Alternate Worlds

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.

36 thoughts on “Alternate Worlds

  1. i luv the guardian!!! it rocks! it made me cry…boohoo!! and i liked the Golden Compass series, or w/e…hated Narnia..and all that symbolism, is called cinematography, or w/e…we learned it in Eng/Lit

  2. I was so happy in The Subtle Knife when I Will found coke and baked beans in Cittigazze…

    and then so sad when it occurred to me, at least a book later (probably when we see Mary Malone eating native food), that it was because the Cittigazzians had stolen it.

  3. i loved his dark materials! they were my favorite books for the longest time. util i discovered the midnighters actually… i can;t wait for the movie to come out, but they had better not kill it by making lyra 26 or something *cough* midnighters tv show *cough*

  4. Ok, I’m sorry but you’re wrong. Proper Alternate History means you make one change (the Point of Difference) and move on with your butterflies from there.

    Anything else? Not plausible.

    Now I love His Dark Materials but it’s not alternate history—for one thing they have magic (which, um, our world doesn’t)—it is fantasy. To be sure it’s fantasy based on history that turns out differently, but strictly speaking it’s not Alternate History.

    Alternate History deals with What If? Fantasy may throw in elements of what if? but it usually does so either implausibly (obviously Victorian pseudo-science doesn’t actually work, making the book fantasy) or has multiple PODs—which again, makes it fantasy unless they occur in sequence when you can argue that butterflies caused them.

    For example over at Alternate History Central ( I have a timeline where the major banks of Japan invest a little more heavily in the late 1970s with lots of non-preforming loans. This gets found out and by 2012 with a single starting POD the world includes a withdrawing America, a booming European economy on classical liberal grounds, and all kinds of other things. Another timeline, Decades of Darkness, starts with New England succession in the war of 1812 and winds up with a slave-holding America that owns everything from British Columbia to Central America and half of South America by the 1930s (quite frankly it may be the best Alternate History timeline ever done).

    One POD can get you quite a lot, needing multiple ones just means you’re either not a very good writer or you’re writing fantasy (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

    Now you’re right that having multiple PODS doesn’t make a book flawed, but it does make the book non-AH. It makes it, as the writer opens with, fantasy.

    Doesn’t change the awesomeness of His Dark Materials or any other fantasy book that has a different historical background but it doesn’t make them alternate history..

  5. Hurrah! A very good rant. That article would’ve made me spit counterfactual chips.

    Why do reviewers always try to reduce any kind of genre to mechanical exercises involving simple rules? They obviously have no understanding of chaos and the wonderful mayhem that even such a simple process can cause–let alone the real thing…

  6. Sheez.

    Wellll….does the Bartimaeus trilogy count? Seems like it would, ’cause there’s London and Prague and America, but in that world, magicians rule it, magical spirits exist, and a lot of the history has been changed somehow. I guess you could argue that it’s all been changed by only one thing–the existence of the spirits–but it seems like so much more than that to me.

    Can’t think of anything else at the moment, except maybe the 10th Kingdom, but it’s been years since I read/saw it. New York City was involved, but there were alternate dimensions that trolls came through….something like that. Dunno though, that probably doesn’t count as an alteration.

  7. Electric Monk wow wasnt that what he said in a less “haha” way

    i love his dark materials its female dogin (if you get what im saying its in my top 5 favorits midnighters being my favorit but i hope they dont crap up the movie and whats with them saying that bear is massive its suposed to be as big as a horse its on wiki

    did i talk to much about it 😉

  8. Huh. I have to agree. If you want to write alternate history you could really change several things (like a chain reaction!). Or you could just change one. To say that there is a rule against changing more things is just… wrong. Obviously the world would have to start with one change which leads to others, but if all of them are based off of each other you still haven’t moved completely away from alternate history. To change one thing is to change many, so it is hard to argue about what is fantasy and what is alternate history. Of course,changing a bunch of things that have nothing to do with the other changes does kind of go off track.

  9. normaly sf that might be fantasy inclueds some science but in hdm its totaly differnt worlds not alternate history but wills world is our world exept things are unknown not different

  10. Actually it’s even worse than that, not only is the Guardian author’s argument silly on the merits, it’s also an inaccurate description of Chabon’s book. There is, in fact, a specific event whch is the split between our timeline and Chabon’s, and it’s mentioned in the book.

    Even despite that, how is “America sets up a haven for WWII European Jewish refugees in Alaska” not a single sentence that defines the book?

    Chabon seems to attract this kind of thing — check out some of the reviews of The Final Solution, if you want to see reviewers missing the point. Oh, and read the new book — it’s great.

  11. I *heart* *heart* *HEART* you for even mentioning Philip Pullman.

    He’s been my favorite author for 11 years now. I’m uber excited about Dec 7th 😀

    Sorry Scott, but you could never live up to HDM, I would marry The Golden Compass if that were at all possible. Although you are my second favorite author, because everything you’ve written, cept maybe midnighters, left me mentally disturbed. (most esp the Uglies trilogy and Evolutions Darling) But Reading the Golden Compass is what made me realize that I wanted to write, and I can only hope that someday I write something as great as his HDM trilogy.

  12. Dec 7th, for all you non HDM fanatics is the date The Golden Compass will be released in theaters…
    I cant wait… I’m not usually fangirly about much… but *squee*

  13. The Light Ages count? It’s been a while since I read it, but the introduction of a kind of magic changed the world, and thus history.

