Friday, 30 July 2021

The Future Refusing To Be Born

There will always be a place that our unevenly distributed future reaches last.
(Image via Goodreads)


In Neil Sharpson’s debut novel When The Sparrow Falls, that place is The Caspian Republic: a country founded by expatriate American and Russian bioconservative activists, whose boundaries are roughly those of present-day Azerbaijan.

While the rest of the world has embraced an almost-singularitarian future of AI-guided mass prosperity, near immortality, and widespread expansive human rights, this Caspian Republic has hewed to a quasi-religious “Humanity First” doctrine and polices the use of technology.

The reader’s guide to this setting is Agent Nikolai South, an aging detective with StaSec, one of the country’s various rival agencies devoted to maintaining ideological purity, and punishing those who try to use illegal technologies.

In a police state where ambition is often met with tragedy, South’s proclivity for keeping his head down has kept him safe. But when the agency needs someone politically reliable, yet expendable, he gets swept up into a protection detail and investigations that have implications for the entire country.

Sharpson’s prose is sparse, clear, and engaging. He ably paints a picture of a deeply flawed society, and one that is the all-too-believable result of nostalgia-driven politics and identity-driven ideology. Because the Caspian Republic’s technology is pretty much limited to what was common in North America in the 1980s, readers will be reminded of late-era Cold War spy stories.
Welsh statesman 
Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960)
once described Fascism as
"The future refusing to be born."
(Image via Wikipedia)



But while the setting may seem familiar to readers over 40, many readers will engage with it viscerally because of quotable passages like “Nominally, the currency of the Caspian Republic is the moneta, but in truth the coin of the nation was fear. Whoever could inspire fear was rich, whoever lived in fear was poor.”

One of the highlights of the book is the way in which cultural mores come into conflict between the protagonist and influences from the world outside the boundaries of the Caspian Republic, and the questions that are interrogated. Who or what deserves to have legal rights? What limits should be placed on individual action for the good of the community? To what extent should we allow technology to dictate the future of the species and the planet?

There are coincidences scattered throughout the book that do strain credulity. It is suggested at one point that this may be due to an iteration of Roko's Basilisk — a thought experiment about a future artificial intelligence so advanced it can manipulate events in our present to ensure it comes into being — but for us this thread of the novel fell flat.
Author Neil Sharpson provides
interesting insight into his novel
on an episode of Androids and Assets.
(Image via Amazon)

Likewise, it was at times difficult to believe South’s emotional journey from apathetic true believer in the national cause, to someone who sees the country’s problems and is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Not because this journey can’t happen, people can change beliefs, but because of the speed with which it happens in the novel. Over the course of two days, South becomes comfortable betraying all he has stood for his entire life.

While many reviewers have made comparisons between When The Sparrow Falls and Orwell’s 1984, we feel that those comparisons, while useful, are perhaps superficial. Although both authors begin by examining repressive government autocracies, Sharpson is far more hopeful and seems to suggest that all such regimes are unstable and will collapse under their own internal contradictions. We feel that When The Sparrow Falls is just as much in conversation with a lesser-known midcentury science fiction novel: the infamous Hugo winner They’d Rather Be Right, as it tackles similar questions of governance by algorithm.

Because the novel takes place almost entirely within the borders of the Caspian Republic, the AI-embracing rest of the world is largely ignored. The few glimpses of the mind-uploading, technocratic, utopian society are somewhat facile (though it has to be admitted that such scenes are difficult to write well). We were left with questions about whether the rest of the world is that much better than the Caspian Republic. If nothing can be done without approval of the Artificial Intelligences that guide humanity, in what way is it not a totalitarian state?

The strength of Sharpson’s prose, the fast-paced and engaging plot, and the extraordinarily interesting political dynamics of the setting make for one of the best debut novels of the year, despite some minor flaws.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Ignoring Foreign Films in 1964

This blog post is the seventh in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

There was no Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1964.
Godzilla vs. King Kong remains
one of the most successful Japanese
movies of all time. Still didn't 
earn a Hugo Award nomination.
(Image via DenOfGeek)

As had happened in the previous several years, fans had been solicited for nominations in a variety of categories including Best Dramatic Presentation. But of the 165 people who sent in nominating ballots, fewer than a dozen people offered suggestions for what should be considered in this category.

