Sunday, February 1, 2015

Black Alternate History Month

This year, I am going to be scheduling posts a little differently. I have experimented with theme months before to varying degrees of success, but have never been serious about keeping it going by coming up with new themes. My research into genre, however, has shown that alternate history is often dominated by "great men" who win (or lose) military battles, while being created mostly by white, American males.

So in 2015, I am going to try and highlight different perspectives on alternate history, spending more time on overlooked events and minority voices. Since February is Black History Month here in the United States, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to cover Africa-American alternate history and creators.

Although I give a lot of credit to Turtledove for introducing me to alternate history, one of the first non-Turtledove books I read was Lion's Blood by Steven Barnes. Called one of the most unusual alternate history novels ever published by Emily Stamm of io9, Lion's Blood showcased a world where civilization flourished in Africa and the Middle East, while Europe remained barbaric and primitive. In this timeline, black Africans have colonized what would have been North America, using white slaves sold to them by Viking raiders for the heavy labor.

What made Lion's Blood significant was that it did not just create a mirror universe like the film White Man's Burden. Barnes set out to make this world as plausible as possible and while there are some parallels and squashed butterflies to be found, you still get a unique world that shows off Barnes' skill as world builder. In fact I still haven't read the sequel, Zulu Heart, for that very same reason. Its not that I did not enjoy Lion's Blood, its that I am afraid to sequel will ruin the original for me.

Of course if you ask alternate historians (which I have) to recommend works of alternate history written by or based on African-Americans, most would recommend Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain. In this timeline, John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry touches off a massive slave rebellion that has wide reaching consequences for the entire world. Cory Doctorow called it "one of the best alternate histories I've read" and said it showed a different side to the usually absurd Bisson. Successful slave rebellion alternate histories like this aren't unheard of (see the "The Lions are Asleep This Night" by Howard Waldrop or, hell, the real world Haitian Revolution), but if we speak of blacks as slaves, then our minds usually turn to the American Civil War.

Despite what certain revisionist historians would like you think, you can't discuss the Civil War without covering slavery and that applies to alternate history as well. Works by African-Americans on the subject include the recent The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter (which at one point had Ron Hogan of Tor questioning whether alternate history was entering the mainstream) or the humorous and controversial mockumentary, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, directed by Kevin Willmott. Even Turtledove used black POV characters, such as Scipio, in his epic Timeline-191 series.

Yet African-Americans are usually either portrayed as having it worst off that our timeline (with good reason) or not mentioned at all in an American Civil War alternate history, especially in those featuring an independent Confederacy. In fact, I find later to be a worse portrayal as it confines an entire people's experience to the footnotes. This has often come up when reading web original alternate histories on the subject, but even mainstream publications are not exempt from this omission. Perhaps someone will write about this odd phenomenon in the future...

So for the month of February I am going to try and shine a light on African-American alternate history by not only posting articles on the subject or talking with African-American creators, but also highlighting news I come across on the Weekly Update and any other news posts I write in the coming weeks. If you would like to participate in some way, whether as a guest poster or an interviewee, contact me at ahwupdate at gmail dot com. Thanks and I hope you guys enjoy our exploration of this corner of our favorite genre.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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