What happens when an author deliberately re-writes history to offer us an alternative? It’s pretty much a given in steampunk writing, it can be highly entertaining but it’s also problematic. I’ve been pondering this for a while now, and here’s what I’ve come up with.
I think the first key question is to ask what the re-imagined history does with actual history. One of the things speculative fiction does well is to create coherent and fast moving realities in which you can look at real issues. If the alternative bits serve to drive a story so that you can explore real historical issues, clearly this is going to work out well. I recently reviewed Stephen Palmer’s Factory Girl trilogy which is a case in point, using automatons as a quick way in to talking about the rights issues of the industrial revolution and Victorian era.
Alternative history is problematic when it simply takes out all the awkward bits and creates an impression that they never happened. History without the racism and sexism, without the grinding poverty, the colonialism, the exploitation, can serve to prop up the illusions of people with privilege who don’t want to deal with how things really were. Entertaining though Gail Carriger is, I think she’s an author who is a case in point here.
Alternative history can go further than this in the harm it does, by deliberately minimising real issues. My go-to title for this is an alternate Second World War story were aliens turn up so the humans have to work together. I think it’s a vile premise, encouraging the reader to treat the whole Nazi project as no big deal. I cannot remember the name of the series, or the author.
What occurred to me as I was thinking about this is that all historical fiction is alternative history. Even when the characters existed, the author puts words in their mouths and comes up with motives and explanations that are entirely speculative. We see the past through the filter of the present, we take our beliefs and preferences with us, and we imagine historical figures on our terms. We focus on the kinds of characters we find appealing and ignore those we don’t care for. Every story about the past is a re-writing, and is no less vulnerable to the problems I’ve mentioned above than openly speculative work is.
Our willingness to tell stories – especially romances- about the upper classes, with scant regard for where their money comes from and what enables their lavish lifestyles, is perhaps one of the most pernicious problems in the fictionalising of history. We romanticise wealth and power, and all too seldom do we look at the exploitation underpinning it.
Speculative fiction can encourage us to focus on what’s been added to history, but often the most important question to ask of any historically set book is – what, and who, has been left out?