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.
I am looking forward to…THIS!
Apparently Interzone #193, the final David Pringle edited issue of the long-running British SF semiprozine, has hit the streets. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll always have a fond regard for Pringle’s magazine. Why? Well, when I started out doing Eidolon IZ was easily one of the best magazines in the field. The way Pringle & Co blended high quality fiction and non fiction to create a magazine that was both worth reading and clearly had its own personality was an inspiration, and we copied it shamelessly. There had to be fiction and essays and reviews and columns and such. Anything else would be too dull for words. I’m hopeful that Andy and the Third Alternative Crew will do a great job with the magazine in the future (it has become a bit tired), but I’ll also miss the original magazine.
And speaking of magazines, I just received a copy of Peter Crowther’s fine new publication, PostScripts, which has some terrific fiction by Gene Wolfe, Jay Lake and others, and looks to be a really worthy addition to the semiprozine scene. If I have any criticism, and it’s a very mild one, it is that I’d like to have seen more of the kind of editorial personality that I loved in the early IZ in PostScripts. There’s no editorial, no statement of direction and so on. Now, none of those things are necessary, but it seems to me starting a new magazine is a big thing and it would have been nice to hear what the PostScripts team feel about what they’re doing. Regardless, you should subscribe right now. It’s the kind of project that deserves support.
Jigs and reels…
I’m currently dipping into Joanne Harris’ first short story collection, Jigs & Reels, and it’s a real surprise. I’ve only been familiar with Harris as the author of what look like “literary” novels for middle-aged women’s book clubs, like Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, but Harris seems to have a real affection for genre fiction, namechecking a number of sf writers in her intro. The story I read last night, “Waiting for Gandalf”, is an interestingly disturbing piece about a group of role playing gamers who’ve been in the same RPG for 30 years, and who bring in temporary members each week. I’m not sure if it’s fantasy or horror, or just weird mainstream stuff. It doesn’t really matter though. This book is worth checking out.
I know I make connections that no-one else ever gets – I’ll say something is like something else and I just get these weird blank looks – but am I the only person to ever think that the music of Stephen Morrissey is a lot like the music of Stephin Merritt? I mention this after checking out You are the Quarry and i.