Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Degrees of Alternative in Alternative History

Guest post by David Bell

At the ‘one’ end of a scale of ten, we have the Flashman or Sharpe type character who influences a significant event on a micro level, creating history as we know it in a subtle ‘oh yes, I can believe that could have happened’ sort of way. I think most Alternative History purists would regard this sort of story more as historical fiction, so much so that they wouldn't include it in the AH genre at all (or at best, put it in the minus two or three bracket).

And yet there remains in these sorts of stories that delicious moment of recognition of ‘the moment when things changed’; that pat on the back that acknowledges and confirms our knowledge of history and makes us juicily complicit in the author’s conceit. At this end of the scale, it’s a subtle joy, or if you want an analogy, it’s a sugar rush compared to the heroin hit of full bore Alternative History.

It’s much easier to revel and even wallow in this moment of recognition at the other end of the scale of AH which is where we find Steam Punk, Alien or high tech interventions, and stalled invasions unstalled etc.. These dramatic divergences are so profound and contrast so much with ‘history as we know it’ that the thrill is much greater. But even when we know we’re close to straying into the world of science fiction or fantasy, it’s that tethering point of known history that makes us squirm with happiness and keeps things ‘in genre’.

So, one of the subtle attractions of Alternative History for me is that no matter how mad things get, it makes me think more clearly about how and why actual events turned out the way they did. Being presented with known historical facts from a different, parallel and more entertaining perspective makes reality much more enjoyable and far more ‘sticky’.

This is the approach I used in The Dog Hunters- to present Teen readers with a historical situation and then riff on it, often quite outrageously, but always bringing things back to a recognisable reality.

My story’s primary divergence is that Gelert, the legendary wolfhound of medieval Wales never died, even though the myth of his death has carried round the world. What follows has the Chinese Emperor sending a vast treasure fleet to bring Gelert to him (and thwarting Edward I’s invasion of Wales in the process). Unfortunately this leads to young Prince Llewelyn being kidnapped along with Gelert, and the two are then subjected to all sorts of adventures as they’re carried back to China via the Holy Land and the Crusades. Although it’s unashamedly a story of a lad and his dog- ‘The Dog Hunters’ is aimed squarely at the teen market- the touchpoints of history are all reasonably accurate and sow the seeds of the next book in the series which will see genetic engineering and biological warfare coming to the fore- a ‘proper’ alternative history development in the medieval context.

My one long term fantastical device is that the two characters’ ageing processes are irrevocably put on hold, which means that, once the series is established, I’ll then be able to take Llewelyn and Gelert through history. So you can look forward to them tripping up Ghengis Khan’s horse, discovering America a century or so before Columbus, and shooting down Messerschmitts over the White Cliffs of Dover (though how I’m going to get a 200lb Wolfhound into the cockpit of Llewelyn’s Spitfire I’ve not quite figured out yet).

I’m also going to confess a hidden agenda- I’m a bit fed up with the zeitgeist that ‘Boys don’t read’. Hopefully ‘The Dog Hunters’ will begin to change that, as well as bringing them into the Alternative History world.

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David Bell is originally from Liverpool UK, and is now a practicing New Zealand creative adman in Auckland, where he also set up the internationally acclaimed Adschool. ‘he Dog Hunters is his first novel and is available now as an eBook on all platforms, and shortly in paperback. More background to the historical aspects of his book can be found at The Dog Hunters Book by David Bell.

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