|What follows are my criticisms of the alternative history sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy
||[May. 29th, 2010|07:18 pm]
What follows are my criticisms of the alternative history sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy (read on to discover how this relates to Native America)|
In theory, speculating on what may have been is an excellent thought experiment, an interesting way of shedding light on the events that did actually occur. I got curious some time ago and decided to see what the world had to say about the alternative history of America. What would it be like if the history of the world was different than it turned out to be? What would the United States of Americta be like today if a person in the past turned left instead of turning right, if he dodged that bullet and shot a new bullet instead? If Hannibal used war chimps instead of war elephants? What if JFK wore a helmet? Would thinking about a possible America where Prohibition stuck on as permanent law help me to understand what was really happening during the actual prohibition? Specifically, I was interested in an alternative history where, somehow, Europe’s interaction with the Americas over the last 500 years was altered from the way in which we currently understand it. Would this enlighten my understanding of North America?
And in talking about this I mean to discuss the alternative history literature sub-genre generally, or at least relate some proto-pseudo-quasi-semi-academic-ish musings on the topic. So I googled it up on The Google. I did not find much outside of the "What if the Confederacy Had Won?" or "What if Hitler Had Won?" or What if Napoleon Had Won?" region of thought, which is very sad, since I consider those periods and circumstances rather dull and over studied. A great many of the alternative history books out there deal with these topics exclusively, repeatedly, and they deal with them in one of two ways. A) They lean heavily on a twisted sense of destiny (such as Abraham Lincoln becoming the first man on the moon instead of the 16th POTUS, or Robert E. Lee discovering Uranium after he single-handily won the US Civil War) and/or B) they will utilize fantastical elements introduced into historical situations (such as Winston Churchill using an army of dragons to defeat Hitler in Central Africa). I love science fiction, but I am inclined to emphasize the HISTORY of alternate history over the fantastical elements frequently employed in this sub-genre.
The Odd Sense of Destiny: A remote handful of works seem to express themselves well in speaking to an enlightened audience, balancing the chaotic circumstances that result in changing a historical detail with an informed education of the reader. History is history and it is not pre-determined or even predictable for us lowly humans. Not even remotely predictable if you are dealing with larger–than-personal timeframes like multiple generations or millennia. These authors understand that changing a single detail in the historical record can result in dramatic consequences. This can make changes possibly so drastic and unpredicted that the familiar throes of history would increasingly vanish as ones moves away from the altered event (such as, "What if Robert E. Lee never surrendered?" or "What if Hitler did not invade Russia?"). The unfamiliar historical territory created this way is a result of the nature of complex systems, of which human societies most certainly count. Admittedly, inability to rely on this makes it tough for Alternative Historians to sell their story along with their love, as many key characters and events that would be familiar in history books would become unrecognizable to the history-loving author or reader. Ninety-five percent of the alternative history fictions seem to run into this problem and it is largely self-inflicted in nature. The Abraham Lincoln who becomes a lunar astronaut instead of a US president or a world where Britain is Conquered by the Incas yet still manages to hit the Industrial Revolution in stride in the same traditional timeframe as true history are the sort of circumstances that typify this issue. It could be because writers who play in this sub-field of sci-fi are huge fans of history and are turned on intellectually by those amazing what-ifs in the historical record. Their clear love for their topic, say the US Civil War or World War II, keeps them locked in a destiny-filled world where the consequences are purposefully kept within the framework of the original historical circumstance. Abraham Lincoln is an important historical figure and will always be an important historical figure, no matter that he does not become a lawyer. This odd little sense of destiny will ensure that Lincoln starts a space race against the Confederacy and eventually walks on the moon instead of leading a nation succumbing to civil war, or some other heavily influential action. Consequently, the results are not believable a majority of the time because human societies and the history they leave behind most certainly do not work in this fashion. This further leads me to label the category as largely NOT HISTORICAL in nature, except for those remote few handful of works, that is. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson is easily a good example of alternative history done well and later on, I will explain why.
What do I mean by this complaint? Well, let's say we save Caesar's life. In our example alternative history he is no longer murdered in a political coup and instead leaves a long life to be written about in the history books, changing the course of Roman history forever. Most of the Alternative history out there will take this turn of events and let it lead to a Martin Luther King as the United States first black POTUS and an Al Gore who became a movie star instead of a politician. This kind of thing is a huge, fantastic reach because it fails to take into account how much the development of the United States depends on the development of Western Europe which "discovered America" which further fails to consider how much the "Fall" of Rome factored into the development of Western Europe and Europe as a whole. Two thousand years of human societies affected by a single, monumental change of Roman leadership and the United States still manages to exist? No. Its a huge turn off for me because it is not possible (for one, Rome had trade ties to India, which Western Europeans were seeking when they accidentally found the American continents in 1492). Yet, the vast majority of this kind of fiction operates under these kind of stretched premises. And stretching it further is the confused role of destiny in this style of books. Historical figures are seriously recast from president to chemist in the new world order, from gardener to time traveler, from prime minister to prime dragon rider. It is perhaps my biggest pet peeve about the sub-genre that Alternative History does not treat people famous or otherwise the way that history treats people, famous or otherwise. Depending on what you change and due especially to the inherent complexity of human systems, the same events that did occur in true history are increasingly less likely to occur again in alternative history.
