts,  establishes trans-Sahara "gun road" to Ottomans, begins modernization with Ottoman assistance

Table 2. What made a difference from our timeline
Where the event from Table 1 did NOT happen in our timeline, this can be either a reason it does happen, or something that derails the process
Negotiated settlement by a genius diplomat or political or business leader
Major player (real or your addition) removed by personal scandal
Financial, organizational, or public relations wizard (not in our timeline) opens up new possibilities
Strike, mutiny, or other underclass rebellion alters balance between contending powers
U or Y
Botched intelligence operation/cover up

TABLE 3. Protagonist's role in society
An aide or trusted assistant to a major player
An unworldly scholar or academic from an unexpected background
North America +Australia
The secret lover of a middle-level person who is privy to an important secret
South America
A small businessperson with a dream of making it big
A liaison officer between two allied but not friendly sides

TABLE 3-2. What the protagonist must do or is tasked to do

return home to deal with an urgent family crisis
covertly bring evidence of wrongdoing to the attention of an avenger
complete a normally routine task made nearly impossible by other events
prevent or ameliorate a small injustice that only s/he knows about

So, and just for some examples for grins:
Had none, O, Eurasia, Maple-Jeans would lead to:
(Generalized version) In a world where navigators from the Mughal Empire discover gold in western Australia, circa 1600, but a strike, mutiny, or other underclass rebellion alters the balance between the contending powers, an unworldly scholar or academic from an unexpected background must complete a normally routine task made nearly impossible by other events.
(Made specific) In 1792, in a world where Australian gold discovered during the reign of Akbar the Great drove economic expansion and made the Mughal Empire both the master of India and fully capable of dealing with the European powers as an equal, at a mining technical institute in what would be Esperance in our timeline, an ascetic Buddhist scholar from modern day Sri Lanka who teaches the equivalent of a "current events" class has to explain the French Revolution to a class of miners' kids shortly after a failed strike; she has to somehow please both the local Mughal political commissioner, who wants no trouble and has grave doubts about allowing women to teach, and the head of the school, a passionate feminist (perhaps under the influence of Mary Woolstonecraft?) who insists that the outside world be brought into the classroom and discussed. All this, of course, on a desert coast a zillion miles from anywhere.
Or suppose you have
Went to market, Y, Antarctica, Chocolate Slacks
You might get to: A hundred years after the Great Turkish War ended with the Turkish border established at the Danube, the Alps, and the Adriatic, thanks to the swift, bold actions of Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha during the siege in 1683, young French military cadets Jean-Jacques Anonyme and Napoleon Bonaparte are assigned as clerks to Louis XVI's liaison with the northern Turkish armies; they're talking about dividing Germany between them once and for all. Bored, and with little to do, they read through old records, to discover that Kara Mustafa's secret of success was a brilliant intelligence service: one that still exists, and that is quietly plotting against Louis XVI, via the literary salons of Paris...
Anyway, you get the idea. Or the other 498 ideas. Go write some of those, or some of the others, or whatever. 
Or just write to tell me that dammit, Barnes, Roast beef-E-Africa-Maple-Jeans has not only already been done, it won a Sideways Award last year.  But please, anything that keeps me from picking up one more Civil War reversal in which Ralph Waldo Emerson and his boy assistant Thomas Edison team up to invent the tank, but are stopped cold by Stonewall Jackson's Air Force dive bombers, as flown by Frank James and Cole Younger... that would be a step in the right direction.