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Sidewise

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The nominees for this year's Sidewise Award (for alternate-history fiction) have been announced.

I find it interesting that once again all nine of the nominated works are by male authors. Though the translator of one of the short stories is female.

I continue to wonder whether women just don't write much alternate history, or whether the judges (6 out of 8 of whom are male) tend to prefer alternate history by men, or what other factors might be involved.

(Obligatory disclaimer: as with the Linville article about possible gender bias in sf, I'm certainly not saying that good work is being disregarded simply because it's by women; I'm not saying "those horrible judges are prejudiced and they should be stopped" or "there ought to be a quota" or any of the things that someone unfamiliar with me might assume I'm saying here. If anyone is reading this and feeling defensive, and if you decide to respond to this entry, please be careful to respond to what I've written here, rather than to what someone else might have said in a similar vein. I'm not advocating any particular course of action; I'm just observing what seems to me to be a clear pattern, and honestly wondering about what the causes might be.)

During the nine years of this award's lifetime so far (counting this year), there've been six works by women nominated (three of which were published in 2000), and sixty-four by men, so 91% of the nominated works have been by men, and 87% of the winning works have been by men. Are those roughly representative proportions? That is, are roughly 1 in 10 published alternate-history works by women? I honestly don't know; that may well be true.

I'm a little dubious about the notion that alternate history as a subgenre is just more interesting to men than to women, but it could well be true. If I weren't feeling lazy, maybe I would set up a poll. Instead, feel free to post your nonscientific anecdotal data and personal opinions in my comments (but please remain civil; no attacks on the award administrators, no attacks on people who are bothered by the difference in percentages). I'm especially interested in hearing from those of you who are female: do you read alternate history? Do you like it? If you write, do you write alternate history? If not, why not? (No value judgment intended; it's fine to not like or not be interested in it. I'm just curious about what about alt-hist does and doesn't appeal to people.)

Tongue-in-cheek challenge: write an alternate-history story that postulates a historical Point Of Departure which results in more women writing alternate history stories. Bonus points for making such a story so good and so interesting that it wins next year's Sidewise Award.

Oh, and if you want to bring any works of alternate history published this year to the judges' attention, visit their 2004 reading list page and drop them a note with your suggestion.

Thanks to S. for bringing this up last year (wasn't sure if I should associate your full name with this discussion, S.) We were going to suggest something related to this question as a WisCon panel topic for this year, but I forgot; not sure whether S. suggested it to programming people or not. Maybe next year.

33 Comments

I'm going to have to start taking notes on all the interesting ideas people are suggesting as panel topics. I know when the time rolls around y'all will have forgotten them... but I'd love to see some of these discussed!


No nasty comments here; I don't read widely enough AH to speculate with any kind of conviction on a possible gender divide, but I do wish the judges would be more cognizant of the work of Lois Tilton, who writes a lot of what I find, at least, to be very good AH. She does some wonderfully subtle stuff in this form--usually not known for its subtlety, however much fun it is to read.


I have to admit to a total lack of knowledge about the alt history field. There just seems to be so much of it, that aside from the reissue of Pavane, I've stayed away from even trying to read it.


I'm not saying "those horrible judges are prejudiced and they should be stopped" or "there ought to be a quota"...

I must confess that I think it says something that an analysis of the absence of women from a particular group needs to be accompanied with all those qualifiers.


Sherwood: I was pleased to see that their 2004 reading list includes Lois's "The Gladiator's War: A Dialogue" from the June issue of Asimov's, a story I liked despite knowing almost nothing about the real-life historical period in question. (Made me want to watch Spartacus, even though I imagine the movie isn't especially historically accurate.) But I haven't seen their past years' reading lists, so I'm not sure whether Lois's work has appeared on them or not.

BC: Well, I think that analyses of the absence of people of a given kind in a given field do often take the form of yelling at the people in charge and demanding that the field be forcibly widened, so I think it's easy to conclude that any such analysis is making such demands, and to get defensive. I know that when certain topics come up, what I tend to hear is the common argument that I'm used to hearing, rather than the specific comment that this specific commentator is making; and I sometimes overreact as a result, launching my standard rant on whatever the subject is before realizing that it doesn't actually apply in this case.


I just posted a long ramble about this over on chrononaut — it started as a comment here, and then got out of control.

But something I didn’t say there, that reading these comments makes me think of: Maybe there shouldn’t be an alternate history “field”. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe alternate history shouldn’t be a sub-genre; maybe it should just be another tool in the kit, like mythological motifs and cognitive alienation and giant space squid.


If I have to choose, I prefer women to alternate history.


Maybe the judges ascribe to the Great Man version of history?

As a note, I emailed the head judge last year simply to say that I'd noted how few women had been nominated or won the award and got a very snippy and defensive note in return. Huh!


That's tacky.