In response to the extraordinarily low number of ballots cast in the Best Dramatic Presentation category in 1961, a paragraph was added to the WSFS constitution as Section 2.1: “At the discretion of an individual convention committee, if the lack of nominations or the final votes in a specific category shows a marked lack of interest in that category on the part of the voters, the Award in that category shall be cancelled for that year.”

And for the first time in 1964, this clause was invoked by the Worldcon Committee, who called the disappointing ballot count evidence of a “total lack of interest in the category.”

But we would suggest that this ‘lack of interest’ in 1964 reflects both that it was an exceedingly mediocre year for celluloid science fiction in North America, and that the Hugo Awards remained a largely parochial award that rarely recognized works made outside of the United States or the United Kingdom.

During a 40-year stretch from 1964-2003, no foreign films were shortlisted for the Hugo Award: no nominations for Stalker, Akira, Fantastic Planet, City of the Lost Children, Solaris, Planet Of The Vampires, or for Alphaville.

In terms of the 1964 Hugo Awards, it seems a travesty that the Chechoslovakian epic Ikarie XB-1
Ikarie XB-1 is among the best science fiction movies
ever made, and far ahead of its time on many fronts
including depiction of competent women astronauts.
(Image via JanusFilms.com)

didn’t get any recognition. Loosely based on Stanisław Lem’s The Magellanic Cloud, the movie chronicles the multi-year voyage of humanity’s first expedition to Alpha Centauri. The production design by Karel Lukás is among the most influential in the history of science fiction cinema, inspiring everyone from director Stanley Kubrik to designer Matt Jeffreys to architect Eero Aarnio.

The sets built by Lukás help bring to life one of the most mature and human-focused science fiction stories on screen that had been filmed to date. Although the story starts slowly, the filmmaker builds viewer’s emotional investment in the crew and their relationships, and the payoff is excellent because it makes later moments connect.

There are numerous details that we loved about Ikarie XB-1: The non-military international crew, the belief in science, the reaching out to new civilizations in peace and friendship, the fact that the crew has women in positions of authority, the moments of philosophical musing. Combined with the high production value and the technical expertise of the editing and filmmaking, this is a stone-cold classic of science fiction.

Another notable omission from Hugo contention in 1964 was The Mouse On The Moon, an odd
One of the many shots from Ikarie XB-1 that gets
compared to Kubrik's 2001.
(Image via JanusFilms.com)
science-fictional sequel to Peter Sellers’ surprise 1959 hit The Mouse That Roared. This was a great-looking movie despite being made on a shoestring budget with only one member of the original cast returning for a second movie. Notably, the recasting included future Doctor Who companion Bernard Cribbins, Terry Thomas who received a Golden Globe nomination for the movie, and Margaret Rutherford who would go on to win an Academy Award a few months later for her performance in The V.I.P.s.

This little-remembered sequel, which depicts the fictional European micronation Grand Fenwick using their terrible wine-making skills to develop a space program to rival the Soviets and Americans, is charming.

Given its then-unknown director, lack of resources, and insane plot, the movie has all the ingredients of a flop. But inventive reuse of props and sets from other productions, breakout performances from some then C-list actors, and first-rate cinematography made this one of the most surprisingly winsome science fiction movies of the year.
The Mouse On The Moon helped propel director
Richard Lester to a longstanding collaboration 
with The Beatles, directing multiple movies
with the various members of the band.
(Image via ParkCircusFilm.com)

The movie (along with his short film The Running, Jumping, Standing Still Film) helped Director Richard Lester earn the opportunity to direct The Beatles’ first movie A Hard Day’s Night.

Several more mainstream movies might also have merited some attention from the Worldcon voting membership: Roger Corman’s X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes is a well-done mad-science gone wrong parable whose narrative arc is not dissimilar from that of The Invisible Man. It’s among the best movies Corman has ever directed.

Likewise the 1963 cinematic adaptation of John Wyndam’s The Triffids is a competent and visually interesting film, though it excises the novel’s most interesting themes surrounding labour and colonialism. The result is mostly similar to a decent zombie movie.

