Thoughts on alternate history (or, it’s just rubbernecking, baby)
I finished reading John Birmingham’s alternate history novel Weapons of Choice last night, and it’s pretty good. The opening, as I’ve said before, is filled with the kind of Tom Clancy techno-action stuff that leaves me cold, but once the story gets established Birmingham really gets hold of his characters, has some interesting things to say about the differences between the mindsets of his 1942 characters and his 2021 characters, all of which, obviously, are intended to address those of us living in these Bin Laden Days. It is also romantic, tough-minded at times, and very funny. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t be surprised to see big budget movie one day that would actually be worth seeing.
Reading the book did make me stop and think about alternate history and why it tends to bother me. I think the reason that I have troubles with it is as a form is that so much of alternate history seems to be devoted to what I’d call rubbernecking. There are basically two types of rubbernecking, and they usually overlap or are intertwined. The first type involves the likely or unlikely intersection of two famous people. Ooh, look there’s Alexander the Great and he’s sharing a latte with Elvis Presley! Or, who ever would have thought of Charles Dickens dating Barbara Cartland! I wonder what they have to say? A variant on this involves technology or weaponry: what I call the ‘Alien v. Predator’ or ‘Enterprise v. Millennium Falcon’ subtype. The other type of rubbernecking involves putting the aforementioned people or technologies into a famous event to see what might happen. Nothing wrong with it in general principle, except that it usually results in an endless ‘what if Germany/The South won WWII/the Civil War” riff. The problem with rubbernecking itself, though, is that usually these stories offer no insight at all into character, events, or anything other than of the simplest, most voyeuristic kind. The fiction tends to be shallow and facile, with no depth and nothing interesting to say. Now, Birmingham’s book does transcend that, as does Cory Doctorow & Charles Stross’s forthcoming tale “Unwirer” (which turns on a change in not very well-known communications law), and Christopher Priest’s The Separation and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt are great examples of what can be done with alternate history, but it remains a bit of a worry. Too often it’s just dumb, ignoring the complexities of history and pretending to make meaningful observations about famous people that are complete tosh.