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.

 

The Alternate History Blowup

It’s a weird coincidence.

Shortly after I made my post about how I’d soured on Alternatehistory.com, there was an incident in the dreaded Chat. The board administrator had undertaken another mass banning and issued a rant that many considered to be far beyond his well-known anti-Israel bias, crossing the line into being outright anti-Jewish. As a result, with the aid of friendly staff, a breakaway (sub)forum was set up on Sufficient Velocity.

Many people pointed out the irony of that, since disagreements with board administrators was how SV got started to begin with. And like the Athene Incident, I viewed the latest blowup as primarily a catalyst. Mass bannings/kickings [tempbans] over Israel and the administrator’s view on the country were not exactly a new experience.

This makes me all the more glad I moved away when I did.

 

Wither Alternate History

So, I was in that awkward position. I was getting annoyed at arguments and the board surroundings on Alternatehistory.com, but still felt semi-obligated to post there. So I tried an experiment. I’d go without posting on there for one day, and see how it went.

So I stayed away for that day. It was hard, like resisting an addiction. But I made it, and once I stepped back, I wasn’t eager to go forward again. Now, this should not be construed as a public “I’M NEVER GOING BACK THERE AGAIN!” boast. (Most of the time, the arguers come back soon anyway). I still browse and have posted since the date, but my activity there is far, far less than it was. (from multiple posts a day to only one a week, and probably less).

There’s one redeeming niche to AH, albeit one that’s still slipping. It is a place where people knowledgeable on obscure minutia can be. But that assumes interest, which isn’t always there. But hey, there’s talk of obscure car brand what ifs! And a few good stories.

That was the good. Now for the bad.

The Staff

First, it’s understaffed in conventional terms. It has far fewer mods per user than Spacebattles, Sufficient Velocity, or most other forums. It’s not uncommon to go to another board and see more mods earmarked to one section than AH has overall.

There is a mechanism around it, and it’s actually interesting to watch from a distance. It’s almost the opposite of Spacebattles/SV, as an AH regular turned recent-SBer noted. Basically, if SB is more uptight and enforcing of small violations but relatively lenient about banning, AH is the opposite. There isn’t the energy or will to deal with so-called “shitposters”, but cross a line and get the axe.

The worst thing the board leadership does is use sensitive political topics as a form of entrapment. Instead of declaring a moratorium, they simply ‘invite’ users in to post something against the grain and then ban them.

This is why going through any thread on AH from a few years back will find a mountain of members with “BANNED” in their title.

That’s one problem. But it’s actually not the biggest problem-after all, the staff’s hammer falls most often in the dreaded “Chat” (or ‘Polchat’, as it’s nicknamed), and I almost never went there. (And with good reason.)

The Userbase

The bigger problem for me was the sort of users the board has. Since I generally view AH as a kind of second War Room on Spacebattles, the quality of poster there is much lower. It feels like a barbel. Young and/or clueless posters on one end, and bitter old cold war vets on the other.

SB’s userbase in the War Room tends to be between the groups, contains a lot more recent veterans, has the average user being more knowledgeable, and their high-knowledge posters can talk in a more accessible way.

The userbase is highly compartmentalized, which leads to the surreal example of a “look at the Abrams go!” 198X WWIII TL being right next to a contemporary one where Iran kicks the US’s teeth in to cheers and schadenfreude.

As for the younger posters, they’ve gravitated to pop-culture timelines, which leads to a major problem in why I left AH. But overall, the combination of the staff and userbase leads to this weird mutually unsympathetic situation where the staff acts in a heavy-handed way, but the user they crushed seems to have deserved it nonetheless.

Still, bad users are a problem anywhere. What made me finally pull away was…

The Stories

Ok, so I was following a lot of narrative TLs on AH, and even helped contribute to a few. This is the reason I stopped. Users and staff are a distant second. I could no longer enjoy them-not even a “follow them till they stopped, then think ‘what was I thinking’?”

Like all too many other internet fiction places, there’s an attitude of stories receiving little but unconditional praise. Many of the stories also have a lot of not uncommon wish fulfillment. If only it was that. No, the two annoying examples are:

  • People saying “What about the thing?” What about this person, or that person, or this game, or that song, or whatever. This happens most frequently in pop culture timelines, but pops up now and then in other places.
  • Rivet-counting. There will be technical nitpicks and criticisms, some more valid than others, in any sort of detailed TL.

That’s it. Very little about narrative, even less about characterization. I’ve repeatedly characterized the clunktastic The Big One as on the level of a middle-of-the-road alternatehistory.com timeline. It certainly does fit the template, even if its politics don’t. Slides in next to, or maybe a little above the 198X WW3 tinny Red Storm Rising knockoffs. At least those have a story.

The timelines unto themselves don’t. I see too many brown M&Ms, and my brain has changed. Some of them can be interesting and/or plausible, but I’ve seen behind the curtain. My belief in mega-butterflies doesn’t help. All I see of cause and effect is “because the TL writer wants it”, and thus all the psuedo-historical timelines have all the organic flow of someone building a toy tower.

I ditched Massively Multiplayer because it was wish-fulfillment (however intentional or not) and had a commentary of “what about the thing?”. The other timelines I dismissed for that narrative reason alone.

This is kind of a rant I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. But I must emphasize I have no ill will towards people who want to stay there, or write in that board’s style.

