Tag Archives: alternative history

Alternative history

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?


Imperial Russia & the Goddess

Today’s guest blogger, Steven Ingman-Greer comes to us from Top Hat Books (who published by Intelligent Designing for Amateurs) Top Hat are doing some interesting things around unorthodox, speculative and innovative historical fiction…

Lost Eagle, the story of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II’s daughter Grand Duchess Tatiana (1897-1926)
By Steven Ingman-Greer

I’ve loved the world of Imperial Russia and the family of the last Tsar Nicholas II for as long as I can remember. From a child I’ve had pictures of them in my head, often moving pictures. Sometimes I would even hear the family saying words, to each other and also to me. These feelings, intuitions and imaginings went hand in hand with my study of them from a purely historical, objective point of view. But as I studied the histories, over the years I came to realise that what we are taught in schools and often academic institutions as well is only the history of often one point of view, that of history’s “winners”. This realisation ignited my strongest characteristic. My curiosity. I just had to know what I wasn’t being told. The other side of the story that I felt existing just beyond my reach…the side that would bring in the complete picture in perfect balance, like a ballerina en pointe…

I am very lucky. In life I have studied the world from two apparently opposite perspectives. First, I regard myself as a musician. I studied classical music theory and practice from the age of seven and have played viola and clarinet, the viola to professional standard. For this there is rigorous study of technique required. But in the end the technique is put to the service of intuition and if you are on track, no two performances of the same piece will be identical and each will have the stamp of your unique individuality. As a composer, I know intimately, that after all the study of fugue and Sonata Form, in the end, you simply hear music with your inner senses, feel it, and then write down what you hear and feel using your technical skill at the service of your intuition. As the Imperial Family’s friend Sergei Rachmaninov said, “music goes from my heart to your heart, bypassing your brains…”

My apparently opposite training is that of a scientist. I am a qualified Analytical Chemist to Masters level and have done a doctorate in Chemical Engineering. From this, you learn strict observational technique and to look at all sides of a problem before reaching any lasting conclusions, conclusions which must be rigorously tested before being accepted.

My love for Nicholas and his family has driven me to study them in depth for many years. My scientific side has studied all the available English texts and I knew intimately what the histories said of them, what they did, studies of character etc…
But all the time I was studying them, I was aware of my other side, the intuitive one, blinking away at me, like a beacon in the night. And this went hand in hand with the deepest side of me. As an adopted child, who lost my mother at an early age, I intuitively learned to turn to the universal mother instead. I had a devotion to the Virgin Mary when I was young, but was also driven to study religion from many perspectives, eventually coming to realise that all religious paths are simply reflections of one initial universal source which expresses itself alternately in masculine and feminine form. The Russians I discovered had an initial devotion in ancient times to the Universal Mother, the Goddess for want of a more accurate term. When they embraced Orthodoxy in the year 988, it was largely the beauty of the Icons of the Holy Mother and the music of the chant that they responded to, rather than any particular religious doctrine. For them, worship of the Goddess simply continued in another form. For many, especially in Siberia, the practices of Orthodoxy were simply added to the intuitive Shamanism that already existed there and the seers and healers went on with their work as before. This seemless transition has meant that the “Old Ways” have survived in Russia, largely intact to this day. And it is from this tradition that the man known as Rasputin came.

This man has had a very bad press over the years, some of it, it has to be said, his own fault. But basically he went to help the Imperial Family as a result of a vision of the Holy Mother, who told him to go to St. Petersburg to help them. Once there, he was able to help heal the Tsarevitch Grand Duke Alexei of his haemophiliac attacks. But even more importantly than that, he taught all the Imperial children the native wisdom of the Russian people. In this tradition, everything, down to the rocks, is seething with life. There is no such thing as “dead” matter and everything is imbued with the spirit of the mother, from whom comes all life in the universe. He knew intuitively the gifts of each child in the family and taught them accordingly. In my first novel about the family, “Lost Eagle”, told from the perspective of Nicholas’ second daughter Tatiana, her gift is that of communion with the animal kingdom, with which she has a special, healing bond. Her sisters and brother all have different gifts. These, and Rasputin’s relationship with the Goddess I will explore in future books.

