Alternate History’s Missing Middle

While I’ve blogged a lot about Alternatehistory.com as a website recently, I’ve been similarly disenchanted with the genre as a whole. Even by my critical standards, I can only find a few works that I actually like.

First, it’s an inherently smaller genre, so the portion that falls into Sturgeon’s Law is going to be bigger and the sparks of brilliance smaller in number. Perhaps. But I think it goes deeper. I think the genre is limited, potentially inherently so.

It’s like Arcade, who’s very good for individual filler issues for low-to-mid level superheroes, but fails utterly whenever he’s used for anything else. That might be a weird comparison, but I’m about weird comparisons.

See, I find alternate history to be a perfect example of the “barbel genre”, which gravitates towards one extreme or the other, with little in between. To be fair, the “middle” is the absolute hardest to get right, as you have to find just the right balance between skimping and splurging. But I’ve seen very few ones that even try, and most of the ones that do are just changing the setting to something slightly more obscure.

So, on the low end, you have what I call “Turtledove AH”, which is a sort of often implausible one that focuses more on prominence in popular culture. The two biggest are “South wins in the American Civil War” and “Axis wins WWII”. Harry Turtledove popularized this genre, but it is not limited to him. This genre has its worldbuilding be shallow and not terribly concerned with plausibility, and its plots frequently used for unsubtle commentary on contemporary politics. Often historical events are transposed full force into the alternate history even if it doesn’t make sense.

That’s one end. It’s aimed at people who won’t know the implausibility, or won’t care. At least they tend to have decent plots.

On the other end is what I call  “Online AH”, a sort of hyper-niche story where there’s more attention to detail, less on plot (if any exists at all), and the change itself is the be-all-and-end-all of the work. This is the kind that’s prevalent on AH.com proper, and has plenty of pitfalls of its own. The standard of worldbuilding is set so high that even small implausibilities stand out, there’s zero attraction to someone who isn’t already interested, and the chapter-at-a-time online nature means it, much like fanfiction, can be overwhelmed by fans or write itself into a corner.

What would the missing middle be? Probably look at a more obscure divergence, and leverage it into an interesting and distinctive story. Some of the late Robert Conroy‘s books tried this, but they failed and sank into cliche. Oh well.

Why do I think this is the case, that the genre’s so “barbel-y?” I think that economics might play a role, that there’s a difference between commercial authors (not unreasonably) wanting something that will sell, and obscure niche authors (also not unreasonably) wanting something they know a lot about, to an audience they know will read it.

But it could also be that the nature of alternate history itself provides an object that’s hard to blend in. Either it stands as a metaphor for something else (Turtledove) or becomes the center of everything (online). This is also an imperfect theory, but it might work.

Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve noticed.

 

Esperanto

I like Esperanto, even if it’s just a mishmash of European languages.

I don’t know enough about linguistics to make an exact comparison, but it sounds like a Romance language, vocabulary wise, similar to Italian and French. Like the Circle Trigon Aggressors who spoke it, the language has an air of both artificiality and creativity to it.

(Circle Trigon Aggressors had a unique insignia system, however, theirs was, especially in the 1945-1960s period, acheived solely by repurposing existing US ones. High ranking Aggressor insignia involved a mix of major’s leaves and cavalry branch sword insignias.)

Car Brands

What does a certain car brand “mean?”

This, as much as any material reason, explains the downfall of the Sloan Ladder.

Is it really any wonder why Oldsmobile, arguably the blandest marque, was the first one to be shut down by GM?

 

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Victoria

Now, a little under two years ago, I found a book by the defense commentator and author William S. Lind. The book was called “Victoria: A Novel Of Fourth Generation War”.

I was expecting, at best, a book that would be illuminated by its author’s genuine fame as a military expert and advisor to Gary Hart, and at worst a conventional crazy right wing novel. What I got was -something else.

I had to mock it. So mock it at Spacebattles I did. (As with everything I’ve written a long time ago, I feel a little embarassed by it and wish I’d done some things better. Oh well.) It was written right after Lind fell from grace dramatically in the wake of the Gulf War, and his bitterness shows. Boy, does it show.

 

Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. I figured a pair of pictures would be worth two thousand words. These are shots from the bloodiest battles in American history.

memorialdaybulge

American artillery position, Battle of the Bulge, 1944.

antietammemorialday

Union burial crew, Antietam, 1862.

The Dead Generals Chronicles is Out

So, I’ve decided to take the plunge into Kindle publishing. My first foray into the world of self/e-publishing is The Dead Generals Chronicles, a brief work of “psuedo-history” that “analyzes” the deaths of fictional generals in fictional conflicts. Anything more would be a spoiler.

It is my first such book published, and I do not intend for it to be the last. This is my first toe in the pool, so to speak.

You can get it here.

Frisian Islands

One of the most infamous alternate history discussions I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing has been “D-Day On The Frisian Islands“. The author somehow assumed that landing the Western Allied invasion force there, instead of in Normandy, was viable.

(In short-there’s no room, and they’re within artillery range of the shore)

The author assumed the lack of planning for the Frisian Islands was anything but what it was-a sign that it was completely unworkable. Since then, I’ve taken possible military operations where nothing is written about it under the unspoken consensus that it’s a bad idea as “Frisian Islands Redux”.

Unleashing the Circle Trigon

So, it’s very weird how when dealing with the early “Circle Trigon” phase of US military OPFORs (a history of their progression I recorded in another post at Baloogan Campaign), my usual approach to exercise scenarios has been turned on its head. I played a largely futile attack by USMC aircraft on a battleship/cruiser pair in Command, and it was really fun.

However, instead of an American battleship and cruiser, I represented the Trigonist warships with a French battleship and Spanish cruiser. This was “in-character” for the Aggressor backstory, which featured them carved out of Bavaria, Italy, Spain, and France. The Aggressor Navy being vaguely defined gives me a lot of creative freedom (it’s neither a direct copy of an American unit or obvious Soviet stand-in). I think my approach involves…

  • For later OPFORs, using “Actor” aggressor units adds variety, as a break from the waves of units. But for this earlier environment, obscure French/Spanish/Italian units “in-character” get their chance to shine. The Circle Trigon backstory is so goofy I feel compelled to run with it.
  • The proficiency setting is not always “Ace”. Weird how, even as I focus on the ‘characters’, I shift to the ‘actors’ proficiency. These are ad-hoc units trained in Aggressor tactics and speaking Esperanto, not the full-time OPFOR that became a beast at Nellis and the NTC. But who knows, I could make them aces if I wanted to 😀
  • Just wanting to have fun.

And I certainly did. I really should make a full Aggressor scen that treats everything seriously.