On television, and in retrospect, the obvious major contender for a Hugo Award casts a very long shadow: the first season of Doctor Who. Revisiting these episodes with 50 years of hindsight is an eye-opening experience because within the first two serials (those that aired in 1963) you can see almost everything that made the show such an enduring classic: the sense of wonder, the dynamic between the Doctor and companions, and the engaging plots.

If we had been nominating in 1964, the serial we would have put on our ballots would be the second one The Daleks. Although that series introduced Doctor Who’s most enduring foes, the story has more in common with the 1960 movie The Time Machine than it does with later Dalek stories; the bifurcation of a race into a hideous violent species (Morlocks/Daleks) and a peaceful beautiful race (Eloi/Thals), the moralizing over the effects of global warfare. Made on less than a pittance of a budget, with barely two sets, the actors make extraordinary use of what little space they have to act.

In 1963, the best science fiction on screen was not coming from America: It was coming from Czechoslovakia, from Japan, and from England. If Hugo voters had been able to cast their nets a little more widely, they would have found some dramatic presentations worthy of a Hugo Award in 1964.

Friday, 9 July 2021

The End Of History & The Last Question

A novella that could be interpreted as a direct rebuttal to the work of Francis Fukuyama, Light Chaser
Light Chaser hits
shelves Aug. 24, 2021.
(Image via Goodreads)

is a deftly written space opera whose slender size belies the big ideas its authors are tackling.

Collaborations are tricky businesses, but Gareth Powell and Peter F. Hamilton’s work here shows that the results can produce a unique and engaging chemistry. Both of these authors are best known for tackling space opera, but Powell has usually provided more action-heavy fare while Hamilton has gone for vast sweeping epics. Light Chaser is an interesting balance of both of their strengths.

Set in a distant future where a human diaspora has populated millions of planets across the universe, the novella follows a near immortal traveler Amahle whose task is to document, collate, and share the memories and experiences of those living in these worlds. After working on this task for millennia, Amahle’s memory of her own experiences has faded, providing an interesting point of reflection on the role of the cultural archivist.

The worlds she visits are disparate but stable. Some could be described as high-tech civilizations, while others are immiserated medieval monarchies. What all these societies have in common, however, is that they are stable and unchanging. Humanity has hit a steady state; this is the ‘End of History.’

One of the nicely used tools for worldbuilding employed by the authors is Amahle’s collection of work experiences. By allowing her to vicariously live the memories of a few inhabitants of civilizations she visits, the reader is provided an ethnographic glimpse of the civilization instead of a summative infodump.

As her travels progress, Amahle starts to receive coded messages from a mysterious sender in her past… and starts piecing together the fact that her AI companion on these voyages may have ulterior motives. At moments, this may remind readers of the 2010 Hugo-winning movie Moon.
Capitalist eschatology
reached its apex in 1992.
(Image via Amazon)


Be forewarned: the ending that may be undermined by the narrative structure of the novella. For example, the book starts at the end of the plot and even five pages in, the reader already knows that the protagonist will sacrifice herself and her partner in order to kill an ancient and evil force. So it doesn’t come as much surprise when the reader learns that this ancient evil force is behind the stagnation of the human race, nor does it surprise when they start preparing to sacrifice themselves.

That being said, the novella is very welcome for its implicit criticism of complacent feel-good neoliberal end-of-history ideology that leaves major portions of the human race trapped as part of low-wage low-rights pools of exploitable labour. The metaphor was both incisive and perfectly woven into the story.

Light Chaser is an absolutely essential text for fans of either author, offering the punchy dialogue and sprightly pacing of Powell’s best work and the quirky-big-space-idea think pieces of Hamilton’s. It will likely find a place on several of our nominating ballots next year.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

The Day That No Award Caught Fire (1963)

This blog post is the sixth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

The Hugo Awards had already been in existence for a full decade, but until the night of Sunday
A movie about human activity causing the Earth
to slowly grow warmer? Must be science fiction!
(Image via Wikipedia)

September 1, 1963, they had remained an ad-hoc affair. On that evening, in the Congressional Room of the Statler Hilton in Washington, D.C., the World Science Fiction Society constitution was born.