Jed, when I reviewed One Lamp, one of the things that struck me was not just that almost all the stories were written by men, but that these men often wrote alternative histories that accented men, or that excused stories in which there were no women, or only subordinated women.

So...no surprises there.

Greg


Well, if I can do some off-the-cuff theorizing that might not stand up to scrutiny: there's an element in most alternate history of glorification of the past, isn't there? And there really aren't a lot of times or places in our past that were a damn bit of good for women. It's not the biggest problem I have with alternate histories, but it's certainly a small-but-nontrivial part. I don't -care- about what the past would have been like with minor variables tweaked, because it probably would have sucked for me to live there anyway.


That’s an interesting idea . . . How much do you care about the actual past, once you push it back beyond your period? (Which is, at least, one in which things were starting to suck less.)


You're certainly correct, Susan, but what's crucial here is that these stories were often projecting alternative histories (supposedly)--and even in the "better" alternatives, the women were minor/invisible/oppressed.

Very few of the alt. history folks look at gender, or posit, "What would have happened if..." regarding women.

It is as if they can rework all of space and time, but not touch gender.

There are exceptions, of course, but they are in the minority.

Greg


It's worth mentioning Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose," which describes (but doesn't depict) a timeline in which the relationship between the sexes differs.

Here's my off-the-cuff theory, building off of Susan's post: perhaps the relationship between the sexes appears to be such a fundamental part of Western civilization that it's difficult for a "merely" historical change to generate a timeline that is interestingly different in terms of gender. Perhaps, if you want to explore an alternate history of gender, it's easier to do so by positing a biological change, as in LeGuin's stories. In other words, you have to set your "alternate history" on another planet, with another species.

This might suggest that SF writers lean toward the "biology is destiny" point of view. If that point of view were less popular, maybe we'd see more alternate history stories dealing with gender?

(If only the AH subgenre had been flourishing for the entire history of SF; then we could graph the prevalence of different types of AH stories over various decades, and identify trends. :)


My instinct is to say that yes, I read alternate history. I like it quite a lot. I don't write it myself because I just don't have the background in history to pull it off (or the inclination to obtain such a background).

It occurs to me that most of the stories that I have in mind may not be alternate histories at all. Historical, yes. Alternate? Not so much. But certainly, there are a zillion women out there writing historical stuff. So why not this particular branch?

Which may just be a restatement of the original question. (And is really an excuse to wave to David Moles if he's still reading and say that I adored "Five Irrational Histories.")


Hey, thanks, Hannah! I'm really pleased to hear that. (Although, of course, I'm now feeling guilty that none of the stories really touched on women’s issues. :))

Touching on what Ted and Greg are saying, I’m betting that part of the problem is a general ignorance of women’s history, on the part of men and women both. I suspect there are a lot of interesting and obscure turning points out there — times when either things got worse for women, and might not have, or might have gotten better, and didn’t — but people just don’t know about them.


Some great points here, particularly those that pointed out the exclusion of women from popular history taught in schools (there's an appalling lack of all sorts of people in "history" of course). I've spent time in three different college-level history curriculums, and I can tell you that, even now, unless you're taking a course on "Women in history" or "Women in 18th Century England," you're actually going to be required to take about three to five courses titled: "Old White Men and the Women and Savages They Tamed. Pt. 1,2&3"

Though my professional background is in history (BA and MA in, roughly, female resistance during apartheid-era South Africa), I have never written alternate history. History, as presented in many courses, is about Dead White Men. I will say that with no disclaimers or qualifiers. I've had to take enough 100-level courses in the US (and been privy to conversations about history taught in South Africa) to have a pretty good idea about what's being taught in school. If you're a lucky American, you get Black American History in February (often mashed in with African History, during grade-school gloss-overs), and some talk about burning women in New England. If you're luckier, you might hear the term "suffragist," but it's not likely to stick until a lot later. And if you want to know anything at all about India or Asia -- forget about it. You're more likely to find a course that teaches the History of the Vietnam War.

I was certainly almost caught up in this indifference to history -- history wasn't about *me*. I would agree that alternate history is also terribly conservative, and in my experience, much less rewarding to read. One superpower falls, to be replaced with another superpower. All genders tend to stay in their places (even in Kim Stanley Robhinson's wonderful, _The Years of Rice and Salt_). Control over women's reproductive freedom, I would argue, would be the best indicator of women's general freedom/place within a society. "Alternate History" fiction that involved a revolution of women's reproductive freedom wouldn't be labeled Alternate History: it would be The Handmaid's Tale (dystopian, obviously. Has anyone done an alternate history where women have *gained* control over their bodies to the *benefit* of society?). To my knowledge, no one has written an alternate history that reinvents childcare in a way that is not utterly dystopian, either.

I remember reading the introduction to Joanna Russ's _What Are We Fighting For_. She says that the reason she became hooked on reading science fiction was because, reading it, she realized, "Things could be really different."

