© 2003-2006 David Moles
1 o'clock, June 12, 2004
Jed Hartman notes the release of the 2003 short list for the Sidewise Awards. He notes an ongoing gender imbalance among the Sidewise nominations, and wonders what goes into making them that way. He offers a “Tongue-in-cheek challenge”: to
write an alternate-history story that postulates a historical Point Of Departure which results in more women writing alternate history stories. Bonus points for making such a story so good and so interesting that it wins next year’s Sidewise Award.
I’m not sure why there aren’t more women writing AH, or (if they are) why more of the AH written by women doesn’t come up for the Sidewises. Buy me a drink at a convention and I’ll happily try out five or six different theories. But I think part of it, at least, is a perception thing.
I had this feeling, when I was writing “Five Irrational Histories” for Rabid Transit (the first of which nearly answers your challenge, Jed! Take note!) that I was violating the conventions of the genre. “You’ve got too many Points of Departure! And they’re impossible! And even if they were possible, they wouldn’t do what you say they do! And you don’t even mention the Civil War!”
See, when I think of the term alternate history (as opposed to when I, say, just write it, without thinking about it), I think of a certain sort of story that you might call “hard alternate history”: well-defined turning points, the appearance (if not the reality) of relentlessly logical extrapolation . . . conservative theories of history and human nature . . . a certain preference for “Men’s Adventure” sorts of plots. The counterpart (with all that entails in approach, tone, and so on) of hard science fiction. And — here’s where Jed’s question comes in — like hard science fiction, hard alternate history isn’t a sub-genre that’s particularly inviting to women.
Anyway, the gender question aside — if you’re into Hard AH, good for you, but it’s not really my thing. But my first instinct is still that That’s What Alternate History Is. So, when I was writing “Five Irrational Histories”, something about what I was doing bothered me.
But then I thought:
“Wait a minute. Conventions of the genre? With ‘alternate history’, you’re talking about a sub-genre that’s been around for hardly a century — and the ‘mainstream’ of alternate history (the Greenberg/Resnick Alternate Whatevers, Leighton’s SS:GB, Harris’ Fatherland, many of the works of S. M. Stirling, the complete works of Harry Turtledove) is a sub-genre of a sub-genre, even if it is the dominant one. Get a grip!”
I had this moment where I felt like Raymond Chandler discovering (via Dashiell Hammett) that Agatha Christie’s wasn’t the only way to write a mystery.
I was going to go into a mini-rant about the Sidewises preferring Hard AH, but looking at the past winners, I can’t really back it up. I’m still a little suspicious of any award that would prefer a tech-centric Stephen Baxter story (“Brigantia’s Angels”) to two of my favorite stories of all time — Howard Waldrop’s “You Could Go Home Again” and Maureen McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train”; but probably I’m just bitter because I had two stories on the reading list and neither made the short list. And neither one was “hard alternate history”.
Now that I sit down to actually do the research (or the poking around on the Internet that passes as research), though, I don’t think that Hard AH was ever as dominant as all that; it’s just the cumulative effect of seeing all those Turtledove novels and Resnick anthologies in the bookstores when I was growing up. In their nearly-ten-years the Sidewise Awards have done a pretty fair job of pointing out that there is more to the alternate-history subgenre than alternate versions of the wars-and-dates history that was apparently fashionable in the 19th century, and that most of us were still getting in junior high and high school.
Nonetheless, I think I’m on to something, even if it’s a thing people (the aforementioned McHugh and Waldrop, Michael Moorcock, Michael Swanwick, Liz Williams, Christopher Priest, Philip Pullman — just to pull a few names out of hats) have already been on to for a long time. If there’s one sub-genre of SF that shouldn’t ought to be pinned down and conventionalized, by its very nature, it’s alternate history. There’s an infinite number of ways to write alternate history. Let’s more of us do more of them.
Let’s get alternate.