In that first decade of the Hugo Awards, categories varied wildly. Only Best Novel, Best Short Story, Best Fanzine, Best Artist, and Best Prozine had been awarded more often than Best Dramatic Presentation. But still, the category remained the one that attracted the least interest. As far as we can tell from looking over the membership lists of the Worldcon, none of the nominees in this category attended the ceremony.

One major change in the rules that year was to make the Dramatic Presentation category format agnostic. No longer restricted to film or television, it was made explicitly clear that radio, audio recordings, or even stage productions might be eligible. Interestingly, this was an option that Hugo nominators wouldn’t make use of for another eight years.

There were four eligible Dramatic Presentations that received enough nominating votes to be considered for the Hugo in 1963, but due to an error only three of them appeared on the ballot. Night Of The Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn) was omitted from the ballot by mistake.

It seems unlikely to us, though, that its inclusion on the ballot would have made a difference. Although adapted from Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, and sharing the broad strokes of the central idea about an academic who struggles with his wife’s witchcraft, screenwriter Richard Matheson took significant liberties, particularly with the ending. In our estimation, the changes were for the worse, as they seem to negate the commentary about gender roles that seem to us to be integral to the story.

The acting and directing is surprisingly good, considering that the movie was helmed by Accapulco
Director Sydney Hayers parlayed
his Hugo shortlist appearance into
a directing gig on Galactica 1980.
(Image via Wikipedia) 

H.E.A.T.
director Sydney Hayers. There’s a clever bit of continuity in which a skeptical professor has the words “I don’t believe” written on a chalkboard early in the movie, only to have the word “don’t” erased when he accidentally rubs his shoulder on the chalkboard near the end.

But there were several other — we would argue better — options on the ballot that year. Twilight Zone showed a significant return to form after an off year. Although the fourth season wouldn’t begin airing until January of 1963, the episodes that aired in 1962 went from strength to strength: To Serve Man, based on Damon Knight’s story of the same name, is deservedly one of the most well-remembered in the series, but there are many other hidden gems here. Little Girl Lost, written by Richard Matheson, is an excellent eerie little episode with a fantastic premise about falling between the cracks of the world. One of Rod Serling’s scripts The Little People is a tightly-paced story that seems almost certain to have helped inspire George R.R. Martin’s Hugo-winning The Sand Kings.

Most of the members of our discussion group would likely not have voted for the beguilingly beautiful but frustratingly befuddling Last Year At Marienbad, the French art movie whose opaque narrative structure and lack of linear storytelling have made it a classic amongst film scholars. It’s a movie that’s clearly worthy of respect and admiration, but it’s not particularly engaging for the casual viewer.

The stand-out of all the Hugo shortlisted dramatic presentations in 1963 was The Day The Earth Caught Fire, a British disaster movie that channeled the atomic fears of the day.

The story follows a journalist who slowly pieces together the fact that due to ill-considered government decisions, the world is getting hotter and soon will become uninhabitable. As he breaks the news about this global warming, various policymakers try to deny the facts even as weather patterns shift and catastrophic storms wreak havoc. Despite the implausibility of this scenario, the movie makes this “climate change” seem like a credible threat.
Director Val Guest earned his
only BATFA award for The
Day The Earth Caught Fire
.
(Image via Pintrest)

This is one of the few movies that accurately captures the energy of a newsroom, and the bleak humour shared by journalists on the job. This is in part because it was partially filmed on-location in the offices of the Daily Express in London, and the actor cast as the newspaper’s editor had previously been the editor of the Express.

Director Val Guest — best known for his work on Quatermass — turned in his career-best directorial effort here, using location and lens choices to move the narrative between almost claustrophobic personal stories, and sweeping global events. The ending (which we won’t spoil) effectively drives home the urgency of the questions raised, and underscores how the movie remains disturbingly relevant to this day, particularly in light of global warming.

Our viewing group unanimously agreed that it is a legitimate shame that the film was denied the Hugo award. The fact that The Day The Earth Caught Fire did not win is more evidence of the lack of interest Dramatic Presentations garnered among Worldcon attendees.

It is a shame that voters chose not to recognize any of these options with a Hugo Award, but it is both a reflection of the attitude that science fiction fans had towards SF cinema at the time, as well as the lack of interest that Hollywood had in the Hugos.

