Log in

No account? Create an account
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-09-19 20:36
Subject: [writing] Alternate alternate histories
Security: Public
Tags:omaha, process, stories, writing
I had dinner with garyomaha and elusivem tonight. Among other things, we were talking about "America, Such as She Is", my current work in progress. I was describing the backstory, a United States defeated in WWII by joint German and Japanese atomic bombings intended to force surrender ahead of a very costly invasion. garyomaha asked what was science fictional about it.

He has a point, I realized after a moment's thought. To me, Alternate History is science fiction because everyone knows AH is SF. I've written a fair number of AH shorts ("The Cleansing Fire of God," "The Righteous Path", "Our Lady of American Sorrows"). I've always thought of them as SF, but I've never thought carefully about why they're SF.

In other words, I don't have a more rigorous realization than "because." Why couldn't AH simply be it's own genre? Is it inherently science fictional?
Post A Comment | 18 Comments | | Flag | Link

Laura Anne Gilman
User: suricattus
Date: 2007-09-20 03:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In terms of publisher marketing, anyway, AH has long been considered a break-out sub-category, somewhere in the grey netherlands between sf, Fantasty, historical fiction and litfic. We (Roc) sold both Harry Turtldove and SM Stirling into the SF accounts and the mainstream accounts because their AH with us was more fact- and history-based than science- or speculative-based. Others (Mary Gentle, Forstchen, other of Harry's work, etc) seemed to be more speculative/fantastical-based in tone, and so were square in genre.

(hopefully that's coherent - it's been a long day)
Reply | Thread | Link

ellarien: books
User: ellarien
Date: 2007-09-20 03:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Maybe because it poses and answers a "What if?" question? There are cases where the point-of-departure involves overtly science-fictional elements (like Turtledove's WorldWar series with aliens invading during WW2) or simply counterfactual technological developments, but I'm not sure whether the rest of AH got labelled as SF by association with that kind of thing, or whether the presence of AH in proximity to SF made that kind of thing more likely to happen because SF and fantasy writers are aware of the possibilities.

Reply | Thread | Link

User: dsgood
Date: 2007-09-20 04:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It's science fiction (usually) because publishers, editors, writers, and readers mostly agree that it is.

Some of it is fantasy, because there's agreement that it's fantasy. There's probably some which is utopian literature instead. Sometimes it's literary fiction.

Arguments over whether it fits particular standards are probably as pointless as discussing whether Hannibal is a romance. It could be argued that the ending makes it a romance -- but romance readers aren't going to accept it.
Reply | Thread | Link

Peter Hollo
User: frogworth
Date: 2007-09-20 04:11 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I love "The Cleansing Fire of God", and I think it's SF, but that's because it has a space travel element, sortof.

I think AH has a fair bit in common with SF, or it can. It tries to extrapolate a believable world based on what we know about how things (people, history, science etc) work... But it's extrapolating from a point in the past where something was different from how it is in our history, rather than extrapolating from the present as we know it.
Reply | Thread | Link

David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2007-09-20 04:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
AH is considered SF for much the same reason (and to much the same degree) that SF and Fantasy are considered to be a single publishing category: because, back in the depths of time (i.e. the 30s-50s) they were written by the same authors for the same editors. AH sprang from SF through consideration of the many-worlds hypothesis, and there was a period when all AH stories had to include at least a little exposition about the mechanisms of alternate worlds (e.g. characters saying "gee, what if things had been different?"). But, like space travel, AH became an established subgenre with well-known conventions of its own, and characters no longer had to explain the basic premises.

Today I would say that most published AH has more in common with historical fiction than science fiction. One person in my crit group writes AH which is not very entertaining to me because, if you don't know your history really well, it looks exactly like historical fiction because you can't tell how it differs from our actual reality (and it has no "fantastic elephant" other than the historical twist). Even Howard Waldrop's stuff, entertaining as it is, falls into this same trap -- when I'm reading one of H'ard's stories, I can never tell which bits are made up and which are real (although I can bet the most outrageous bits are the real ones).

David Hartwell says that the point of an AH story for the reader is to figure out from the clues provided what the turning point was, but if this is true I suspect it may apply only to the SF reader. I suspect that a lot of AH readers come from a historical or romance background, and are perfectly happy to accept the AH world as a setting without worrying about how it came to be.
Reply | Thread | Link

Jim Rittenhouse
User: jrittenhouse
Date: 2007-09-20 06:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My AH interest was founded in my love of both SF and history; my feeling is that the story is the most important part, and that if you fail in that respect because you're so busy doing explanations on *why* Marilyn Monroe was elected Pope that the story disappears, you're doing a severe disservice to the reader.

OTOH, just dropping in Pope Marilyn blessing a marriage of Lyndon Johnson and Andy Warhol becomes lunatic fringe fantasy. The best AH is written with a solid enough historicity that you don't have to hang disbelief by the neck until dead. It's not possible to cover all bases, but enough that it's readily believable.