I’ve just grown not to like it. And because I used to like it, I felt the need to see what I think happened to make me not enjoy it anymore.

 

Alternate History Brown M&Ms

I’m seeing too many of what I call “Brown M&Ms” in alternate history timelines.

Now, the term comes from a line in Van Halen’s contracts where they specified that there would be a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but no brown ones were to be in it. Often misinterpreted as them being crazy, it was in fact a way of seeing if the contractors read the fine print for safety reasons.

I see a lot of brown M&Ms in alternate history timelines. The most common are historical figures from our time being relevant when they probably shouldn’t be. (Rule of thumb-any real political figure still in the same or similar office higher than a safe legislative seat two or more election cycles after the point of divergence is the brown M&M for me.)

This is why, for all their problems, I have a liking of pop culture timelines, which bizarrely enough seem to be better at world events than a lot of ‘serious’ timelines. Although even there the brown candies still emerge too often.

 

Alternatehistory is down

So, I’ve been worried at the sight of one of my favorite websites being down for some time now.

Alternatehistory.com has been giving me an “unable to connect” error for some time, and it’s been kind of worrisome. There was no prior announcement (scheduled maintenance, etc..), and no Twitter like Spacebattles has to explain.

Two thoughts. The first is that I’m worried. The second is that when something like this happens, I never know how much time I’ve spent on a site until I can’t go there.

Alternate History and Economic Reality

Few industries are as ruthlessly grinding as mainstream automobile manufacturing. This makes alternate histories where the “independent” American auto companies stay in business extra-challenging.

Historically, most of the independents were wiped out by the Great Depression. After an artificial postwar spike thanks to demand after a lack of car production in the war, the survivors were forced to consolidate in the early 1950s after a production race between Ford and Chevrolet glutted the market.

Studebaker-Packard was out of the auto business in a decade. Nash and Hudson “merged” into American Motors (in reality Nash essentially kept Hudson’s dealers and obliterated everything else), and were only saved by investing in an inherently counter-cyclical compact just in time for the 1958 recession.

This could only happen once. Domestic compacts and imports moved in to hit AMC’s niche, and they were forced to play an innovation game with few resources for the remainder of their existence.

And that was the successful one. Kaiser Frazer fizzled out simply because it didn’t have enough money.

All this happened before the 1973 gas crisis, and before the bulk of emissions and fuel economy regulations came into effect. Tough business, the auto industry. This, combined with the inability of GM itself, much less a smaller competitor, to sustain a giant multi-brand lineup without large quantities of badge engineering, makes me skeptical of timelines where the independents stay active.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Rumsfeldia

What do you get when you combine what had been a decent dystopia, a politically charged reaction, a “nothing-but-spine” setup, and cheerleading? You get Rumsfeldia, an alternatehistory.com timeline that is-something.

As a counter to the numerous bad right-wing stories I’ve covered in this setting, Rumsfeldia is a bad left-wing story. Following on from its predecessor timeline, Fear Loathing and Gumbo, the story begins with the titular figure becoming president. Then he proceeds to unleash capitalism (as defined by the hard left of a hard-left message board), launches a horrifically botched invasion of Cuba, and then is overthrown by “Christian Values” crusaders, and the US is now totally fragmented and….

The timeline becomes more sensationalist and inaccurate. Yet its background could still have worked well as say, the backdrop of a GTA game. (They share the horrifically unsubtle left-wing “satire”, at least). That it stands entirely on its own means that it stays terrible, for there is nothing to to it but-fetish.

One of the things I was reminded of was the (in)famous Left Behind series, or at least the excellent Slacktivist commentary. This seemed strange at first, but it was an issue of tone rather than story similarity. Two themes stood out for me when applied to Rumsfeldia. The first was that Slacktivist considered them worse than other Rapture-styled apocalyptic fiction.

While he would have still vehemently criticized said works and their authors from a theological and moral perspective, there was more respect in that while those authors viewed it with horror, LB’s LaHaye and Jenkins viewed it with a sort of snide triumphalism. 

The second was the desire to feel oppressed. No one wants to be oppressed, everyone wants to feel oppressed.

I found the same basic idea through a lot of Rumsfeldia. While filtered through the exact opposite political lens, both it and the commentary have the same sort of apocalyptic fetish as the strawman falls, with cheering, and, in Rumsfeldia’s case, a two-for-the-price of one double punch of both social and fiscal conservativism on a notoriously left-wing board.

Rumsfeldia is also an example of logrolling, where the timeline gathers momentum. Everyone is too involved now to say “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES! SIDEWINDERS DON’T WORK THAT WAY! RUMSFELD WAS A SIMPLE ESTABLISHMENT TYPE ECONOMICALLY AND NOT A PSUEDO-RANDIAN!” And if someone did, it’d be drowned out.

What I think is worse than the timeline itself is the the imitators it’s spawned, catering to the same fetish with even worse writing.

Desert Shield Simulations

Last year, I did a three part series of posts on Baloogan Campaign detailing a big what-if that many alternate history scholars have speculated-if Iraq had been more proactive in the 1991 Gulf War, how damaging would it have been to the US-led coalition?

Now I’ve decided to link back to them, seeing another “WI greater Iraq competence” thread on alternatehistory.com (where I cited the simulation posts).

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3/Conclusion