The Introduction of Fantastical Elements: In this very same sub-genre, many authors take a fantasy element and insert it into a historical situation. There is a series of books concerning the sudden transport of the modern Island of Nantucket irreversibly to the 30 Years War in Europe, hundreds of years in the past. Another introduces a World War II fought with dragons. Another yet kills all the guns and electricity of the modern world and replaces it suddenly with magic, leaving the reader stranded in a really cool, quirky dystopia. Characters that travel between dimensions to see an infinite variety of histories. This all smacks of FANTASY yet is considered alternative HISTORY. And for the better part a lot of these stories are really pretty good.
You might say, "well, aren't you being a bit nitpicky?" to which I will gleefully counter, "why yes, but it's not any fun if it doesn't come across as possible". For any story to come across as entertaining, something recognizably realistic has to be involved, either from the circumstances, the characters, or the environment. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is set in a wild, magical world where spells are cast and goblins eat people, yet the individual characters express emotions, characteristics, and attitudes that could easily fit into the real world we inhabit everyday. The desire to defend a homeland, the confusion of fear in wartime, the love of a comrade…they are absolutely relatable to our human conditions despite the background of ogres and orcs and wizards. And I will be the first to admit that any story (many of the S.M. Stirling stories especially so) in the alternative history sub-genre are capable of this broad literary requirement. But in the end, I feel that something more is expected of Alternative History…something HISTORICAL, which is to say something believably relating to the chaos and unpredictability of actual human history. Otherwise, it seems applicable to label it as a fantasy or science fiction novel, as noted above. The whole point of this sub-genre is to highlight our true history…to bring something interesting or relevant to light through the power of contrast. This can only happen by pretending to dwell within plausible historical contexts.
In the end, I’ll also admit, it could be the desires and unrealistic requirements of a literal mind. And I will also admit that there is a fine line for the author in dealing with the subject format. Change too much and the reader may be lost. Or study a history that is unfamiliar and the reader may as well be reading fantasy. This is where the duty of the author to educate comes in handy. But, I digress…
So, in my googling I wasn't specifically looking for ANY alternate America, but more closely I was searching for an America that was never colonized by Europe, or where some Red Nations somehow were not conquered or overrun by the colonizing European or perhaps where the US Constitution lived up to its word and the original 13 States invited the Native American Nations either into statehood or trade agreements instead of the history we know where these people were conquered and assimilated. The subject of Native America has interested me over the past 4 or 5 years now and I was curious...what would it have been like? How much would be different in North America if the United States had not become quite the vast world empire that it is? What have others said about this very same topic?
Well, predictably, hardly any writers tackled the subject. Maybe a handful in total.
So far, I've found popular titles ranging from:
- Steven Barnes' Lion's Blood where Islam discovers America instead of Western Europe and Western Europe is a raiding ground for slave labor.
- PastWatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus by Orson Scott Card "in which scientists from the future travel back to the 15th century to prevent the European colonization of the Americas".
- The Trail of Glory series by Eric Flint (2 books so far) where Sam Houston "was not injured at the beginning of the War of 1812", which eventually leads to some Native American self-determination in the Arkansas region that changes US and world history quite a bit.
- Climb the Wind by Pamela Sargent where the emerging Sioux Empire did not succumb to the USA in the 1870s and instead fought for its national identity in North America. I am waiting to read this one.
- The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robertson and concerns a world where the Black Death wipes out 99% of Europe in the 14th century, leaving the Buddhist, Islamic, Mesoamerican, Andean, and Hindu powers of the world room to control their destinies.
- Aztec Century by Christopher Evans, where Hernan Cortes switches to the Mexican side and repels the Spanish Invasion leading to a 20th Century where Mexico conquers Britain.
