Sunday, February 26, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Alternity

One doesn't see much, in juvenile and YA literature, of alternate history. Not even "The South Won the Civil War" or "The Axis Won World War II" You do sometimes get parallel universes, but they don't tend to focus on the splitting point, or even identify it. I first encountered the concept in science fiction and fantasy originally published for adults, which in many cases (especially back then) is "really" YA. I think Silverberg was the first author I saw do it. The Gate of Worlds, that would be. No, wait, I take that back! Joan Aiken had a whole string of alternate world books, in which the Stuarts ruled England in the 19th century and Hanoverians were a constant threat. I keep forgetting that's how it was, because my favorite of the books - The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - doesn't get into that at all. Besides, it's not as if I've troubled myself to keep track of the kings and queens of Britain.

There's two major questions we must ask ourselves before embarking on an alternate history. One is, "What's the decision point that changes?" And the second is, "How many worlds do we put into the story?" Because although the game of alternate history requires that it all be played straight, as Aiken does it, with the alternate world (or alternity as I prefer to call it for short) assumed to be the only one, this is not necessarily the best, most interesting way to do it for young people. The great fun of the alternate history game, after all, is opposing the known to the unknown - it is like this, but change this one thing, and it might be like this instead. The point is lost on an audience that isn't familiar enough with the turning point; and either a sufficiently obscure turning point, or a reader who hasn't done that unit yet, will be lost more than found.

The Big Two, as mentioned above, are the American Civil War and World War II, because those are huge events that loom large in relatively recent history; but they've been done so often, and have such obvious line-ups of heroes and villains, that from an author's or a serious history student's point of view they're not much fun. Personally I'd rather get into less-often asked questions, like: What if Tecumseh had succeeded? What if Fannin had been in charge at the Alamo? What if Napoleon won at Waterloo? What if the English were kicked out of North America and the dominant powers on the continent during the 18th and 19th centuries derived from the Spanish, French, and Dutch? What if Boudicca had driven out the Romans in Nero's time? Or the Bolshevik Revolution failed in Russia? How would the modern world look in any of those situations?

Those are all a juicy lot of questions you could spend months and years exploring, and which could create great backgrounds, particularly for genre juvenile fiction. Think of all the books about pioneers American children read, set on the Mississippi or during the gold rush or in the post-Civil War settlement boom, and how different they would look with an Empire founded by Tecumseh, or with the Dutch and Spanish former colonies dominating the market! But the natural audience for these stories would need to have the joke explained, and nothing spoils a joke like explaining it.

This is where communication between worlds would come in, which requires a different sort of story entirely. In such a work, the hero/heroine would be in contact with an alternate-world counterpart (it just occurred to me that it could be an opposite sex clone! Which just opens up more doors in this already too-open environment), and the two versions of this person - call it Chris, a nice gender-neutral name - would have similar problems, related to the mechanism that allows them to bridge the universes. Which of course brings up the question, How do they bridge the universes? Can they only communicate? Can they observe? Can they cross over physically and if so, do they have to replace each other, or can they meet each other directly? Is there perhaps a limbo in which they can meet each other?

So while having both sides of the alternity open provides necessary exposition without much fuss, it creates its own whole new can of worms; as if working out the logical results of the single major change the author posits weren't a big enough one.

You can see why I still haven't done this. Too many choices, not enough investment in any of them.


  1. Dang, those are definitely some good ones.

    I'm picturing a pair of semi-equivalent kids (like unto Amber and Ada, except they meet face to face) comparing notes from their respective history classes, arguing over whether the textbook authors were slanting the events around the point of divergence, &c.

    Probably still too much of explaining the joke in a setup like that, but something might be possible.

  2. I'm sure it is possible; you'd just have to be invested enough in whatever historical deviation you went in for to do the work. The work is sufficiently massive that you'd almost need a series to justify it.