When I read the back of most alternate history novels, I tend to think, "No. Things are pretty much the same."


Thanks, all, for some excellent and thought-provoking comments.

I admit that I'm a little surprised by a couple of people's comments that AH is uninteresting because the historical past sucked in various ways. In my experience, AH is most commonly about making a change in the past and then running the clock forward to somewhere roughly around the present day; for example, most AH involving Rome postulates something like "What if the Roman Empire never fell, and had grown and evolved to the present day?" There are plenty of exceptions to that, such as Lois's recent alternate-Spartacus story, and Sally Gwylan's "Rapture"—stories that are set at or near the POD, showing what's different—but more often I think the story is set long after the POD. (Though certainly some of the PODs result in a society much like a historical society continuing to the present day without much social change, or with the addition only of high tech, so I can see your point.)

Ted: interesting thoughts. I would say that there are historical changes in Western civilization that could result in diferent gender roles; my first attempt would be to start with a strong female leader (Victoria, say, or Joan of Arc, or Elizabeth I, or even Boadicea) and make some tweaks, maybe making them more overtly feminist, more concerned with improving the lives of women in their domains, more interested in (say) suffrage. Or what if Hippolyte had conquered Theseus? And although I don't know much about gender roles in Weimar Germany, I gather that there was a brief flourishing of freethinking there, with nudists and homosexuals becoming more accepted and so on, so maybe even one of the standard PODs (Hitler doesn't rise to power) could've resulted in rather different gender roles.

Robert Reed's story "The Boy," from the October/November 2001 issues of Asimov's (see Tangent review), takes another tack: it gradually becomes clear that in the world of the story, Jesus was female.

For anyone interested in graphing trends, see the booklist at Stephen's Alternate History site—in my timeline (I assume Ted's smiley indicates he's currently in a different one :) ), AH goes back at least to 1907, though its popularity comes and goes. A lot of that list is about alternate outcomes to wars, I think; I wonder whether that's a representative sample or whether it indicates the compiler's tastes. Also, it seems to me that there used to be more books involving someone traveling from one timeline to another than there are these days; I don't know whether true AH aficionados consider those to count as AH or not, but they're at least related.

Good point, Hannah, that a lot of women read and write and enjoy historical fiction of various sorts (including historical romances). So what's the difference between historicals and AH in that regard?

Lots of good comments, Kameron, but I would disagree with the point about an alternate take on women's reproductive freedom necessarily leading to The Handmaid's Tale (which I see as dystopian-future rather than AH per se, but anyway). For example, what if someone discovered or developed something like the Pill a hundred years earlier? Or what if the Curies, say (going by the Great Man/Great Woman theory of history), had turned their talents toward biology rather than chemistry? ...But maybe you're just saying that nobody's written such stories, rather than that they couldn't be written? And I like your idea of AH that results in a different approach to childcare.

So I hereby issue a less tongue-in-cheek challenge than my original one: y'all who aren't interested in the AH that's out there, try writing some AH that examines the kinds of changes you're more interested in. Sure, you can do that in other contexts (alien worlds, future societies, etc), but try taking a look at history. If some small thing had gone some slightly different way, might that have resulted in large and interesting social changes of a kind you're more interested in?

Of course, then comes the hard part: telling a compelling story set in that world, not just showing off the worldbuilding. (Though in AH as in some other areas of sf, sufficiently interesting worldbuilding may be enough of a virtue to reduce the need for a good story.)

Just to be completely clear, that challenge isn't intended in an antagonistic "Oh, yeah? Let's see you do better, then!" kind of way; I would honestly love to see stories that do the kind of thing we're talking about.

One other related topic that I don't think anyone's touched on here yet is the question of whether the basic meta-premise of AH makes any sense to you or not: do you buy the idea that if certain things had happened slightly differently, history would have changed in a sufficiently large but not completely different way? Some people argue that there's such a sensitive dependence on initial conditions that killing a butterfly fifty years ago results in total transformation of all aspects of human life on the planet by now, to the point that it's so different and unrecognizable one might as well not call it AH. Others argue that for one reason or another, changes are damped, and that killing a butterfly back in dinosaur times wouldn't have any noticeable effect on the present day. There are lots of other theories about the effects of historical change in sf (see Bester's "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" for one unusual and funny take on this). I think most AH tends to assume a middle ground: certain kinds of key changes do snowball, but not all changes and not in a completely chaotic way. (But now I see that Ben talks about this more clearly in a recent comment in David's journal.)


Jed, of that list of AH titles you link to, over half the titles appeared in the last decade, which suggests that AH has been flourishing only recently. I'd say that AH is a relatively young sub-genre, and should be viewed as such; the examples we see published now may ultimately appear primitive after the genre conversation has continued for a few more decades.

