Friday, December 12, 2014

Interview: Karen Hellekson

As I did my research on the alternate history fandom, another name that routinely appeared was Karen Hellekson. I found out that Karen has done extensive research on the genre and was a former Sidewise Award judge. Luckily I got chance to talk with her and you can see our conversation below:

Who is Karen Hellekson?

I'm an independent scholar with interests in science fiction and fan studies. I studied at the University of Kansas, a school I chose because of the Institute for the Study of Science Fiction, where I worked with James Gunn. My dissertation was on the alternate history, and I later published it as a book.

What got you interested in alternate history?

I really liked some of the odder alternate histories, and I thought it was a fun topic that not enough people had written about. Mine was I think the third dissertation on the topic---that I could get my hands on, anyway---and one of them was in German. However, then it turned out that a huge subgenre---maybe even the majority---of alternate histories are written for battlefield fetishists. That is the least interesting aspect of the alternate history for me. I have no patience for finely detailed step-by-step battlefield stories for World War II or the Civil War, the two most common settings for the alternate history. I much prefer things like Ward Moore's "Bring the Jubilee", which is about the South winning the Civil War, but we see the United States years after this happens, where the implications of such a win are articulated in terms of society and technology. One reason I love Poul Anderson's Time Patrol series is that the historical nexus points he chooses are really out there, like the Peloponnesian War. More people need to write alternate histories about the Peloponnesian War, if you ask me.

What do you think inspires someone to alter history?

I think for the battlefield fetishists, it's their intimate knowledge of the time period and a desire to play with their specialist knowledge, although only other specialists can really understand the implications of the battle details they're talking about. I think for many other writers---the science fiction writers and not the historians---it's a way to displace our world to make a point about the world today, so it's just like any other speculative fiction text. Then you have someone like Philip Roth, not known as a SF writer or a historian but as a deeply personal writer, whose 2004 alternate
history, The Plot Against America, is a way to demonstrate contingency.

What was The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time about?

It's a critical study of the genre, using specific examples to demonstrate various ways of seeing historical time and agency, which I describe as various patterns.

How did you become a Sidewise Award judge and why did you leave after 2005?

They asked me! And I left because it was insanely time consuming, and I was reading too many terrible battlefield fetishist books, including lots of self-published books that had not been edited. It got so I dreaded opening the packages with the books. When that happens, you know it's time to move on.

What alternate history books would you recommend for someone who is not a "battlefield fetishist"?

Some of my favorites include Garfinkle's Celestial Matters, Deighton's genre-mixing SS-GB, Dick's classic The Man in the High Castle, Banks's Transition, Roth's The Plot Against America, Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine, Piper's Paratime and Lord Kalvan series, Moore's "Bring the Jubilee" (one of my absolute favorites---it's so, so devastating), de Camp's classic Lest Darkness Fall, Leinster's equally classic "Sidewise in Time", Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union...and I won't go on. But I could.

One thing I do sadly note is that few women writers seem drawn to the genre. Walton's Farthing is one, although I'm ashamed to admit I haven't read it yet. There are several others I know of but can't immediately find the titles for, mostly short stories. I'm hopeful people will help crowdsource AHs by women and help me find some! Many (like Novik's Temeraire series---I'm a big fan) seem have some kind of fantasy element---in Novik's case, it's the Napoleonic wars with dragons.

I'm most interested in what might be termed hard AH. I don't want magic; and although I like time travel, with intrepid time travelers seeking to ensure the time line goes as planned, those stories tend to revolve around the nexus point (like...a battle!), and in terms of AH, I prefer the universe building that goes into constructing a world based on an historically constructed "what if..." premise. This sort of text---one featuring a completely built AH world, with the action of the story set within it and the resolution dependent on that consistent world---is actually pretty rare.

Also, I do want to clarify: I don't want anybody to think that battlefield fetishism is a bad thing! It's just not my thing. I know more than the average person about World War II (because I copy edit a series of books on modern war stories for a university press for my day job), and even though I'm in on the joke, I still don't care about the minutiae of cause leading to effect in these texts. I want it wave formed out, out, out! However, I can see how it would be incredibly rewarding, as a reader, to recognize the characters, admire the author's take on things, and enjoy the operation-level details. After all, it takes a long time to gain that knowledge, and I'm sure battlefield fetishists love the payoff.

You are one of the keynote speakers at the Sideways in Time conference. Can we get a little taste of your topic?

I'm still thinking about it, so no, but I will likely discuss visual texts as opposed to written texts, mostly because that's more interesting to see a presentation about---I can show clips! Right now I'm thinking about Charlie Jade, Continuum and Fringe, as well as particular eps of Stargate SG-1 and the various Mirror Universe eps from the Star Trek franchise. I'm more interested in longer narratives, like TV shows, than in things like films, because of the importance of character to the alternate history, so likely I will focus on that.

Any advice to give someone who is interested in writing about the speculative fiction community?

The SF community is fabulous---everyone should want to write about them, because they are approachable and fun and delightful to talk to and the texts range so widely. I encourage anyone interested in writing about the community to attend the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts annual meeting, because academics and authors are all there. I remember being in an elevator with an elderly Jack Williamson years ago at ICFA, and I became a dumbstruck fangirl. I literally could not speak, because JACK WILLIAMSON.

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