Diverse folk diversely they demed;
As many heddes as manye wittes there been.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Squires Tale

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Alternate History, Historical Fantasy, and Alternate Worlds

In some of my earlier posts I used the term ‘alternate history’ rather loosely. As a technical term, AH revolves “around the basic premise that some event in the past did not occur as we know it did, and thus the present has changed” (Hellekson, 2000, 247). It’s usually considered a science fiction genre, and, as Hellekson also points out “concerns itself with plausible relationships” (247). It also has, as Amy Ransom points out a “scientifical approach to mimesis”(Ransom, 2010, 260). Draconic intervention in the Napoleonic Wars – as in Naomi Novik’s books – doesn’t fit.
Magic, mythology and anything else outside the mundane world – except sometimes time travel – are outside the bounds of the genre.
AH extrapolates forward from a changed event, or series of events – a Nazi victory in World War II or victory by the South in the American Civil War are the most common divergences. Books like Novik’s extrapolate backwards from the present, asking what would have had to be historically different for the present to be altered. That they employ ‘the fantastic’ to do it doesn’t necessarily make the process less logical. As I said in my earlier post about Novik’s books, dragons make European militaries comparable with those of the rest of the world, resulting in much altered attempts at imperialism particularly in Africa, South America, and Australia. If AH asks ‘what if,’ Novik’s question is a ‘what would’ have altered the history of western expansionism around the globe.
Books that intertwine history with fantasy elements in various ratios and combinations are often, not very imaginatively, labelled Historical Fantasy – although this is more a term used by publishers and audiences than scholars. Novik’s Temeraire is currently at the top of the Goodreads Popular Historical Fantasy list, ahead of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. Guy Gavriel Kay features in the top 20, as does Diana Gabaldon, Cassandra Clare and George R.R. Martin. Historical Fantasy is really only useful as a very broad term – there are major differences between these works. Jo Walton’s article "What is historical fantasy?" on Tor.com is indicative of its very broad application as well (Walton, 2009). Moreover, scholars of fantasy don’t tend to define it, although they use it. There’s no definition in John Clute and John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy for example (Clute & Grant, 1999).
Ransom offers Historical Fantasy as a term for works like Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan (which she invokes as an example) or Novik’s which differ from AH in that “more than one event and the plausible extrapolation of its consequences must be altered; rather everything must change” (275). I’d suggest that Historical Fantasy is a very problematic term to adopt from a critical standpoint because it is already used so widely, and in such varied ways, by publishers and audiences. John Clute lamented the tendency of publishers to mis-use ‘Epic Fantasy,’ saying that the term “has lost its usefulness” (Clute & Grant, 1999, 319), and this sort of problem is endemic in fantasy criticism – even in the difficulties of defining ‘fantasy’ itself. For Historical Fantasy to be critically useful, it would need to be disentangled from commercial and popular usage.
I would suggest that Alternate World has more potential to be useful in delineating fantasy which engages with (by altering) a specific aspect of the real world’s past, often although not always with the intent of critiquing both that past and the present. In the kinds of works I’m thinking of, something about the world is different – whether its sentient dragons or real magic or myriad other options – and this changes the course of history as we know it. This draws on the critical history of the term. Clute, drawing on Brian Stableford in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction offers this in his definition: “an alternate world is an account of our world as it might otherwise have been” (21). Clute excludes works like Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula because they intervene in and “violate” history, although as I haven’t read the book I’m not sure if I’d agree on that distinction (more on this at a later date). Alternate World resonates with AH in productive ways: it invokes the thought experiment questions that underpin AH, suggesting that an Alternate World is more than mere revisionism or nostalgia, and it can be used to separate out some of what it lumped together under the banner of Historical Fantasy.

Clute, J., & Grant, J. (1999). The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit.
Hellekson, K. (2000). Toward a Taxonomy of the Alternate History Genre, Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 41(3), 247–256.
Ransom, A. J. (2010). Warping Time: Alternate Histories, Historical Fantasy, and the Postmodern uchronie quebecoise. Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 51(2), 258–280.
Walton, J. (2009). What is historical fantasy? Tor.com. Retrieved August 2, 2012, from http://www.tor.com/blogs/2009/07/what-is-historical-fantasy-anyway

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