Saturday, 29 May 2021

Not On The Shortlist 2021

Every year there are more worthy works than could fit on any Hugo Awards ballot. There will therefore
(Image via Goodreads)

always be works that are not included, no matter how great they may be. As our book club has done in previous years, some of us have selected the books, movies, and comic books they wish could have made this year's ballot.  

(KB) Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia 

Set in the 1950s Mexican countryside, college-age Noémi navigates a tense and horrific situation that holds her cousin captive.  

Evoking the same style of romantic gothic and speculative fiction horror in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Moreno-Garcia’s carefully crafted novel ratchets the tension and addresses settler-colonialism, environmental racism, and sexism. Using a unique mechanic to bring the eco-gothic setting into the fantasy and science fiction genre, the novel was full of surprises beyond just the plot. 

As a horror aficionado (and obviously a SFF fan), this book is an outstandingly creative entry for the speculative fiction subgenres. Moreno-Garcia, whose previous book Gods of Jade and Shadow earned her Nebula and Locus nominations, is an author to keep a closer eye on, and it’s a shame that Mexican Gothic didn’t make it onto Hugo readers’ radars.

(AW) Bridge 108 by Anne Charnock — Best Novel

Not sure how this thoughtful, socially speculative and dystopian novel didn’t make it on the ballot. Anne Charnock gives us interesting and relatable characters that must move forward, both literally and figuratively, to survive in a world struggling with deep social and economic divisions.

Caleb and other point of view characters provide distinct interpretations of the same reality, revealing layers of social conditioning to the reader. But you don't need to care about social relations and labour issues to enjoy this book (even if you should). Despite backstories of despair, each character’s choices reveal an inherent and universal drive to survive without doing harm.

This is near-future climate change fiction at its best — gently disclosing the impact of current conditions and choices through sympathetic experiences and hope.

(MB) Repo Virtual by Corey J. White — Best Novel

Repo Virtual is a really great response to anyone that suggests cyberpunk is a finished genre. It takes aim at the giant internet companies dominating the world today and at the precarious labour that allows the world to function.

It’s a great little heist story that has hackers, a predatory pseudo-intellectual cult leader, a massive multiplayer online game all set in a frighteningly realistic near-future smart city.

The story is a smart critique of the world and the trajectory we’re on and White absolutely deserves an

award.

(OR) Jack Kirby: The Epic Life Of The King Of Comics by Tom Scioli — Best Related Work

One of the most visually distinctive artists of the golden age of comics, Jack Kirby helped create a plethora of characters who have gone on to be household names: Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, Nick Fury, and The Fantastic Four just to name a few. Elements of his art style echo throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His contributions were often however overshadowed in the popular imagination by his more charismatic colleague Stan Lee. So a volume like “The Epic Life of The King of Comics” provides a welcome insight into who Kirby was, what influenced his genuinely progressive vision for comic books, and what his legacy might be. 

Told as a linear chronological narrative, The Epic Life Of the King Of Comics follows Kirby’s service in World War 2, his confrontations and altercations with home-grown American racists, his ascent to the top of his profession, and his fight to claim ownership of his work. It is a story worth reading and understanding for fans of comics, fans of creator’s rights, and fans of the genre in general.  

Rather than telling this story through a conventional biography, Tom Scioli offers us a beautifully drawn comic book in which the art carefully offers connotations of Kirby’s style. This artwork is notable for how Scioli helps us see Kirby the way that Kirby saw the world, though he avoids slavishly aping the master’s style. 

This is truly one of the great works of comic book history. 
(Image via Goodreads) 

(CF) The Unspoken Name by AK Larkwood

This fantasy novel follows the life of Csorwe from dedicated death god mouthpiece and sacrifice to assassin and spy and beyond.

Inspired by Le Guin’s Tombs of Atuan, AK Larkwood’s debut novel The Unspoken Name follows a young orcish death cultist for whom a vast new world becomes possible when she is saved from being a ritual sacrifice. Set on a quest for an artifact of incalculable power, she learns the world is more nuanced and complicated than she had been raised to believe.

Despite this being a debut novel, which earned Larkwood a spot on the ballot for the Astounding Award, this book has better balance of complex worldbuilding with character development than works by far more established authors. While some might complain that the plot isn’t particularly tight, that gives the characters more space to breathe and to grow.