Regarding the question of the model of history implicit in AH stories, I have two comments:

- First, I think that, if you're being utterly realistic, the sensitive dependence on initial conditions means that an alternate timeline would quickly become unrecognizable. This was succinctly stated in Robert Reed's "Killing the Morrow," in which he points out that a only the tiniest change is needed to cause a different sperm cell to reach an ovum, resulting in a different person being conceived. Combine this to the chaotic nature of weather, and that means that within a year of killing a butterfly, every person conceived is a different person from the one conceived in the original timeline. How long will history remain recognizable after that?

- Second, this extreme sensitivity to initial conditions is irrelevant to most AH stories. In the same way that realistically predicting the future is one of the least important functions of SF set in the future, realistically extrapolating an alternate timeline is one of the least important functions of AH. It's far more important for SF to comment on or illuminate some aspect of our present situation. So an AH story just has to enable willing suspension of disbelief. Obviously that's a subjective thing, but I think it's abetted by elements completely separate from extrapolative rigor: prose, plot, characterization, etc. A sufficiently good writer can make you overlook even the unlikeliest premise, and if doing so allows the writer to say something interesting, then an AH story with da Vinci showing up even though the Roman Empire never fell is fine with me.


I've come in rather belatedly on this discussion, but found it absolutely fascinating. Surely one reason for the dominance of men in the awards (and possibly in the writing/publishing as well) has to do with how often the "event" that went a different way is a battle of some kind? This skews much (though certainly not all) alternate history towards military history, a genre that continues to be dominated by men in a way that many other kinds of history just aren't any more.

I am now going to put in a shameless plug for the alternate history I've just finished writing--it's a full-length novel, the first volume of a trilogy, though I don't yet have a publisher. The first volume is called "Dynamite No. 1", and it's set in an alternate-universe 1930s where Napoleon beat Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, with the consequence of producing an evil Federated Europe and a loose alliance of Northern European states called the New Hanseatic League. So the book explores questions about politics, war and deterrence, but also asks what would happen if you were a young girl growing up in a society (Edinburgh) that only had the social psychology of the Scottish Enlightenment, not Freudian psychology, and what that would mean about the possibilities for professional and emotional development. So watch out for it! I'm going to go and track down the alternate history fiction by women that have been mentioned in these comments; thanks for the recommendations.


I would disagree with the point about an alternate take on women's reproductive freedom necessarily leading to The Handmaid's Tale (which I see as dystopian-future rather than AH per se, but anyway).

I read Handmaid's Tale rather recently, and it felt like AH to me because I got the sense that the "something" that had happened was *already* in *my* past. The Handmaid's Tale was written in 1985, looking at a near-future rise of the religious right. I remember thinking it odd that the protagonist still remembered her high school gym, and other minutae of that "other" life that I found very familiar -- only they didn't have cell phones or the internet. She was longing for a recent past that I, as a reader, had already eclipsed. Her future was my past. If that makes sense. So I read it as an alternate take on my own past -- there had been a divergence. Which leads me to the question, what and who define AH?

...But maybe you're just saying that nobody's written such stories, rather than that they couldn't be written?

That was the idea I was hoping to convey - these are extremely viable ideas for AH. For some reason, though, alternate takes on reproductive freedom *often* (always?) lead to stories that portray women as an even starker underclass than in our immediate history (European/American history in the last 50-100 years). Thinking of small historical changes in women's history around which a story could pivot: Elizabeth Cady Stanton *not* getting ostracized by the other suffragists for her far more radical ideas regarding women's rights and childcare, and gathering the force of the movement behind her to get the vote *and* universal childcare, as opposed to taking the more staid approach of Susan B., and etc. I like this challenge.

Jenny -- I think what you said about how most AH centers around "battles" and is therefore written and read more by men is interesting (the Tolkien Boy's Own Adventure type of story). However, both Tolkien and his offspring (most fantasy sagas are composed mainly of Epic Battles) may have higher female readerships than AH, but they're not approaching the 50/50 mark -- I think even Strange Horizon's readership is 60% male, according to the stats over at Broad Universe -- the gender-reading/writing ratio in SF has never been 50/50 (or 60-40 female). AH may simply just be no different from other splinters of SF in that regard.

Going back and reading Jed's orginal post and my own question in the opening above, I'm also wondering what gets "classified" as AH, and who makes that decision. Again, if you have a jury that's 90% male looking at what could conceivably be "alternate" takes on present-day-moving-to-future, couldn't that jury dismiss alternate histories that are clearly feminist and dystopian by *labeling* them feminist and dystopian? I'm not saying I believe this, but it's something I find interesting -- a "genre" is the creation of groups of individuals who come together and make very vocal attempts at differentiating one kind of fiction from another, making "us" and "them" categories. Has AH *made* itself an old boys' circle full of old boys' battle fiction?

