My Mom, supportive as always, sent me an article that was discussing alternate history books. While I agree with the assessment that Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is highly implausible, I take umbrage at the underlying thesis that entertaining alternate history cannot be historically accurate. I of course took even greater umbrage at, to paraphrase, historians can’t write entertaining books.
The Definition of Accuracy
The article author kinda handwaves what historical accuracy actually is. Don’t worry, I’ll not make the same mistake. For purposes of this blog post, “historically accurate” means “Within the capabilities of the existent historical setting without divine intervention, alien space bats, or time travel.” For instance, accurate alternate history tries to remain constrained within the parameters of the era being changed. It doesn’t magically grant the Nazis the ability to nuke NYC in 1941. Nor does the Confederacy get the ability to crank out ironclads at a rate that would make Henry J. Kaiser pass out from shock. Lastly, any sort of time travel is an automatic no go, no matter how amusing the satirical possibilities (from https://viruscomix.com):
Unfortunately, this means a lot of great alternate history like S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse, Harry Turtledove’s World War, and Eric Flint’s 1632 is going right over the side. The first relies on a divine hecatomb of most of humanity to prevent a “gray goo” event. The second involves literal space lizards showing up mid-World War II to subjugate humanity. Finally, the third centers on a modern West Virginia town getting tossed into the Thirty Years War due to “shards” impacting our atmosphere. Ergo, while all three authors do a very good job of portraying real world historical figures, the premise itself cannot be proven / disproven with available data.
*pause* Well, not without going places various government don’t let you walk back out of, anyway. (Anyone else remember when folks were talking about storming Area 51 back in 2019? Who’d have thought the next year would actually be even crazier than that plan?)
Are You Not Entertained?
The second problem I had with the article was that “entertaining” is such a broad adjective as to be almost useless. I mean, is this article talking about “entertaining to the general public” or “entertaining to the target audience”? Because let me tell ya, as both a producer and consumer of alternate history, that’s a very broad gulf. Indeed, many a customer has complained to me that Amazon’s version of The Man In the High Castle is not faithful to the source material. Indeed, customers in three states have stated the Amazon series is “as related to the novel as Starship Troopers was to Heinlein.” It seems that, much like the crowd of a bootleg coliseum, what is “entertaining” may be in the eye of the beholder.
That being said, I don’t think the author searched very long or hard for entertaining and historically accurate examples. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is pretty low hanging fruit to cite. Honestly, Maine’s Mad Mage of Prose could probably sell 10 million copies of his grocery list. Personally I think a better example of entertaining yet historically accurate would be many of the 1990s technothrillers. Yes, that’s right, Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Sword Point are all technically alternate history now. Same with many of the post-apocalyptic books like Alas, Babylon and Warday. Last but not least, there’s classics like Len Deighton’s SS:GB and Robert Conroy’s 1901, both of which are both accurate yet entertaining.
Your Host Takes Umbrage
Finally, I disagree with the article author for obvious reasons when they state “[a]lternate history books written by historians tend to be less popular than those by writers, journalists, or even lawyers,” In addition to being factually incorrect as delivered, it’s pretty much just plain laziness. Harry Turtledove, the current High Priest of the genre, holds a doctorate in history. Robert Conroy taught economic and business history for years. Len Deighton published several well-received historical books in addition to his alternate history works. The list of historians who have successfully participated in the high sins of “counterfactuals” for praise and profit is both long and distinguished. So yes, while it is “difficult to produce a narrative that is mass marketable and academically sound at the same time,” it is hardly as impossible as the article author makes it sound.
In any case, it’s always fun to have an excuse to talk about alternate history. I’m still plugging away at the stories that will go into Dispatches from Valhalla. Alas, “Wonder No More,” which was supposed to be around 10k, is at 19k. Come to find out that if one wants to do an alternate Battle of Samar justice, there’s a lot of moving parts. In any case, with its burgeoning size, I’m probably going to release it as a small book in addition to placing it in Dispatches. More news on the things I’ve done in support of that in a future blog post. Until then, happy reading, and hope to see folks out and about at different cons / events.