Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rule of Cool vs. Historical Accuracy in AH

Happy New Year my dear readers! For my first post of 2012 for the Alternate History Weekly Update, I'm starting the new year the only proper way: with a bang. Today, I'm taking a look at the major stylistic divide in the genre, between those who aim for historical plausibility, and those who toss plausibility out the window in pursuit of what is collectively know as the 'rule of cool'.

Such divides are not unheard of in literature, especially in speculative fiction, typically called the divide between hard and soft fiction. Science Fiction is split between the fairly accessible space operas or future thrillers like Star Wars and the hard science-based works of authors like Asimov. The fantasy genre has factions made up of the fairly lightweight stuff like Harry Potter, and then you have the sprawling detailed epics like Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. So it makes perfect sense that alternate history has its own divide between those who use history to explore historical alternatives and those who prefer to explore some of the more outlandish and unique possibilities of alternate worlds. As you can expect, both have their upsides and downsides, which I hope to explore in depth here today.

I shall start with looking at the sect of the AH community that aims for historical accuracy, the most prominent circles found on the Internet, most notable among them, the majority of the works of the site striving for plausibility, and the works that do not achieve that are quickly labeled ASB. That aim for accuracy and realism is a trademark of hard AH, the more detailed and researched the work, the better. A main tool of the plausibility supporters is the butterfly effect, which as most of you know, is where the effects of a change to OTL ripples out to the point the entire world is unrecognizable - for example if you have a POD in the War of American Independence, Barrack Obama shouldn't be President of the United States in the present day, because due to butterflies, he shouldn't exist at all. Timelines and stories that strive for such (alternate) historical accuracy are often more focused on the world and societies created by the original POD, allowing a window into a drastically different world, with characters and events typically taking a secondary role.

In direct contrast, groups that spend more focus on creating a cool world with interesting characters, original and historical, with less focus on making it historically accurate. This is typically because these sorts of stories are more traditional with their focus on plot and characters, which is also why it has found commercial success with writers like Harry Turledove and SM Sterling. Being that there is less focus on realism in a lot of stories, this is where many of the genres biggest tropes first came into being, with such examples including zeppelins, steam-punk, balkanized Americas or surviving Byzantine Empires, various wanks and screws, and even the genre staple ISOT scenario. Also, while the stories and timelines that aim for plausibility typically manage to range in quality from middle of the road to superb, for ever wonderful rule of cool AH, you typically have one or two others that are plainly terrible.

But which of the two approaches happens to be the better one? To reiterate, the both have their strengths and their weaknesses, to say nothing of both personal preference of both the writer and the author.

Historically accuracy is obviously favored by many history buffs, simply because thinking of the most plausible alternate worlds and histories makes for not only great mental gymnastics and fictional narratives, but provide greater appreciation or remorse over our own past. Of course, insight alone is not the main reason so many favor the plausibility side, but from the fact so many of these worlds seem detailed, involved, and above all else, real. That realism is the strength of so many of the stories on this side, and one of the reasons that more ASB stories are dismissed, and why the more astute readers will point out that due to the Butterfly effect, Barrack Obama shouldn’t be the leader of the USA in a story where the POD was in 1812. That’s one of the nice things about aiming for historical accuracy is that the shape of the world you're making is grounded mainly in historical fact and realisms, and thus, wiggle room over plot points and details is fairly plausible, if limited.

Of course, with so much focus on the world, many times the characters or plots suffer, or at least take a back seat to the greater world. As a result, too many of these kinds of AH stories read like history books. Of course, depending how much of a plausibility fanatic they are, in that quest for plausibility, writers often dismisses many great narratives as ASB or implausible, forgetting that many of histories most interesting chapters - from Alexander the Great to the Mongol invasions, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, to even the American republic not only defeating Britain in its quest for independence, but conquering the majority of a continent and becoming a global hegemony in the course of two centuries - at times read like the creations of an overly creative alternate historian.

When one writes according to the rule of cool, it really is an entirely different ball game. Often times historical plausibility will take a backseat, or be ignored entirely, in the pursuit of a grand story with a rich cast of characters and a strange, exciting world. As mentioned before, many of the genres biggest standby tropes, ranging from steam-punk and zeppelins to Teddy Roosevelt being a larger than life hero, got their start in the pulpier AH, and have made their way in to both sides work. If you can ignore how implausible it is to have a front of WWII fought between the USA and CSA, or sky pirates raiding zeppelins in the skies above a shattered 1930s USA, these often make for brisk and memorable reads, especially for those who are not fans of the textbook approach often used in the plausibility school. While it may be unrealistic to see Barrack Obama in a story where, due to butterflies, he shouldn't even exist, having contemporary and historical figures provides a familiar and relatable perspective to many of these stories, plus the added bonus of seeing how historical figures would react in such a world.

One obvious weakness of the rule of cool approach is that often times, people will carry it too far. This can range from the USA invading Britain and winning during the 1860s, Nazis ruling the world, or Joan of Arc coming back to life to fight in WWII (I've seen it happen). Not surprisingly, many of these scenarios are what genre detractors use to bash the greater AH genre, and it has lost many a reader of Alternate History. Another big weakness of the rule of cool approach is that author bias often seeps its way into the story. Sometimes that works well (Say what you will, Harry Turtledove rehashes WWII time after time because he can do it very well), and at other times, it backfires horrifically (How much of SM Sterling's work contains a balkanized USA, a wanked British Empire, a marginalized Christian church and gratuitous amounts of graphic lesbian sex?). In the end, the biggest weakness a lot of these stories and timelines suffer from is lacking that same realism that is so strong in the more plausible stories. At a certain point, having clockwork automatons fighting WWI isn't nearly as personal a story as, say, the despair of a French soldier in the trenches upon hearing the Kaiser's forces had captured Paris.

In short, that divide can be explained simply by the aim of the work. Most plausible AH aims to take a look at history. Most Rule of Cool AH seeks to . In the end, most great AH dabbles in a bit of both.

While there are supporters and detractors to both sides, I myself tend to subscribe to both sides, depending on the work. I can enjoy something pulpy and implausible like Crimson Skies or Harry Turtledove, just as much as I can foam at the mouth over how awful Spike TV’s Alternate History was from both an artistic and historical perspective. It is not mere egotism that I hope to see this approach embraced by the larger alternate history community. Just as Science Fiction can have both Star Wars and the Foundation, and Fantasy can have Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter under its banner, Alternate History can have works that appeal to the history buff and the ravenous reader alike, and so long as the quality of such works remains superb, our genre will only be made better for it.

Soldier, scholar, writer and web-voyeur, Sean CW Korsgaard has been active in the alternate history community since 2006, and was recently elected to succeed Mitro as President of the Alternate History Online Facebook group. In addition to his contributions at the Alternate History Weekly Update, he writes for several websites, including his own, which can be found here.


  1. The Butterfly Effect is not that pervasive for minor events. The notion that traveling back and time and moving a pebble to wipe out civilization really is not that realistic. However, that being said, a major event will dissipate into a minor event in the space time continuum(thus making less waves) as time goes on. So while the American Independence doesn't happen and Barack Obama does not become President, it won't affect, say, much of the world that is untouched.

    1. I have disagree with the anon. SF is full of works that involve time travelling and how small changes can have major consequences. That is the whole point of the butterfly effect: a butterfly flaps its wings in China and there is a storm in California. There is even another name for going back in time to make small changes with massive consequences: jonbar hinge.


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