One of the many facets of the book that made it stand out is how Larkwood engages with and subverts the prejudices baked into standard fantasy tropes. Orcs may have a different culture that doesn’t align with that of the dominant (white) majority, but in this narrative it is made clear that they are just as human.


Another facet that adds brilliance to this little gem are the positive queer representation. Both Csorwe and her friend were queer but it was just part of their characters and not used as tokenism for the plot. And in the wider world, there was no institutionalized homophobia.

It is great to see AK Larkwood on the ballot for the Astounding Award, but all the same I would have liked to have seen The Unspoken Name shortlisted for best novel.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Urban Renewal

What a great time to read about a city loved by so many.
Three-time best novel
winner N.K. Jemisin's
latest book.
(Image via Goodreads)


For the past year, New York City has been inaccessible to travelers, tourists, and those seeking to commune with its genius loci (though, if Jemisin’s interpretation is correct, this is what the City would prefer). Hardcore urbanists from all over will get a particular thrill from a book like The City We Became, which invokes the boroughs as characters and evokes memories of wanders through their streets.

With a plot kicked off by a young homeless man discovering his destiny as the avatar of New York City, the story involves a larger-scale need to rally the Burroughs to defend urbanism against community-destroying White supremacy in the form of a Lovecraftian horror. This entity lashes out and seeks to destroy New York out of a fear of culturally-rich diverse communities. As with many Lovecraftian horrors, significant elements of the unknown and unknowable are left to the reader’s imagination.

Jemisin’s talent for creating characters we care about surviving and surpassing structural barriers took center stage. Every new superhero needs an origin story and this story provides this by expanding on the creative city hero concept Jemisin introduced in the original short story “The City Born Great.” While a minor quibble, the cameo character Bel seems more Aussie than British to us and no one in our book club remembers seeing a pound sterling note in about three decades. More decisively, the nod to her sensitivity readers in the acknowledgements was appreciated, however some members of the book club felt the characters were reductive and that the narrative occasionally relied on telling the readers rather than showing the heroic status of the protagonists.

This is a novel that is subtly intertextual, paying homage to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and subverting the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, the allusions to Lovecraft are so integral to the text that the occasional forays into Lovecraftian prose became distracting to at least one of our members. Those who dislike the way Lovecraft wrote may find some of the prose difficult. 

But despite being steeped in the ideas behind famous fantasy works, The City We Became sometimes
Given how much this novel is in conversation with
both the city of New York, and the works of H.P. 
Lovecraft, it is worth noting how Lovecraft had
an irrational dislike of New York. 
(Image via NPR)

seems more aligned with the narrative traditions of magical realism; it sometimes isn’t clear where the metaphor ends and what portions of the story are supposed to be read literally. Readers who lean towards more literary novels will likely enjoy this more than those who seek out pulp adventures.

As expected, and true to Jemisin’s style, there's a satisfying through line in The City We Became that illuminates a determinative cultural construction. The divisiveness that we've all seen play out in the US over the past decade or so is simplified to an “urban vs rural” or “white vs non-white” dichotomy in this novel, and we suspect it will play an important role in the next two books. The fact that this tension was not resolved with an unbelievable love-in between the Burroughs (a few of us were dreading that type of ending), and the recognition that spatial and cultural practices, not necessarily political boundaries, provide the glue for urban gestalt provided a graceful end to a fantasy novel focused on character development.

Fantastical stories expect some level of abandon by readers, and for the most part that was easy to do with this book. We were a bit tripped up by a few easy-outs, however, including a pep talk that reminded us of Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret and a few convenient but sticky plot holes filled in by bystanders inexplicably unable to see things or eagerly accepting dubious explanations. American exceptionalism also peeked around a few corners (The repetitious refrain: “this time is different / never happened in the other cities”) but this will likely support the book finding its audience.

