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.