Alan Smale on Why Alternate History Matters In Fantasy Writing


Cover detail of Eagle in Exile and Eagle and Empire by Alan Smale/Penguin Random House ©

I’m used to seeing furrowed brows when I tell people I write alternate history.

The gratifying part is that pretty much everyone knows what alternate history is, these days. Even people who don’t read a lot are familiar with the idea of other timelines and other universes from Star Trek (from “City on the Edge of Forever” to the reboot movies), or other shows like Doctor Who, Sliders, The Man in the High Castle, or Timeless. And genre readers have been enjoying a wealth of alternate-universe, parallel-timeline, and cross-time fiction for decades.

No, the confusion comes because I’m an astrophysicist by training, and a research scientist in my day job at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Surely if anyone should be a futuristic hard SF writer, it’s me. But I’ve always been a history buff, and since the turn of the millennium most of my fiction output has been alternate history or historical fantasy. My three Clash of Eagles novels from Del Rey are the culmination of my long interest in the topic. And obviously lots of other people love it too – at conventions I’m constantly thrilled that the alt-history panels are just as crowded and lively as the space opera panels. And in the bar, people – myself among them – will argue historical possibilities and scenarios, extrapolate from changes sane and stupid, until we’re hoarse. It’s fun.

Why concern ourselves with things that didn’t happen? Well, we constantly do it in our daily lives. Wishing we’d done things differently. Imagining a better or worse outcome to something we did. Extrapolating out some possible futures when we’re on the verge of a life-changing decision. We’re always reviewing possibilities, playing with potentials. We all know that seemingly trivial choices can have momentous consequences. It’s not just a parlor game. It’s a big part of how we make decisions, as conscious and self-aware beings.

So, since we’re already wired that way, it’s as much fun to explore fictional possibilities for other pasts and other presents as it is to imagine possible futures. If something different had happened then, perhaps even a comparatively minor change, how would that change ripple through the years? How might ensuing historical events – or places, or personages – be altered? Would lives be changed for the better, or worse?

What world would we be living in now? And what future would that world have?

But it’s even more than that. I find that the knowledge of what actually happened in our own history adds a depth and resonance to a good alt-history story – and vice versa – that you just can’t get any other way. Really good alternate history becomes a dialog between our timeline and other possible realities. Each sheds light on the other.

In Clash of Eagles the western Roman Empire has survived and thrived in its more-or-less classical form – swords and sandals, the mighty march of the legions – and is now sending Gaius Marcellinus and his legionaries into Nova Hesperia, the great “undiscovered continent” of North America. But a whole array of nations and tribes already call this land their home, and Marcellinus’s life will be forever changed by his encounters with the Iroquois, the Blackfoot, and above all the great Mississippian culture centered on the great city of Cahokia, with its 20,000 inhabitants and over a hundred great platform mounds. And in the latest book, Eagle and Empire, Rome and its Hesperian allies are battling a well-known Asian empire for dominance over this magnificent continent… while, naturally enough, the Cahokians and various other indigenous nations have their own very clear opinions about the future of their land.

It’s high adventure, but hopefully with a deep foundation. In our world Spain, England, and France each marched into the Americas with their own motivations and wrought their own various degrees of devastation and change. Many of us have strong feelings about this, one way or another. My fictional Romans (and others) invade North America with different motivations again, and things go very differently than they did in our world, but there are echoes back and forth all the way through which I hope will provoke some thought.

Could history really have diverged that far? I have no doubt. Just like the things that happen in my life, or yours, I believe that a great deal of history is contingent. Given slightly different circumstances, different luck, different weather on a critical day, or a different individual in charge, many critical battles and other key world events might have ended very differently from the outcomes we know. A lot of what we call “destiny” only looks inevitable in hindsight. Or to put it another way: stuff goes wonky all the time.

Our history could have gone off in a variety of other directions, and that’s just as true on the major, empire-spanning level as it is on the local level. Given a particular set of social and economic forces, some things are more-or-less unavoidable – for example, given the technology in effect in the nineteenth century, and the state of the States at the time, it’s almost impossible to come up with a scenario where the US doesn’t eventually end up with a transcontinental railroad. But, contrariwise, there are many pivot points in history where whole empires could have risen or fallen in different ways based on the whim of a tyrant, the intelligence of a spy, the flight of an arrow, or the fog at dawn.

Professional historians agree. They have their own variation on the theme of alt-history. “Counterfactuals” are defined by Black & MacRaild as “the idea of conjecturing on what did not happen, or what might have happened, in order to understand what did happen.” As an academic discipline, their scenarios have to be reasoned and intellectually defensible. No alien space bats here.

Counterfactuals tend to focus closely on the Point of Departure (POD). Example: in the Clash of Eagles series the POD is in 211 A.D. But my books begin in 1218 A.D. and move forward from there. I have a whole detailed chronology worked out for the intervening thousand years that appears nowhere in the books themselves (well, a few subtle references). As a counterfactual, the POD and those thousand years would be the important thing, not the story of Gaius Marcellinus in the New World.

Key works here are British historian Niall Ferguson’s “Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals”, and “What If? The World’s Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been”, edited by Robert Cowley. Both contain serious essays presenting reasoned arguments of how history might have diverged, given a selection of straightforward but intriguing PODs. Ferguson’s 100-page introduction to his book is worth the price of admission in itself: a historical essay on how historians have viewed history. Doesn’t get a lot more recursive than that.

As a writer, what do you gain by using history as your backdrop? Recognizability, resonance, and depth. A strong sense of the great sweeping currents of history. If you know what happens in the real history, you’ll attach your own overlay to what happens in the alternate history. And that overlay will be different for every reader, but will (with luck) add an interesting richness to the story, and a dimension of deep truth.

My bottom line? Alternate history makes you think: about humanity, about the consequences of decisions, about the fluidity and solidity of our past. It leads to conversations, discussions, reasoned disagreements. New insights. Like all good fiction, sometimes it makes you look at the world in a different way.

And so I don’t just enjoy reading and writing alternate history for its own sake. I genuinely believe it’s important.