It’s been a while since I’ve ranted against a major paper for misconstruing genre, so let’s dust off the old soapbox. And, yes, I’m going to be mean.
Here’s an outrageous bit of genre-subliterate hooey from the Guardian:
Michael Chabon’s new novel is a brilliantly written fantasy with a not-quite-fatal flaw at its heart . . . .
The real problem with the book is the piecemeal way Chabon introduces his alternate reality. It’s an unwritten rule of the genre (well, it’s written now) that you should be able to define the difference between the parallel world and ours in a single sentence. Armada triumphs, Elizabeth assassinated (Keith Roberts’s Pavane). Axis powers defeat the Allies (Dick’s The Man in the High Castle). Lindbergh becomes President (Roth’s The Plot Against America). No such establishment of a baseline is possible with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.”
Argh. You mean the genre of alternate worlds has been allowed to evolve past the rulebook of the English Amateur Historians’ Counterfactual Society? Heavens forefend!
That’s right, young readers. About a million years ago, writing alternate history meant you could only change one thing: Confederacy wins, Ghandi hit by train, cheese not invented. And it was the singularity of this shift that proved how clever you were, by showing how many dinosaurs you could kill by stepping on one butterfly.
And yes, that’s still a perfectly glorious thing to do. But to assert that any book not hewing to this rule must be “flawed” is super-lame. Plus it means you probably haven’t read as many comic books as, say, Michael Frickin’ Chabon!
The writer of this article, Adam Mars-Jones, goes on to state that he can think of only a single exception to this “unwritten” rule, Nabokov’s Ada. I will allow commenters to come up with a burying horde of examples. (Though I will mention that in Pavane rail trains are never invented, surely not as a result of a victorious Armada, so Mars-Jones’ own examples fall apart. Nyah.)
However, as I’m currently editing an anthology of essays about Phillip Pullman, let me rant specifically on His Dark Materials. In Pullman’s world:
1) The Reformation never happened. (There’s a Pope Calvin!)
2) Texas is a nation. (Possibly Reformation related?)
3) Victorian arctic pseudo-sciences all turned out to have a basis in reality. (Yes!)
4) People have externalized souls, polar bears can talk, plus witches.
5) Many, many other things.
Okay, so maybe that number 4 is the key to Mars-Jones’ thinking. HDM is all magicky, so maybe it doesn’t fall into some weirdly strict Mars-Jonesian category of counter-factual.*
Yes, in many magicky books like Narnia, lots of things are different: beavers talk, White Queen dominates, Jesus is a lion. But whatever they symbolize, such worlds aren’t “alterations” of ours, and Pullman’s world is. HDM has an Oxford, a London, a Texas, Zeppelins, and telephones. (Note to Guardian editors: The presence of Zeppelins categorically indicates alternate history. Look it up.) And the fact that in Pullman’s world there are more alternate worlds, of which Lyra’s is one, more or less seals the deal.
I’m sure the younger readers of this blog will be mystified that anyone would even make a proclamation like Mars-Jones’. An average-size shelf of manga contain a thousand worlds with ten zillion alterations, picked and chosen from a million columns. (I still have no idea what the Catholic Church is supposed to be in Helsing, but it’s awesome.) This is what sf and fantasy have become: every world is a reworking of an alteration of a speculation. And that’s a good thing.
To suggest otherwise in one of my favorite papers is unacceptable. And worse . . . it means yer old and stuffy.** Nyah again.
I’m just glad I live in this world, the one where the world-alterers won.
*The term that airship pilots use for “alternate history.”
**Told you I would be mean.