Monday, November 23, 2009

The Perils of Alternate History

One of the hallmarks of traditional steampunk is that it's a re-imagining of the mid to late 1800s or early 1900s, when steam power was the dominant technology. Tied in with this alteration in technology is changes to the historical record. The Difference Engine, for example, has Lord George Gordon Byron (who didn't die in the Greek War of Independence in that world) as prime minister in the 1850s, and a United States of America that's fragmented into several constituent parts -- the Republic of Texas, the Republic of California, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America are the largest.

Whenever you alter history, you run into the problem of making historical characters act the way they would normally act. Harry Turtledove, one of the alternate history masters, has several series where he adds "watershed" events that alter the course of history. In the Worldwar and Colonization novels, he posits what would happen if aliens invaded Earth in the middle of World War II. In what's called the Southern Victory or Timeline-191 series (not officially, mind you), he considers what would happen if the Confederacy was victorious in the American Civil War.

In How Few Remain, Turtledove includes Samuel Clemens as a sharp-witted newspaper editor in San Francisco of the 1880s. Clemens, best known as Mark Twain, did in fact work in San Francisco in the 1800s -- except he was there in 1864, and was living in Hartford, Conn., during the time frame Turtledove's story occurred. The problem with doing this, of course, is that Turtledove has to have his fictional Clemens react to events in the same, or similar way, the real Clemens would have.

The above is why I've tended to shy away from historical fiction/alternate history, besides my previously stated fear that I'd get drawn too far into research. The possibility that someone would read my story and say "so and so would never do that" for a historical character has previously been too great for my liking. Of course, that also changes as the documentation on a particular person increases. For the major figures of history -- Abraham Lincoln, Charlemagne, Napoleon Bonaparte, etc. -- you can find enough extant scholarship that getting them right is only a matter of reading enough.

I have tremendous respect for the folks who build careers from alternate histories or straight historicals. My hat's off to their research prowess, which far outstrips my own. Those people are the real research gurus.


L. T. Host said...

I think it could be done (and obviously has) with some degree of accuracy. You just need to think of the person like a character. Build them in your head. What do they look like? What are their interests, dislikes and likes? Do you have writings of theirs you can look at to determine how they spoke, the sort of vocabulary they had? Level of intelligence? Personality?

Put all these pieces together and just like any other character, you have a reasonably good idea of how they'll act in any given situation. You'll get a feeling from them of what they would do.

As long as it's close, I don't think you need to worry too much, because of the simple fact that no one else is quite sure of how that person would have acted, either.

Natalie said...

Wow, those books sound kind of cool. I'm slightly terrified of getting things wrong, so I doubt I'd ever try to write an alternate history, but I'd like to read one :)

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

Academically I know to treat a historical personage like any other fictional character, except I feel like the task is a bit more daunting if there's a lot of scholarship on said person.

Natalie --

They are very cool to read. The creativity level alone -- postulating what the world would be like if X happened instead of Y -- makes them intriguing if done well and downright annoying if done wrong.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I feel your pain!

Writing Hatshepsut was daunting because I was enthralled with her that I had a hard time wrapping my mind around her mind. Sounds weird, but true. I kept second guessing myself. Finally, I just weaseled my way in and then it started to flow.

Of course, my husband points out all the parts where she acts like me. I take that as a huge compliment! :)

L. T. Host said...

Ah; I see.

I still think that so much of it is conjecture that even an expert wouldn't be able to say you were wrong, because the only person who could really answer that question is dead, haha.

I'm not arguing that it's daunting, I completely agree. I just think the better you get to know them, the better you can write them. I see your point that that onus of research would be overwhelming if it was someone very prominent.

Adam Heine said...

I love alternate histories, though I never really considered writing one of my own. Probably the same reason I don't write historical fiction. The number of people who know more about WW2 than I do is much greater than the number who know more about (say) artificial intelligence.

I'm more likely to just say, "Screw accuracy. I'm writing Abraham Lincoln, vampire hunter!"

Joshua McCune said...

Hey, isn't The Bible an alternate history (sorry, my little atheist brain couldn't resist :)?