Given Jemisin’s well-earned following and the timely depiction of a much-loved survivor city, we are glad to see The City We Became on this year’s Hugo short list.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Alternate facts make bad alternate history

There is a long tradition of American conservatives penning tales of Alternate History:
  • former Speaker of the House Newt Gingritch took a stab at the genre with his Second World War counterfactual 1945,  
  • Republican Congressman James Rogan (CA-27) tackled the 1968 Democratic Convention in his novel On To Chicago,
  • and shortly before Donald Trump left office, his “1776 Commission on American History” tabled its report.
    Former speaker of the
    house Newt Gingrich
    tackled alternate history 
    with the novel 1945.
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    This may seem like a cheap shot at the much-maligned 1776 Commission Report, but the stated purpose of the commission was to counteract the academic demythologizing of American history. The authors of the report took issue with schools teaching a more complete narrative of American history that includes the experiences of enslaved people, of Indigenous Peoples, and of women. It is argued here that any understanding of history that excludes those narratives is no history at all; it is alternate facts.

    The flaws, misinterpretations, and outright falsehoods held in the commission’s report are illustrative of the flaws in what is referred to as “Patriotic History,” and these flaws are integral to understanding why there have been so many terrible alternate history novels written by those of a conservative bent in the past quarter century. 

    “Patriotic History” of the sort peddled by the 1776 Commission is a version of history that allows no space for critical examination of the nation’s founding stories. Within this paradigm, the nation cannot be allowed to be anything but perfect, heroic historical figures may be flawed but only in forgivable ways.

    Alternate history is a genre that tackles counterfactual narratives based on divergence from recorded events in the past; but without a solid foundation of factual history, these narratives are built on sand. Moreover, by imagining ways that history might have reasonably played out differently carries with it the implication that the nation might be better than it is now, and that there is no predetermined national destiny. In these ways, good alternate history is anathema to “Patriotic History.”

    The genre is rife with dismal failures written by authors whose worldview is informed by “Patriotic
    Orson Scott Card's
    Pastwatch sanitizes
    the crimes of 
    Christopher Columbus.
    (Image via Wikipedia)

    History.” Orson Scott Card’s amateurish Pastwatch starts from the premise that Christopher Columbus wasn’t that bad a guy (despite all the genocide), and posits a historical divergence in which time travelers trying to stop an ecological crisis wiped out all those Indigenous folk with genetically engineered viruses. America celebrates Columbus Day, so any “patriot” must therefore believe — as it appears Card does — in a sanctified and sanitized version of colonialism.

    More recently, The Gordian Protocol by David Weber and Jacob Holo, involves a historian going back in time and learning that (just as he suspected) the oppression of women was just fine and dandy. In the understanding of events promoted by the book, Women’s Liberation — a movement that stood in opposition to dominant power structures — must be defined as being on the wrong side of “Patriotic History.”

    Even one of the better Alternate History works written by a very conservative author, Another Girl, Another Planet by Lou Antonelli, only really works when it avoids history altogether. When it is a big outer space adventure, it’s relatively engaging. But the version of history depicted in the novel involves weird depictions of Barack Obama as a feckless Marxist ideologue; not so much a counterfactual as a motivated smear job.

    Obviously, the conservative movement has no monopoly on the mythologization of history. The rewriting of history to legitimize the authority of the dominant class is a time-honoured tradition among monarchies, authoritarian regimes, and racialized caste systems. But explicitly politicized left-wing Alternate History is in a minority, and often the left-wing authors working in the genre today
    If you start from the premise
    that the Civil War was about
    "states rights," rather than slavery,
    your history is too fake already.
    (Image via DailyProgress)

    have a more nuanced view of the past.

    America can only again be made great if you believe America was great at some point in the past. For those paying attention to the evidence, it basically never was if you include the narratives of women, workers, marginalized folk in general.

    Those whose worldview is already informed by a warped interpretation of history are unlikely to provide a convincing narrative of how events might unfold. Decent alternate history can only be built on a foundation of real facts.

    Alternate facts make for terrible alternate history.

    Footnote:
    *Just to be clear, for the purposes of this discussion, we are confining ourselves to the strictest definition of alternate history; that being a genre that focuses only on events that might have occurred if historical figures made different decisions. Although stories with aliens, wizards, superheroes, dragons or the anachronistic invention of super-steam technology are sometimes classed as alternate history 
    they are not relevant to this discussion (Some of these mis-classified stories are splendid, and we do not imply anything negative about those stories by excluding them from this narrow definition).