Saturday, July 06, 2013

An Alternative History Panel

I'm not going back to CONvergence today, since I have an essay to finish. I think it's due today. (I just checked and can't find the last email from the editor, so will have to go on memory.)

I felt I talked too much on the one panel I did yesterday. I was trying to think something through out loud. This should not be done on panels, which ought to be communal activities. Thinking through should be done somewhere private, by oneself or with one or two (very patient) friends.

The ideas I was trying to think through were difficult (for me, at least) and I didn't have a good grasp on them. What is the nature of time? A huge topic, which I am in no way competent to talk about. And what is the nature of history? Does it follow broad trends, like a river that usually keeps to its bed, or is it highly contingent? Can you change it dramatically with a single action?

The final questions I had were, why do people write alternative histories, and why are alternative histories so popular right now?

I have written a couple of alternative history stories in recent years and a number of time travel stories. I think time travel is related to alternative history. Both ask the question, can one change the past? Which becomes the question, can one change the present and future? A hugely important question. We are at a point in history (I think) when the present does not look especially good and the future looks grim. Is major change possible? How do we achieve it?

In any case, I had a lot of questions, too many for a one-hour panel. I'm going back to the con tomorrow. I have one panel, on how to write heroes. I think I will go in unprepared -- with no questions or ideas.
Sean Murphy made a very good comment at the panel: change depends on the magnitude of the event. A small event does not change history. A large one does. To use the river metaphor, the course of the Mississippi is not easy to change, but it can be done. The river's course was changed by the New Madrid earthquake. It was a big event. More than that, the Army Corps of Engineers is in a constant struggle with the course of the Mississippi. Their dams and levees are not the same size as the Madrid earthquake, but they are big, and there are a lot of them. Sean was talking about strange attractors, and he lost me. But I think I got the basic point.

History is mostly stable, but it can be changed. It is both a river and a tree of contingent events.
Having said that, I begin to think about a story involving time engineers, trying to keep history on a certain course, and time saboteurs, planning to blow up levees.
Alternative history and time travel stories are, it now occurs to me, a direct challenge to Margaret Thatcher's terrible lie, There Is No Alternative. Both say, history can be changed.


Paul Weimer said...

We needed a leader on the panel, so you wound up being it (you've written more AH than Naomi or Bob or I after all).

One hour was hardly enough to cover AH--I never even got to talk about time travel AH altering stories and what *they* mean (ones beyond the Man who Murdered Mohammed)

Your panel on heroes went well, although I was only in the audience on that one rather than a panelist.

Leslie Bates said...

AH is intellectual laziness. What I'm working on is very hard SF.

Eleanor? Could you please explain your comment on Margaret Thatcher?

Eleanor said...

Paul -- I felt I talked way too much on the Alternative history panel. I was too focused on what I was thinking about and not paying enough attention to the other panelist. But it's a huge topic.

Eleanor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie Bates said...


I will try to be nice.

Go back to whatever school you went to and demand a refund for the tuition. You have been defrauded.


Paul Weimer said...

AH is intellectual laziness?

No, no, I strongly disagree. And I think you are more than edging into rudeness, Leslie.

Leslie Bates said...

This is how I do rudeness:

Paul Weimer said...


(Eleanor, this ironically dovetails into a discussion we had before the panel. Weird)

Anyway, Leslie. Let me try this again. Coming to a blog and blog post about a panel Eleanor and I were on and pissing on its subject (as opposed to 'very hard SF') is impolite.

Telling Eleanor she needs a refund for her education catapults you from impolite to rude.

You see, Eleanor is from Minnesota and is one of the nicest people I've had the privilege to meet. I see she deleted her comment already. I don't see why, but that's her choice.

Me, I'm just a transplant from New York City.

Now, let's try this from a rational discussion angle. Why is AH "intellectual laziness"?

Leslie Bates said...

Eleanor was one of the nicest people I met.

So what?

A is A. Reality is real.

I cannot believe that a statement of fact is a "terrible lie."

Alternate History and Time Travel are denials of causation, and therefore are denials of reality.

Paul Weimer said...

I'll stop the discussion of manners for the moment. We're clearly not communicating cleanly on that.

Alternate History and Time Travel are denials of causation, and therefore are denials of reality.

With that sort of ethos, how do you read any genre fiction at all? "Hard SF" is just as much a denial of reality as AH or Time travel.

Or is it that temporal paradoxes are uncomfortable? What about a straight up AH, without any time travel elements at all. How is that anything but counter-factual history?

Eleanor said...

Paul -- Thanks for your comments here.