Althist translation

Some thoughts about a particular alternate-history TV show (that I mostly like, despite my dubiousness here):

Imagine an alternate history in which a major event changed the world over 300 years ago, especially changing North America’s subsequent history in a big way.

The change was so big that (for example) although the Revolutionary War still happened, the US won that war in a day.

Now imagine that the show is set in the present day of that alternate history, in a US that has fewer states than it does in the real world. The US has a President, but she’s a Black woman, probably not for the first time.

But now imagine that in the world of the show, cars look identical to modern American cars in the real world.

That … starts to poke at my suspension of disbelief.

Also, TVs in the world of the show look identical to modern real-world TVs.

Another poke at my suspension of disbelief.

And then imagine that one of the protagonists sings a Peter Gabriel song.

Nobody says the name Peter Gabriel, but the song is literally exactly one of Gabriel’s popular real-world songs.

That just completely dumps me out of the world of the show. I can no longer suspend my disbelief.

One valid response is that all of those things are translations into real-world terms of things from the alternate world. The alternate world has vehicles that are used more or less like our cars, so it’s simple and convenient to portray them to a real-world audience as looking exactly like our cars. The alternate world has a popular singer/songwriter who wrote a song that’s about something similar to what the Gabriel song is about, so the creators of the show portray that song as being the Gabriel song, so that it will have a similar emotional effect on the audience to the effect that it’s supposed to have on the characters. (See also my 2004 post about this kind of translation.)

And that’s fine up to a point. (Note that the dialogue is also presumably somewhat translated; the characters speak idiomatic 21st-century American English, whereas I imagine their dialogue would probably be fairly different in a world with as many changes as this one has.)

But on the other hand, the show portrays a lot of pretty big differences from the real world, differences that it doesn’t translate into real-world terms. So it feels a little weird to me that certain things are so completely translated, while others aren’t.

I recognize that different people have different reactions to this kind of thing, and not everyone cares about this kind of althist worldbuilding anyway.

But for me, one of the pleasures of althist (and I often quite like althist) is that kind of worldbuilding. And if things in the alternate world are shown as being just like in the real world when that doesn’t make sense to me, it makes me enjoy the althist less.

…Authors have been doing this kind of thing for a long time, and sometimes it’s quite intentional. I’m reminded, for example, of a 2003 Robert Reed story (“Hexagons”) which portrayed a world in which the Roman empire survived to the 20th century, at which point a very close Hitler-analogue attempted to rise to power. Reed is an experienced writer of althist who clearly thinks carefully about this stuff, so even though I didn’t like that choice, it was clear that Reed had made it quite intentionally, for reasons that seemed good to him. Whereas in the show I’m talking about in this entry, I feel like these similarities to the real world are more likely to just be sloppiness than to be a carefully considered choice.

But then again, the creators clearly did a lot of careful and interesting worldbuilding, so maybe they did make carefully considered choices here and I’m just not giving them enough credit.

(Wrote this post about three weeks ago, didn’t post it ’til now.)

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