And, going back to the battle issue, in case anyone's interested in reading up on it for their AH stories -- women (as they make up over half the population on earth) are and always have been a huge force in the starting, maintaining, and fighting of wars (this may not be immediately obvious, particularly if everyone's been through their public education in the American system, which I have). There's some great work _Battle Cries and Lullybies_, _Blood Rights_(Ehrehreich), and _Women and War_ (Elshtain) that looks at the neccessity of women's involvement in war from prehistory to the present day, as fighters, camp followers, prostitutes, entertainers, reconnaisance, translators, nurses, and etc. There are any number of "great women" (or small women...) whose decisions have impacted the course of history to a greater or lesser extent (I'm not saying anyone here believes that's not so -- but I thought I'd put it down once again in black and white, because it makes me feel better). One of my favorite suffrage stories is from the last call to vote in the last state (Tennessee) that they needed in order to ratify the constitution to include a woman's right to vote. They needed a 2/3 majority vote in that state's house in order to ratify. The final vote cast was by a man who had come into the house intending to vote against the proposition (during the debate, men who were for suffrage wore a yellow rose on their lapels, those against wore red) -- when asked afterward why he changed his vote, he pulled a letter from his coat pocket that he'd received the night before from his mother. She told him to vote for suffrage. He informed inquirers something to the effect of, "In matters of importance, I've found it's best to listen to one's mother."

And that's just one of the more famous incidents of the power of women's voices (women who are not "great" women) - look at all this great material.

It is, however, telling that I have never come across this woman's name -- you'll hear her son's name mentioned in a couple of textbooks (24-year-old Harry Burn), but she's been nicely erased.

Ah, history. Gotta love it.


I have no idea why my post (above) came out in italics, and anonymous. For the record, that was me.


("evil Federated Europe"? I'm wondering why it's evil... are you suggesting Napoleon was evil and his opponents (the forces of conservative reaction and monarchy) were good? Or the other way around? Just curious.)

The obvious POD for different power relations between the sexes is the emergence of the patriarchy, and in general, the issue of which civilizations become dominant. This seems much more likely to produce change, Jed, than the "Queen Elizabeth is a feminist" model. That seems to me be an "Extreme Great Man" theory of history -- the idea that some Queen could, by fiat, reverse or revise scores of practices and laws and modes of interaction that have are part of complex, self-perpetuating economic, sociological, and psychological models... not buying it.

More generally, Ted -- I'm with you that any small change will produce the effect of none of the same people having been born. (Though I don't buy the whole butterfly/weather/within a year argument, necessarily -- it may take longer than that for changes to propagate, and weather may not be relevant -- but within a generation, sure). But whether that leads to a totally different history, or to pretty much the same history with different names, is precisely the fundamental argument of historiography.

Probably most philosophers of history have been on Hegel's side, that it doesn't matter to much what individuals choose, because the grand course of history is determined by impersonal trends and social forces. Someone will invent agriculture, and indeed someone geographically and culturally situated to do so, and then their population will explode, and that will determine the next set of choices, and so on; only the names and precise dates of the wars and kings will differ.

It may be that the system is not chaotic at all; it may be that it is highly damped and overdetermined.

"The Years of Rice and Salt" is a pretty realistic extrapolation based on this kind of not-very-chaotic historiography, in my view.


Ben, we could argue about the butterfly/weather mathematical model, but the specifics probably aren't essential to the topic at hand.

whether that leads to a totally different history, or to pretty much the same history with different names, is precisely the fundamental argument of historiography

I haven't read any historiography, but I always thought that the "Great Man" theory of history posited that only a few individuals' were in a position that their presence or absence would have changed the course of history; i.e. leave Caesar alone, but kill a farmer in Africa, and the course of history is unchanged. What I'm saying is that _any_ individual's presence or absence would eventually change the course of history; it might take longer for some, that's all. So I'm saying that history is even more contingent that the "Great Man" theory suggests.

Someone will invent agriculture, and indeed someone geographically and culturally situated to do so, and then their population will explode, and that will determine the next set of choices, and so on;

Is that the degree of similarity that we're talking about? All timelines in which agriculture was invented are pretty much the same? In those terms, then, yes, history is almost impossible to change. I was thinking about a somewhat more fine-grained level of resolution.

It may be that the system is not chaotic at all; it may be that it is highly damped and overdetermined.

Again, this depends on the level of resolution at which you're viewing history. Some people would claim that history is overdetermined at a much finer-grained resolution than "agriculture is invented," e.g. "fascism arises in 1930s Europe." I think that this is a "hindsight is 20/20" sort of conclusion. If history were in fact overdetermined, it should be possible to predict the future, at least in broad terms. But our ability to predict the future has always been poor, and is probably getting worse.


Good point on the "Great Man" theory.

Okay, "agriculture is invented" was probably a bad example. "Fascism arises in 1930s Europe" is a better one (I'm reminded of an Asimov's story in which they go back and make sure Hitler succeeds as an artist in the 1920s; he becomes a member of the resistance when the genocidal Nasfis come to power under Goering, etc.)