Then again, I'm known as a sticker on the keep-the-writer- honest direction of AH. Personally, I think it's a hard job to do an AH novel right without both being entertaining and knowing your material well enough.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: martyn44
Date: 2007-09-20 11:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suggest that AH is regarded as a subgenre of fantasy (bias towards SF) because its best creators tend to be SF/Fantasy writers whose regard for the souce material and reality is considerably higher than most 'mainstream' writers who dabble. Compare and contrast, say Mary Gentle or Philip K Dick with Dan Browne.

As ellarien says, it is that 'What if . . .' thing (which makes it Fantasy) or the 'My God, what if . . .' thing (which makes it SF)
Reply | Thread | Link

User: ex_truepenn
Date: 2007-09-20 11:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:writing: octopus
I had a terrible time when I was trying to decide where to submit my one (thus far) AH story, "Amante Dorée" because I had no idea whether it was science fiction or fantasy. As in, I couldn't decide what it was, and I couldn't decide what editors would decide it was.

Probably I was overthinking it.

(My tale of epistemological confusion ends happily: Paradox published the story last year.)

For me, this is one of those places where the umbrella term "speculative fiction" comes in real handy-like, because whether it's fantasy or science fiction, one thing AH definitely is, is speculative.
Reply | Thread | Link

Chris McKitterick: Galaxy magazine cover
User: mckitterick
Date: 2007-09-20 12:17 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Galaxy magazine cover
Yes, I consider alternate history to be SF because it is part of the "What if?" subgenre that's important to SF. It's a thought-experiment, something that you can't do in mainstream fiction. It's an alternate universe, so it takes place in the "other" - the other being vital to SF, whether it be people, places, times, or things.

In fact, I might argue that all of SF eventually becomes alternate history with the passage of time.

So, yeah, alternate history is SF. Not that I'm biased, having written a bunch of it myself *g*
Reply | Thread | Link

Gary Emenitove
User: garyomaha
Date: 2007-09-20 12:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, elusivem asked the question out loud, but, as a matter of fact, I was thinking the exact same thing. Thanks to you and all the other responses for helping to explain it to us neanderthals. Ook!
Reply | Thread | Link

Edward Greaves
User: temporus
Date: 2007-09-20 13:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I was musing about this very question back in august, after reading Steven Barnes' novel Lion's Blood. There's nothing specific about it that I would consider science fiction. Sure, there's the whole "What if?" premise of the story, but is that really enough? Then there are things like Cryptonomicon, which touch on both fantasy and SF elements. What about something like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell? It takes place in an alternate past, and is firmly fantasy.

My gut reaction, is that alternate history is a set, like horror, that crosses many boundaries.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: dirkcjelli
Date: 2007-09-20 13:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
History is almost a science, especially with the newer methodologies as promoted by folk like Carrier and Diamond... so the step to "okay, this is science fiction" gets shorter and shorter
Reply | Thread | Link

User: sacchig
Date: 2007-09-20 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I like the "set" definition, particularly since i'm in the final stages of editiing an LGBT AH anthology (Time Well Bent). Some of the stories are only AH because we know that history unfolded differently (although who really "knows" that much about Shakespeare and Marlowe and a possible unknown other?). Some have fantasy elements, in times and cultures where such things seem appropriate. But at my back I always hear Criticism's winged chariot hastening near. Can't please everyone.

It may be a moot question in this case, since the publisher has just sold itself to another outfit that doesn't want the fiction line, and is trying to "divest" the fiction to someone else. I see "shopping the book around again" in my all-too-real future.
Reply | Thread | Link

Richard Parks
User: ogre_san
Date: 2007-09-20 15:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've always considered it sf simply because by its nature it is speculative fiction. Which, if we go by Heinlein's definition, is what sf is really all about.

Reply | Thread | Link

User: oubliet
Date: 2007-09-20 21:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Now that many types of story that have traditionally been SF have been embraced by the mainstream, I'm not surprised that the question "what makes it SF?" is coming up.

Back in high school, ~any~ of the "weird shit" was considered science fiction. The whole "what if" thing was not particularly welcomed in any other genre.

I prefer referring to SF as speculative fiction, these days. It emcompasses everything better.
Reply | Parent | Thread | Link

User: ericjamesstone
Date: 2007-09-20 21:42 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I always assumed alternate history was science fiction because it's an application of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Reply | Thread | Link

User: khatru1339
Date: 2007-09-20 23:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've seen some sf people using the term "counterfactual" for the not-really-sf novels of this type, but the historian people who coined it don't want riff-raff like us appropriating it.
Reply | Thread | Link

Ted Chiang
User: Ted Chiang [myopenid.com]
Date: 2007-09-29 02:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey Jay. I was just wandering through and happened upon this thread.

I can't remember where I first heard it, but the rationale I've heard for associating AH with SF is that both describe universes whose departures from our reality are created via logical extrapolation. This is, of course, as debatable as any definition of SF, but it does at least suggest a "hard AH <---> fantasy AH" axis similar to the "hard SF <---> fantasy" axis.
Reply | Thread | Link

my journal
January 2014
2012 appearances