In this first book I also begin an exploration of the concept of the “willing sacrifice”. My research over many years has lead me to conclude that the form of religion we know today was once very different, indeed opposite to what it is now. Today, we venerate the willing sacrifice of a male figure on a Roman executioner’s cross. But in the past, the willing sacrifice venerated was that of a Holy Maiden, a Royal Priestess, whose ritual death and resurrection affirmed the continuity of life on Earth to be sure, but who also demonstrated in ways that are now lost to us the continuity of life, the Afterlife and rebirth as well. The stories of Jesus after his resurrection – being seen and spoken to by disciples – are mirrored in the stories of the Maiden’s resurrection. But she was part of an intuitive mystical tradition in which life beyond this mortal one was not simply intuited, it was known – through the Maidens – by everyone. Let me be clear. Life after death in these earlier times was no matter of faith. It was a matter of truth and actual knowledge, gained from and through the feminine. In Rasputin’s actual words, noted down by Tatiana in a book you can still see today – “…all is in Love and not even a bullet can strike love down.”

Over the last two millennia the loss of this knowledge has come through the persecution of the Feminine in Mankind as a whole – both in actual persecution of Woman, but also in the persecution of what the Feminine actually means. Qualities such as intuition have become devalued and since the Enlightenment, the very thought that everything in the Universe has life has come to be treated with contempt bordering on derision in lower scientific circles. It is this attitude to life that causes animals to be treated as no more than machines for our experimentation and the earth to be mined and fracked ruthlessly for resources without thought for the consequences. Ironically, the great scientists, those who have made ground breaking discoveries, like Albert Einstein, valued intuition highly, indeed he himself said – “intuition is more important than knowledge”.

Rasputin taught the Imperial Family the wisdom that he and his ancestors already knew. That the Earth and everything on it and in it both visible and invisible was alive and was part of the Sacred Circle. From this comes the basic concept of Freedom based on an acceptance of free will and free choice in all beings in all things. The Tsar began to take these teachings on board himself, instituting an Act of Freedom of Religion in the early years of the 20th century. This officially freed the believers in the old faiths from persecution by church or state. Had he survived beyond 1917, it was his intention to institute the reforms of his Grandfather Tsar Alexander II and introduce universal suffrage, making the Tsar a constitutional monarch and giving the choice of government freely to everyone.

The world as we know it today is a sorry place. Freedom of the kind I am talking about is still unknown, even in our, apparently, democratic society. Wars are still being fought over religion, when they could all stop now if people simply realised that all religious paths lead inevitably to One universal Source and respected the right of all to follow a path dictated by individual freedom of conscience. Sexuality, that intensely feminine quality of inner and outer communion, and one celebrated as a liberating force by Rasputin, to the fury of the male Russian aristocracy, remains suppressed and not properly understood in many areas to this day. Above all, there is a deep need now to reaffirm the Earth as a living being and all creatures as possessing soul and heart, all to be treated with the love and compassionate understanding that we would wish to be treated with ourselves.

These then are the issues that are at the heart of my work. They are issues which I explore intimately in my novels on the Russian Imperial Family, beginning with “Lost Eagle, the untold story of HIH Grand Duchess Tatiana of Russia”. I wanted to tell their stories from the perspective of the daughters of the Imperial House, those beautiful figures in white who have never had a voice until now, but whose suppressed voices, when allowed to finally sing, tell us a story that takes us within, back full circle to where we all began. The Russian Orthodox Faith knows this secret. For their most secret and sacred Icon of all, seen recently on a visit to Mount Athos by Prince Philip, cousin to Tsar Nicholas II, is the Icon showing the Mother of God giving birth to the Universe.

“Lost Eagle”, the story of Nicholas II’s daughter Tatiana, her life and escape to England after the massacre of her family, is the first of five novels exploring these themes. It is published by Top Hat and is out on October 25th, 96th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
For more information please visit my website, http://www.losteagle.co.uk

All content © Steven Ingman-Greer 2013