My instincts are with yours, that history is probably highly contingent. But I think that an intelligent case can be made that it's overdetermined, maybe highly so. Some of the unpredictability of history has to do with technology -- we can't know what we'll invent until we've invented it. But that doesn't mean that there was something else we could have invented. The various "Steam engine time" examples -- Newton and Liebniz inventing calculus, etc. -- in which technologies or theories arise in multiple places simultaneously -- suggest that some inventions are clearly going arise regardless of who in particular is there to invent them, once the prerequisites are there. This suggests that history follows a constrained course, at least in these examples. Perhaps similar phenomena are observable in social and political history. It seems likely that it was inevitable that liberal-democratic capitalism would economically outcompete Soviet-style communism in the 20th century, but many 1930s observers predicted the opposite. This doesn't necessarily mean that the process was historically contingent -- just that, since the experiment hadn't been done, the results were not known. That doesn't mean the experiment yields nondeterministic results.

Now, I have no idea how fine-grained the damping effects are, if any. I'm in favor of contingent history myself on the ground that it's cooler. But I don't think one can simply dismiss the overdetermined history theory out of hand. Unpredictability does not necessarily imply contingency.


A couple belated comments:

Ted wrote:

...of that list of AH titles you link to, over half the titles appeared in the last decade, which suggests that AH has been flourishing only recently. I'd say that AH is a relatively young sub-genre, and should be viewed as such...

The following is probably more a quibble than a strong disagreement:

The list I linked to wasn't comprehensive. For a much more comprehensive list, see the Uchronia site, which I should've linked to in the first place, except that it doesn't have a listing by date. Note their Oldest Alternate Histories page, which lists only the AH works written "before the genre could be considered a genre"; the list owner notes several possible starting dates for the genre, but chooses 1939's "Lest Darkness Fall" as the start of AH being considered a sub-genre of sf.

My understanding is that there was a big boom in AH popularity in the '90s, but I would nonetheless say that the genre's been fairly popular since the '30s. The original Usenet list that the Uchronia site grew out of was compiled in 1991 and included about 250 items, with new material being added every couple of months.

It may well be that '90s AH has been establishing new protocols, and that future AH will be very different from pre-'90s AH, so I'm probably just quibbling here. But it does seem to me that a standard set of genre conventions had been firmly established decades before the recent boom, even if those conventions are being questioned/revisited recently (and I don't actually know whether they are, 'cause I haven't read much of the recent stuff).

Of course, the current Uchronia list contains over 2500 items; partly that's because it's been growing for 13 years now (and including foreign-language works and so on), but it wouldn't surprise me if half or more of the items on the list were published in the past ten years. So again, I'm not denying that there's been a recent boom; just saying we shouldn't ignore the 50+ years of the genre's slow growth in popularity before the boom.

It's far more important for SF to comment on or illuminate some aspect of our present situation.

While I'm quibbling, I'll note that I'm quite fond of sf in which that's not the main point. Still, I'll certainly agree with your main point in that paragraph: an AH story just has to enable willing suspension of disbelief.

Jenny: good point that much AH still revolves around military history. I meant to mention historical wargaming, too, which presupposes the idea that wars could've come out differently; H. G. Wells was, iIrc, a tabletop-miniatures wargamer, so in that sense a kind of proto-AH has been loosely connected to sf for a long time. But I digress. Anyway, hope the trilogy sells!

Kameron: good point about Epic Battles in Epic Fantasy. But to quibble with your stats (just call me The Quibbler), I gather that it's generally believed that the percentage of women reading and writing fantasy is in general significantly higher than in science fiction. And I wouldn't put too much store in SH's readership percentage; that was a survey taken about three years ago, with a fairly low response rate. May well be true anyway; I'm just saying it's not much data. ... Very interesting stuff about women and war, and great suffrage-vote story!

Good question, all who asked who gets to decide what constitutes AH. I think the Uchronia site provides some useful distinctions and definitions (on the extended introduction page) that jibe with what I've seen elsewhere; I think there's a reasonably strong general agreement among people who consider themselves AH readers as to what constitutes AH. But all genre definitions depend in part on who the definers are, certainly.

Ben: I didn't mean to suggest that a Great Woman could have erased gender issues by fiat. Merely that a woman who was revered throughout an empire could potentially have used her power to effect specific changes in society and/or law that could have snowballed into greater attitude shifts over time (and Victoria ruled for fifty years!). One could certainly argue that part of why the patriarchy allowed Victoria to remain in power was that she didn't rock the boat on such issues, but I think that if she'd had any inclination to do so, she could've had a much greater influence than she did. Of course, so could any powerful and influential ruler; going by "only Nixon could go to China," maybe I should postulate Henry VIII deciding to make life easier/better for women.