There are only a few more that I could locate, but they become increasingly obscure and written at a time when European-based peoples held tightly to Manifest Destiny and attitudes of racial superiority, making the work less readable. Several of these are good, and several of these alternatively, like the Orson Scott Card title PastWatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, are quite bad. The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robertson is quite good and might be my favorite out of the whole sub-genre thus far (actually still reading it). It doesn't concentrate entirely on the Americas, but instead assumes that Hindu reincarnation is very real and follows a group of core characters as they are reborn throughout an altered history where the bubonic plague kills 99% of 14th century Europe instead of the 30% to 60% we record. The story is written with every bit of the knowledge and forethought one would expect from a serious practitioner of alternative history and manages to do an interesting job of blending religions, making most of his characters rather convincing, mimicking writing styles of respective cultures and periods, and allowing history to assume its chaotic course without any odd little destinies (seemingly, of course).
But for the most part the idea of Native America in alternative history is untouched and is riddled with stereotypes and deep-seeded misconceptions. It seems that this small bank of novels divides the Native America of alternative history into two possible outcomes: 1) A strong Native America able to become a regional or global power in spite of the true course of history (Peru, Bolivia and Mexico not included completely) and 2) a Native America that, as in our modern colonial narrative, is a place absent of civilization and plays the same background role it supposedly does in our true history. In truth, neither can be more wrong. So, I am left only with my imagination, it seems. And from that imagination springs some pointers to any aspiring author or connoisseur of Native America in alternative history and alternative history in general:
The Laws of Alternative History –
1) Treat alternative history with the same chaotic, unpredictable characteristics that real history is riddled with. It has to be treated as such in order to serve its function – to bring light to the real history we share. In order to be labeled as “alternative history” it must share the authority with which history is actually written. Even if your story is to include the odd little destinies, you ought to do your best to have the reader experience the phenomenon as any of us would experience the seeming unpredictability of our lives.
2) To further garner the label “alternative history”, you should stay away from unrealistic elements that you would not find in a true history, individual character perceptions notwithstanding. Cherokee fighter pilots did not fly dragons in dogfights over French airspace during WWII. Santa Anna and Queen Elizabeth I did not have a love child who could tame hobbits and cast spells. Keep fantasy and science fiction qualities to their respective areas and let the quality of historical experience guide this sub-genre.
(this being laid down, The Years of Rice and Salt bends both laws interestingly and manages to be a pretty outstanding read)
Now for the General Rules Concerning the Use of Native America in Alternative History:
1) The most important aspect to understand about Native America is disease and population. When the Spanish reached Mexico, the city of Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities in the world and more populated than any single city in Europe. In fact, the Americas as a whole sported somewhere between 50-100 million people. It was densely populated in many regions. The "tribal" nature that is recorded today are the tattered remains of nations and cultures that met Old World diseases at Contact. Those diseases killed around 80% of the American population. In fact, the 25 million people of the Aztec Empire was reduced to less than a million people in under 30 years. Disease was never so virulent before or sense and it seems to be due to the presence of domesticated animals in the Old World, where those diseases incubated. Old World Disease in the Americas is the single greatest contributor of change during the 16th Century and configured everything we know about the modern world. The Native America we see today is a shadow of what it once was.
2) The nations of America did not assume the Europeans were gods or were not cowered by the technology of the Europeans. The technological factor amounted to nothing in reality. Horses tended to be a bigger scare tactic than 16th century guns and native weaponry tended to be more accurate in those first centuries. Generally, the Europeans lost almost all major encounters with indigenous Americans when they did not employ more indigenous Americans on their side. For example, Cortes and his several hundred conquistadors could not have conquered the millions of Mexico without the thousands upon thousands of native allies who had reason to hate the imperial Mexicans. And it took hundreds of years for Spanish to be acknowledged as the vernacular of government. Again, it was disease that tipped the favor toward the Europeans. The Old World diseases were so virulent that they zapped the defensive strength out of every native nation, chaotically rearranging whole societies. This is true for every region of the Americas until the Industrial Revolution.
3) The religious and stereotypical associations we have with Native America are largely reorganized, regurgitated garble from the fall of the Sioux in the 1870s recycled and bleached thoroughly by Hollywood. Native America was a culturally rich, sophisticated, and surprising place. There was and is still no singular culture or identity as modern political correctness may suggest. In fact, describing Native American culture as singular is a bit like categorizing Britain and China under a singular "Asian Culture". Nations in some cases, such as the Andes and Central Mexico had complex state-controlled religions, sophisticated sciences, and large agricultural bases (some 70% of the food the world eats today is American in origin). The vast majority of Americans in the 16th century both North and South America were sedentary, living in towns, cities, and villages. Some did have sophisticated, written languages. Virtually all native nations had a measurable impact on their environment and did not live in an idyllic Garden of Eden colonialism conveniently imagined for them. A lot of them were matrilineal and a great deal of them practiced some kind of democracy or confederated governments.