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Deep alternates


I got all ready to go to bed and then I remembered I had one other thing I wanted to post.

I've been reading the March Asimov's, and recently finished Robert Reed's novelette "A Plague of Life." Reed has been doing something fascinating that I think is worth mentioning:

He writes alternate history stories in which the Point Of Divergence (POD) is something that happened a very long time ago, but he presents the world of the story as if it's our own world, doing an extremely slow pull-back-to-reveal that gradually shows just how different things are. He's doing a certain amount of translation—the characters in "Plague of Life," for example, are presumably not actually speaking English (though we assume they are at first), and they aren't living in a place called America (though they are living somewhere in what we would call the Americas). Their buildings and machinery are probably different from the ones we're familiar with, but by using relatively generic terms, Reed translates into something that feels familiar, with (at first) only a hint of alienness.

It bugged me in the last one of his stories I read; in my view of history, a POD a couple thousand years ago that completely changes the world political stage shouldn't result in an exact copy of Hitler rising to political prominence. But I think Reed's view of history in these stories assumes that no matter what you change (and "Plague of Life" makes a really gigantic change going back further than any other alternate history I've seen), most things will retain enough of a similarity that translation into our terms is reasonable. So if you accept that meta-premise, he's doing some fascinating things. And the fact that he's doing this and getting away with it opens my mind to the possibility of other people writing alternate history with big PODs but letting the timeline run forward in ways that more or less parallel real history.

One of the things that fascinates me about these stories is that he didn't have to present them this way. In "Plague of Life," he could have given us huge hints toward the difference, though probably not the exact POD, in the opening paragraphs; instead, we only get subtle things (the fact that cows are used for blood as well as milk (and no, there are no vampires in this story), the fact that people wear armor when walking around on the farm in case of accident, the lack of specificity in place names and ethnicity names), and it isn't until much later that we find out for sure what's going on.

Anyway, interesting stuff. It also reminds me that in my entry about translation I somehow failed to mention Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, which takes the translation thing further than anything else I've seen—which really annoyed me in the opening chapters (come on, an alien city named Princeton?), but later Vinge explicitly discusses the issue and makes it more or less make sense inside the world of the story. Impressive.

Although this is irrelevant to anything above, I can't resist noting one other thing about "Plague of Life": it has some remarkable similarities to Steven Popkes's novelette "This Old Man," published in the January issue. (The issue with Ben's and Mike's stories!) (Um, in case you follow that link, be warned that only part of the story appears on the web page—to read the rest of it, you have to find a copy of the issue.) The stories end up being very different in most ways, but they have a few points of extremely strong similarity. Interesting.


I also noticed that resemblance to "This Old Man." It also reminded me of a story I remember reading within the last two years, but whose author and title have escaped me. It involved a father and a sun in a non-alternate setting who had the same special trait the characters in Reed's story had. (trying to be vague)

the lack of specificity in place names and ethnicity names
Okay, I admit I have a languages fetish, but still — ???

I loved "Plague of Life", and I *really* loved the translation elements of Deepness in the Sky -- how something like "Princeton" that seems like a goof turns out to be a clue to how to read the whole text. In both of these stories, the literary device is also intertwined with the coolness of the metahistorical/anthropological speculation. Reed is saying something quite specific by asserting that history would have been similar -- same amount of wars, similar politics, etc. -- despite the drastic and fascinating biological speculation he makes; and Vinge is saying something about consciousness and language and the nature of the alien by having the parts of the book set on the planet turn out to be what they are.

I'm reading Kushiel's Dart, whose POD is probably around 0 BC, so not that far back, but I love what she does with it. It's not really necessarily Hard Alternate History -- the Years of Rice and Salt kind with a specific POD and naturalistic causative extrapolation from it -- it's fantasy after all, sorta; but Carey uses the AH element to say something quite profound about history and politics, by offering a Europe with a nonpatriarchal, non-body/soul-dualistic religion of sensual love at its core.

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