Re contingency and overdeterminism: my personal gut feeling is that it's a mix: some things are damped, and some aren't. Going back to the analogy with observable physical interactions, some systems are chaotic and some (at the macro level, anyway) aren't; the Butterfly Effect is a metaphor for chaotic systems, not literal truth about all actions.

Okay, gotta run. Thanks again to all for all the fascinating discussion here!


(Doing my duty to keep this thread visible on the latest comments list)

Bruce Sterling's "Dori Bangs": Alternate History or not? It involves no major military, political, or technological departures from the known timeline, but it does change the lives of two public figures from history.


I would consider "Dori Bangs" AH. It asks the question "What if things had gone differently?"

And while I'm here, a few follow-up remarks:

Jed said,
the Butterfly Effect is a metaphor for chaotic systems, not literal truth about all actions.

The "Butterfly Effect" is not literal truth about _all actions_, but it is more than a metaphor about chaotic systems. All mathematical evidence indicates that it is, in fact, literally true about the weather. So one question to consider is, how much does the weather affect your actions?

Ben said,
Some of the unpredictability of history has to do with technology -- we can't know what we'll invent until we've invented it. But that doesn't mean that there was something else we could have invented.

Well, we probably wouldn't have invented the transistor instead of the steam engine, that's true. But even if we agree that the steam engine is the next logical step, that doesn't specify _when_ it gets invented. If another Middle Ages had fallen over Europe, it might have been another thousand years before experiments on steam engines resumed. Conversely, if it hadn't been for the original Middle Ages, the steam engine might have been invented substantially earlier. Or, it might have been invented in Africa, had things gone differently there.

It seems likely that it was inevitable that liberal-democratic capitalism would economically outcompete Soviet-style communism in the 20th century, but many 1930s observers predicted the opposite.

So why did they predict the opposite? I plead ignorance on this topic, so I'm asking: what information did they not have? Why did observers in as late as the 1970s fail to foresee the "inevitable"? It wasn't a matter of a technological invention, was it? So what were they missing?


Re butterfly effect: The closest to a statement about whether to take it as literal truth that I've found in online sources, after some desultory Googling, is an ABC News article that quotes MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel as saying, "There are times and places where butterflies will make no difference. But in the right place and time, even a butterfly can alter the whole pattern of weather if you wait long enough." So it sounds like it can be literal truth, for some specific statements of the effect, which surprises me; I'd always heard the butterfly effect used as an analogy, a thought-experiment.

Anyway, my real point is that a lot of people hear about the butterfly effect and immediately leap to the conclusion (because it makes such a good metaphor regardless of its literal truth) that everything everywhere has an extremely sensitive dependence on initial conditions. I think a lot of people find chaos theory so appealing that they forget that there are non-chaotic systems, and that you can't necessarily tell at a glance which systems are chaotic and which aren't.

Ooh, here's a good quote from Ian Stewart's Does God Play Dice?:

"[M]ost of the time [a butterfly] will just have a minor effect on where and when a hurricane that has been building up for global reasons—the right kind of warm, humid air in the right place—will occur. ... Given all this, it is an exaggeration to claim the butterfly as the cause of the big changes that its flapping wings sets in train. The true cause is the butterfly in conjunction with everything else." (pp. 131-132, apparently)


My source was David Ruelle's _Chance and Chaos_, in which he describes a calculation done by a physicist named Michael Berry. An description of Berry's calculation is online here.

On p. 182 of his book, Ruelle says "From microscopic fluctuations to macroscopic changes in turbulence takes about a minute. Going from small scales to large scales of turbulence takes a time proportional to the turnover time of the largest eddies considered. We estimate that it takes a few hours or a day to reach the scale of kilometers. We now pass to the level of the circulation of the atmosphere over the entire planet, where the time it takes to amplify a small change to a globally different situation is estimated to be 1 or 2 weeks by meterologists."

Note that a butterfly doesn't _cause_ a hurricane, but it makes it impossible to make long-term predictions about the behavior of a hurricane.


>

In Depression-era America in the 1930s, the Great Depression was seen as the "death throes" of capitalism; ie the end result of an unstable system was ultimate collapse, and the red revolution was the next logical step in the evolution of government. It was a period of great belief in evolution as "progress" -- survial of the fittest meant always going forward, never back. It was a period of ethnic cleansing when over 375,000 people in the US were sterilized in a campaign that was very similar (but more extreme) in burgeoning Nazi Germany and -- to some extent -- South Africa during the same period. Eugenicists worked on the same sort of principle: humanity was evolving "up" (in this case, meaning white, Aryan), and if they weren't moving up, then they *should* be, and science had better help "nature" along the way. Governments were similiarly seen to be moving "up" to be getting "better." Capitalism was flawed.

