TT: Risky History

Hi, Folks.  If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just page down to read about how Chinese acrobatics and writing are related.  Or stay here and join me and Alan as we explore why we disagree on a crucial point…

JANE: Well, Alan, last week we left beer behind to talk about the works of an

Alternate Histories

author we both enjoy – Tim Powers.  In the process, we made the startling discovery that one of my favorite of his works – “Last Call” – is one of your least favorites – and one of your favorites – “Declare”
– is one my least favorites.

I spent several days mulling over this and think I may have figured out why.

I think our different reactions to these books  has to do with one of the risks an author takes when writing alternate history.  How the story impacts on the reader is related in some fashion to how familiar the reader is with the portion of history being alternated.

For example, you say that the “Cambridge spies” have entered folklore.  Well, maybe British folklore, but certainly not the folklore for this fairly well-read American.  Kim Philby was a vaguely familiar name to me.  That’s it.  So I had to read “Declare” withing knowing the background , and ended up wondering what (other than certain supernatural elements) was the “alternate” and which the reality.

Conversely, the settings of   Last Call are very American.  Many of the historical figures – especially the gangster-types – have been glamorized by film until they have become part of American folklore.

ALAN: That would certainly make sense. I grew up in an England that seemed to have an unholy fascination with the Cambridge Spies. There were lots of newspaper stories as new revelations emerged.  There were TV shows and countless novels. Alan Bennett wrote an utterly brilliant play called “An Englishman Abroad” which was about Guy Burgess living his life in exile in Moscow. You wouldn’t have had any of that.

JANE: Absolutely.  I’d like to re-read “Declare”, but I wonder if I should read some of the historical background first.   By contrast, the settings and characters in “The Drawing Of The Dark” and “The Anubis Gates” belong to what we might call a shared historical background.  We might not know the details, but we’ve heard of the main characters and know a little about them.

ALAN: Yes – a lot of the background in those novels is common coin – though, if pressed, I would be unable to produce more than vague wafflings about the details.   I’m very aware of the time and place in general, but not in particular. That’s probably all to the good.  Powers has an ability to place what feels like real details into the folk  memory we share.  It’s what gives his books that convincing extra edge. It also means, of course, that if his audience doesn’t share that folk memory to begin with, they are almost certainly going to be lost, since Powers never makes what he’s adding explicit.  Hence the similar reactions we both had to two different books.

JANE: I have another example…  When Jim read “The Stress of Her Regard,” a Tim Powers novel which features Byron, Shelley, and a bunch of their associates, he  kept asking me how much of what the characters were up to had actually happened since his encounter with these figures had been limited to a poem or two in high school English.   It made for some great discussions between us, but it could be said we read very different books, because I was bringing to Powers’ novel my extensive knowledge of the characters, their lives, and how they met their ends.

ALAN: Again, I was happy with “The Stress Of Her Regard” because (to a certain extent) I’d come across many of these people at school. I had an absolutely brilliant English Literature teacher who always took great pains to put things into context. And he liked gossip. He was particularly good at the salacious details of  love affairs and other scandals. So much of this came up in the classroom, perhaps just enough to leave room for me to fall into Powers’ verisimilitude trap. And so I quite enjoyed that book as well.

JANE: As we’ve been chatting, I’ve been thinking that the term “alternate history” really gets applied to two very different types of fiction.  What Tim Powers writes could be called “alternate explanation history.”  Thus, when readers finish “Last Call,” they understand the deep, secret reason behind the utterly crazy idea of building a massive city in a desert, filling it with water features, and catering to gambling.

ALAN:  I like to think of it as applied paranoia. It plays with  our secret fears, almost to the extremes of rabid conspiracy theories. Secret histories are always enormous fun to read about and Tim Powers is one of the very few authors to have realized this.  He is also, without a shadow of a doubt,  the very best at writing it convincingly.

JANE: Then there is the other type of alternate history – the type Harry Turtledove writes so often.  Here you take a recognized historical event, change it in some way (for some weird reasons, some American readers are addicted to stories where the South won our Civil War), and then go forward from that point.

ALAN: And that’s by far the most common type. Turtledove is by no means the only practitioner, though he’s certainly the most prolific. I’ve enjoyed several of his books but by their very nature they do tend to be a little bit formulaic; and I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about that. It’s inherent in the nature of the beast.

JANE: I’ve written a couple of stories that could fall into the Powers model.  There’s  my recent “Like the Rain” in the anthology “Golden Reflections” and my older piece “Three Choices: The Story of Lozen” in the anthology “New Amazons.”  Both of these play off of American Indian history – the Pueblo revolt and the Victorio Wars – so I suppose I fell into the trap of alternating history that most of my audience wouldn’t know well enough to know what I was playing with.  In both cases, the inclusion of  supernatural elements made history make more sense.

I don’t think I’ve ever written a “change history from this point” story, but as soon as this goes on-line, I bet I’ll remember one.

ALAN: From a writer’s point of view I suspect the Powers model is easier to follow because revealing deeply secret and entirely fictional histories requires much less research into historical realities than the Turtledove model does. Writers who follow the Powers model are generally dealing with folklore which can be twisted in all kinds of ways to suit the plot whereas writers who follow the Turtledove model have to fit their stories into known history and that means they have to get the details correct. So they really need to research it to the nth degree or risk losing their audience , particularly if the historical period they deal with is a well known one such as the South winning the Civil War or the Nazis winning World War II. Since you do this kind of thing for a living and I don’t, perhaps you could comment on that next time?

JANE: Absolutely, especially since I am aware just how much research the “secret history” approach takes if you want to do it right!

3 Responses to “TT: Risky History”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    My take on Turtledove vs. Powers is simpler than that. Tim Powers studied English literature and teaches creative writing. Harry Turtledove has a PhD in Byzantine History.

    I figure they’re simply playing to their strengths. For Turtledove, rewriting history is apparently easy. For Powers, playing with myth is apparently easy.

    • janelindskold Says:

      It’s always a mistake to assume that because a writer is good at something, it’s “easy” for them.

      As with bodybuilding, “strength” is something that has to be built — and maintained. Not easy. In fact, harder than just piddling around the fringes because what’s really easy is taking the simplest path.

      And for a writer, there is no equivalent of steroids or other cheats.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Agreed. But when I was thinking of strengths, I was thinking of something else entirely.

        For example, I’ve got a strong biology background. Writing about how the landscape is important comes naturally to me, because that’s the world I live in. While I admire both Turtledove and Powers, I couldn’t write either of their personal genres, because, for one, I’m not comfortable enough with political history to enjoy “what if alternate history” questions. Similarly, while I love mythology, I don’t have Powers’ ready grasp of English literature (or even modern spy novels) to pull off what he does.

        It’s sort of like a sport. Most bodybuilders are lousy marathoners, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean that they don’t work tremendously hard at getting good at what they already do well. What it means is that they work hard at different things.

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