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 callĀ  “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.

 

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.

 

Changed Tastes

In some ways concerning fiction, I’ve become far less judgemental. In others, I’ve become far, far more so. In some cases, it’s authors I used to like becoming bad, in others it’s me changing in tastes and sophistication, and seeing them as bad.

Three “rules” remain for me:

  • The more something is hyped, the more skeptical I become.
  • If something aims low, I will be less critical than if it aims high.
  • I will find criticism of everything, even stuff that I like. But fiction without pretense is critic-proof.

Arcade, Elektra, and the REAL Comics Diversity Problem

So, reading the latest entry in Marvel’s new Elektra series, I began to fill with rage. This was bad-and not the sort of enjoyably bad I can chuckle at, this was-bad bad. Ok, at least I can have fun screaming at it.

I’ll admit the only reason I read it was because it had Arcade in it, making me perhaps the only person to check out comics for that character. And maybe I shouldn’t have. It’s awful. Terrible. Turgid. Has no sense of fun for what should be a zany trip to Murderworld. Arcade is working for the Kingpin and he’s rambling, and Elektra’s rambling, and the whole thing is an unintentional parody of an unintentional parody of Frank Miller’s classic style. It’s eighth-rate noir (suddenly, This Is The Police doesn’t look so bad) interspersed with a deus ex machina-resolved fight against an Arcade-piloted giant robot that only served to remind me of Arcade’s far superior portrayal in Ultimate Alliance.

Ugh.

There’s no reason for this series to be here. And this brings me to the next topic of this post. There is an unmistakable comics diversity problem. It’s just not that kind.

The “Marvel Diversity” controversy is something I’ve tried to bypass. I tend to just ignore it or roll my eyes at either the most ridiculous demands on the internet or the most hamfisted attempts to implement it. I couldn’t even react with the sense of bemused chortling I had with the internet slapstick that ensued when Blizzard made Overwatch star Tracer a lesbian. (My slightly tasteless guffaw was that she would make history–by being someone that fanfic shippers would force with no evidence into being straight.)

I think there is a diversity problem in comics, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what the characters are. No, it involves an excessive diversity of titles that dilute and get tangled in each other. Elektra got involved in a wave of Daredevil spin-offs around the same time. Is there really a need for this? Really? And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

To return, one footnote that shows how twisted and tangled this whole comics mess is that there were multiple recent low-number Elektra titles. It took me a bit of effort, I can’t imagine what it would be like for a comics neophyte.

Like I’ve said before, superheroes are held down by comic books. You could argue they’ve outgrown them. The millions of people who bought Ultimate Alliance saw an Arcade far closer to his original form, and his character concept than the low thousands who bought the 2017 Elektra or his abominable butchering in Avengers Arena. And for that I’m thankful.

The Worst Villains: Guns of the South

Some of the worst antagonists in an otherwise readable novel would have to be the South African time travelers in Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South.

As a plot device to give the Confederates AKs, they work. As fighting antagonists once they turn on their former patrons and teach them why small arms are still at the bottom of the modern war food chain, they also work. As characters, they are utter failures.

In terms of character development, they’re cartoonishly evil, so they can make the Confederates look better in race relations in comparison. In terms of competence, they choose the dumbest, clumsiest, and most backfiring way possible of trying to kill Robert E. Lee once relations sour.

They’re still not as bad as SCP-682, my personal least favorite villain of all time, but they’re definitely up there, especially since they’re not the products of an internet whim or a Bad Fiction Spotlight subject, but rather in an otherwise alright book.

(That this is one of Turtledove’s best books says something about him).

The Ashes Series

The author William W. Johnstone created the Ashes series of postapocalyptic books, made at the height of the 80s survivalist craze.

These are almost worthy of a Bad Fiction Spotlight, but they’re too conventionally bad.

Here’s how every single Ashes book goes. Mary Sue extraordinare Ben Raines (who is supposed to be head commander but leads from the front way too often-don’t worry, he’s safe) and his super-army of “Rebel Tri-Staters” see the creep of the week and kill him in a brief battle. Or fight the strawman armies of the creep of the arc in a brief battle. If Ben Raines falls in love with a woman, she gets killed. Oh, and there’s rants about types of people Johnstone-I mean Raines, doesn’t like. The end.

(The battles are very, very brief.)

I think the biggest problems are the really easy logistics (hero and villain alike can move everything they want overseas, including armored formations(!)), and the fact that there’s thirty five of those things made.

Plus, they’re so stupid, vile, and cliche that they become fun. And not in a “pick everything apart” way, a normal reading way.

Types of Bad Fiction

There are several categories of Bad Fiction.

Category 1: This is the sad mediocrity. The prose is often functional, but bland. The plot is functional, but bland. Often it has the feeling of being done for money or obligation, and thus suffers for it. Occasionally fun to to read if one doesn’t have anything better, but not fun to talk about.

Cat 2: This is the kind of bad fiction that’s heartfelt but terrible. There’s more sincere effort then Cat 1 Bad Fiction. But it’s still ultimately bland. These are generally sloppy amateur projects with bad prose. Most bad fanfiction falls into this category.

Cat 3: This is the sort of bad fiction that has effort behind. Lots and lots of real effort. Now, maybe the effort is a sort of ‘draw a tree but miss the forest utterly’ effort on worldbuilding for its own sake and details. Maybe most of the effort is spent arguing about the work rather than working on it. Maybe all of the above is true. Category 3 Bad Fiction often has just enough technical competence to not be dismissed outright.

I try to focus my Bad Fiction Spotlights on Category 3 Bad Fiction.

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.

 

Book cleaning

So, I’ve been helping my mother move, and have been cleaning out my old books. A lot of memories returned. Good books, bad books, and everything in between.

The in-betweens are getting tossed.

  • Legitimately good books are occasionally going with me. I was keen on saving Stephen Baxter’s Exultant, one of my formative science fiction works. And save it I did.
  • Legitimately mega-bad books all stay with me too.

The books getting removed are mostly mediocrities, or ones from series I no longer have an interest in but did back in the day-the embarassingly large number of Warhammer 40,000 ones certainly qualify.