The Mao-like esteem the ordinary American held for Heroic FDR (pictures of FDR were sometimes hung above the mantle) and his subsequent re-election 2 times (after FDR, we amended the number of consecutive terms a president could hold), is telling, I think, of just how difficult a period it was -- FDR was patron saint because he was seen as lifting the US out of the Depression and saving it from not only communism, but ultimate failure and dissolution as a nation.

The dissolution of the US during the 1930s would be a great AH novel. I'm wondering if anyone's done it?

As for the 1970s observers -- I know less about what they were predicting during the Cold War. Having caught the end of it, I remember still being firmly entrenched in the "we're all going to blow each other up and die" mode. A lot of what wasn't known, I believe at that time -- was how few people really lived in the USSR, and just how thin their resources were. Getting information in and out wasn't easy in communist Russia, and even if you got it out, you didn't know what the other guy was hiding in the sand.. er, the tundra, in this instance. Sometimes, of course, the answer is: nothing. Paranoia and lack of communication work wonders for the escalation and drawing-out of conflict.

As for butterflies, I plead ignorance, and bow out. ;)


I love the latest-comments feature, by the way, Jed -- it really does provide a great incentive to continue discussions of older posts.

It is worth noting that in fact, Victoria ushered in the repressive era that bears her name, which we would today think of as antithetical to women's rights, but that in fact she probably thought, if she thought about it at all, that she was furthering "the cause of women" by making sure they were protected and idealized and kept separate from ugliness. It's hard to think of any female monarch *ever* who was committed to advancing anything resembling modern feminism -- nor was it on the agenda of modern female heads of government like Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto etc. The idealization of Great Women as great leaders and the imposition of greater limitations on the freedom of ordinary women can go quite comfortably hand-in-hand, particularly because often "women" are not viewed as a class (Queen Victoria and a Cockney prostitute did not necessarily consider themselves as having any goals, aspirations, or values in common). The Queen never needs liberation, and is likely to be the last to suggest it.

Ted: there is an interesting parallel, I think, between the question about why so many observers predicted communism would beat capitalism, and our discussions of butterflies. It is the fashion now to emphasize chaos, to be interested in chaotic and emergent systems, and to forget that a lot of systems are damped or driven or predictable (say, the orbits of the planets, against which butterflies may flap in vain as they please). Before the last few decades of the twentieth century, though, Order was seen as more efficient than Chaos. Blind evolution was merely a precursor to Reason, which had emerged from it and would replace it; Design was superior to Randomness, the Cathedral to the Bazaar. Central planning was Communism's great virtue, the justification of its "excesses" (purges, gulags) insofar as they were admitted. Communism was scientific: rather than the muddle of inefficient capitalism, squandering resources on producing a thousand different kinds of soap and breakfast cereal, communism would consciously and wisely direct the resources of all to the betterment of all. How could a highly organized society directed purely and ascetically at producing material prosperity for all and power for the State, fail to triumph over a muddled, chaotic society in which every individual tried to selfishly further their own wealth? Communism was Scientific; communism was the Next Step in the Ascendance of Man.

Even many anti-communists believed that communism, while evil, was hyperefficient, and thus a menace. It was like the Borg.

The experiment was thus one of a planned society versus an emergent, dynamically self-organizing, complex one. But note that the buzzwords "emergent, dynamically self-organizing, complex" were not then in currency. Indeed, the odd success of the free market and similar phenomena is one reason such terms have come into vogue.

Also, it was not clear that nationalism and religion would be so resistant to re-education. Many people (e.g. Orwell) believed that communism would succeed much more than it did at changing its citizens' values.

Also, it was not clear how profoundly technology would make the economy of the West a non-zero-sum game. In the nineteenth century, the economy had looked a lot like a zero-sum-game, with enrichment of the upper classes coming from rapine of the colonies and the lower classes. Were that the case, communism's real achievements at levelling education and income and benefits and so on might have mattered more to its subjects. More East Germans might have preferred universal health care and ensured employment and no crime, even with the concommitant secret police and gulags, if it hadn't been for all the washing machines and jet planes and fast cars of the West -- the personal prosperity of all classes, however unevenly distributed. (Even as it is, a sizable minority in post-Warsaw-Pact countries longs for the old system, and expresses that in elections -- the old-style communist parties often win in places like Slovakia and Serbia and get a big chunk of Parliament even in the more capitalist Czech republic, etc.)

There were a bunch of linked sociological experiments here, that couldn't be done until they were done...


Just one nitpick:

a lot of systems are damped or driven or predictable (say, the orbits of the planets, against which butterflies may flap in vain as they please)

Actually, the orbits of the planets are chaotic, too; it's just that the timescales involved are very large. Calculations indicate that launching a single interplanetary spacecraft changes the position of the Earth in its orbit by ~1 radian, after 200 million years. Over longer timescales (longer than the lifetime of the Sun), the solar system is probably unstable.

It's true that butterflies aren't going to be affecting planetary orbits; weather never ejects anything substantial off the planet.


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