Sidewise in learning

Somebody – maybe Bradbury, maybe Heinlein, maybe John D. MacDonald – said that you need to write a million words before you’ve learned the craft. I’ve never kept count, but I wrote for forty years before I sold my first story to a pro market, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit the million mark somewhere. And if I did, about half those million words were alternate history.

History has fascinated me since I was a child, and the unknowable ifs of history – what might have happened if the past had played out differently – have appealed to my imagination for nearly as long. I was about ten years old when I read Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time, and from then on I was hooked. I read alternate history stories anywhere I could find them, and when I discovered an Internet discussion group on alternate history in 1995, I became a participant. I’ve played with historical what-ifs in one forum or another ever since.

The magic of alternate history, like that of all speculative fiction, is that it’s open to nearly anything. What if Spinoza had gone into exile in the Ottoman Empire after the Dutch rabbinate excommunicated him? What if the Malê Revolt in Brazil had gone a bit better – not much better, but a bit – leading to a Jacobin Islam taking root in West Africa? What if the early split between the Kingdom and Republic of Haiti had become permanent? What if the kenbut (local justice courts) of ancient Egypt had assumed power by default during one of the periods of collapse, leading to the formation of quasi-republics? What if the Iron Age Nok culture of Nigeria had developed steel, or if African rice had been domesticated in Mali before 3000 BC?

(And yes, in case you haven’t guessed, all of those are my scenarios.)

But while alternate history has been wonderful exercise for the imagination, have my half-million words of it helped to teach me the craft of writing? In some ways I’m not entirely sure. Bulletin-board alternate history is different from published alternate history, with intellectual rigor and historical plausibility prized above storytelling. There’s a reason why the scenarios explored on alternate-history forums are usually called “timelines” rather than stories or novels: their object is more to build a different world rather than to tell the stories of its people.

World-building is of course part of all speculative fiction, but on alternate history forums, it becomes the whole. Timelines often use more of the tropes of academic writing and popular history books than those of fiction, and the interactive nature of Internet forums turns them into something like seminars. There isn’t really an equivalent in published literature: Robert Sobel came close with For Want of a Nail, but that was a one-time tour de force that has never been, and possibly never should be, duplicated. For that matter, Sobel was an economic historian rather than a novelist by training, and while his writing was interesting to those of a historical bent, it violated most of the rules of good storytelling. I’d go so far as to say that bulletin-board alternate history is a different genre from the works of authors such as Turtledove or Stirling, and as such, it isn’t necessarily good training for literary writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t entirely bad training. World-building is important, and participation in an alternate history forum is a master class in how to do it right and (just as critically) how to do it wrong. Bad alternate history is wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which the author picks an event and then proceeds from unspoken premises to paint the map his or her favorite color. Good alternate history is all about discovering the premises: taking a pivotal event and applying principles of historical cause and effect both to posit how the event might turn out differently and project the long-term outcome. Good alternate history is more science fiction than fantasy, and requires the author to develop an understanding of the political, economic, social, intellectual and environmental factors that drive human development. The research that I’ve done for my bulletin-board scenarios has improved my general knowledge and sense of plausible world-building as well as my knowledge of the specific cultures and personalities that have found their way into my writing.

And even in bulletin-board alternate history, there’s plenty of room for storytelling. As I became more confident in writing timelines, I shifted more and more from the macroscale to the microscale, and began focusing on one-shot vignettes and the story arcs of historical characters. Of the works linked above, the Haitian one consists entirely of short stories (after some preliminary discussion) and I’m quite proud of a couple of them. Most of the others also intersperse short fiction with the general historical discussion: Malê Rising even includes literary selections “written” by authors living in the alternate universe, and aside from being good exercise in writing from different voices, one of those selections led directly to my first professionally-published story.

So, yes, playing with history is part of my million words – not to mention that it’s been a lot of fun, and fun, at least, is never wasted.