    (Also, it’s quite obvious that the CC in Hellsing is Bad Ass.)

  14. Electric Monk says: Proper Alternate History means you make one change (the Point of Difference) and move on with your butterflies from there. Anything else? Not plausible.

    It’s not plausible that history would have diverged twice? For any particular reason? This is not a plausibility issue, this is a finger-up-your-bum definitional issue.

    And hey, it’s fine if you want to adopt a strict definition for an art form. All haiku are 17 syllables, because that’is a useful definition of haiku.

    But when you define the words “alternative history” to mean “only one divergence,” your ability to talk usefully about many works of literature falls apart.

    Here’s how: You say that more than one divergence “just means you’re either not a very good writer or you’re writing fantasy.”

    Michael Chabon’s book has more than one point of divergence. So he isn’t a good writer? Um, not likely. So then he MUST be writing fantasy? But that’s a very non-useful description of this book in which no magic appears, and which concerns itself so thoroughly with 20th-century history.

    A hardline distinction between “fantasy” and “alternate history” simply isn’t useful here, or in many other places. Books can be both. His Dark Materials is both fantasy AND an alternate history, as is the Bartimaeus trilogy. You have to see them through both the lens of history and fantasy to know what’s going on in them.

    If the folks at Alternate History Central want to insist on these definitions, it might be fun as a parlor game. But saying that Chabon’s book is flawed solely based on an a priori definition is pretty damn lazy criticism. Yet another sign that hewing to such definitions doesn’t make anyone very much smarter about the books they read.

  15. Adam Mars-Jones needs to spend time (and so do you, Electric Monk!) in the same re-education camp as people who insist that it’s not science fiction unless it involves orbital mechanics and you can show your work. (See a longer rant about “hard alternate history” here.)

    On top of which, Mars-Jones is simply wrong. Chabon does have a single point of departure: the death of Alaska’s non-voting Congressional representative, Anthony Dimond, under the wheels of a taxi driven by a drunken Jewish cabby.

  16. A world where CHEESE was not invented?

    Take it back. No one would could conceive of such a horror.



  17. the one Pengragon book by Dj MacHale (i think it was the never war) was about what would have happened if the hindenburg disaster was stopped. (of course it also involves traveling to other worlds, an evil traveler who wants to destroy the world, and a connection between rival mobsters and the nazis.)

  18. you got slapped Electric Monk

    and yes a world with out cheese would be bad very bad horribly bad

  19. yikes, electric monk, yikes!

    anyone who’s ever studied history in any depth–or human nature, for that matter–knows that no one major incident that changed the world occurred by itself. in fact, no student of history would conceive of one major incident that changed the world by itself.

    we leave that up to the fictioneers.

    what actually happens is that people, faced with a number of choices, choose one way or another. it usually starts out with people with less power and influence, who make a certain choice and thereby start a trend, or influence more powerful people to make similar choices. the combination of choices made by various people will cause the outcome.

    you can never tell exactly how one person’s choice will affect another’s. so in reality A, president A will make choice A and assassin A will shoot president A as a result.

    in reality B, president A will make choice B and assassin A will attempt to shoot her, but have a crisis of conscience and fail. but then there will be an assassin B with more conviction as a result of choice B. assassin B will succeed, but two days later than assassin A’s attempt, therefore allowing president A to sign something important into law.

    etc. and this is not including the people who influenced president A to make whatever choice she makes.

    it’s NEVER one thing.

  20. I really love that I can win something when there isn’t even a contest involved.

    I am with you Haley. A world without cheese is a world without goats is a world without goat-loving aliens. And what kind of world would that be?

  21. Responding to Electric Monk, I think there are two things going on here.

    1: which Electric Monk espouses, is to imagine one change in history and then follow it through to see what results. What you might call top-down alternate history.

    2: the alternative, which just about everybody else here is talking about, is to jump in media res and thrash about discovering how the world is different. You might trace things backwards to try and find what made the difference, but in such stories it’s unlikely there will be one clear and indisputable turning point.

    The history of science fiction is littered with honourable examples of both.

    And just for the record, if you want an incontrovertible example of alternate history which does not have a single Point of Departure, I direct you to The Separation by Christopher Priest.

    By the way, Scott, Adam Mars Jones’s review was in The Observer, not The Guardian.

  22. we’re having a lovely discussion about the reversing of the poles, mass extinctions, predictions of dooms day predicted by ancient calendars, and so on and so forth. have you heard of anything about this? if so would you like to do a science filled post on how we are going to die? (or not, hopefully)

  23. By mentioning the Bartimaeus Trilogy, you have officially made my day.

    As far as I’m concerned, alternate history is anything set in a world closely paralleling but not quite our own. Changing only one thing might have been an ironclad rule at one time, but as with so many other things in the book world, that’s changing. Now, to channel my inner pirate, it’s more like a guideline, really. Or, better yet, a starting point.

    Great rant, Mr. Scott.

  24. Reading what Adam Mars-Jones wrote, it seems to me that he doesn’t quite understand the book and its meaning. Is this the first time he’s read and reviewed a fantasy book??

    I think the best alternate-world novel would definitely be HDM. And i’m soooo glad you mentioned it! It seems more believable then most and i don’t think anyone else can beat that mark. He has raised the bar for sf fantasy authors trying write about alternate worlds.

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