Friday, January 29, 2016

The Thin Red Line

Guest post by Steve Turnbull.

The line might not be red. In another reality it might be blue, pink, or even octarine.

In 2014 the book The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter by Rod Duncan was nominated for the Philip K Dick Award. The book is generally spoken of as being Steampunk.

On Amazon in the US it’s a supernatural mystery while in the UK it’s listed as fantasy.

It’s neither of those things: it’s pure Alternate History based on the premise: what if the Luddite revolt had succeeded?

Yes, it has airships in it as a common mode of transport, but there’s nothing special about them. They’re just airships used for transport, in exactly the way they were used in the early part of the 20th century.

I should also mention that it’s a very good book. Rod is an experienced thriller writer and that this one, along with its sequels, happen to be alternate history is neither here nor there. You should read it. (I don’t get a sales commission.)

So where’s the line? At what point does a story cross the line from alternate history to fantasy? Here I am using fantasy as a catch-all term for “things that don’t happen in our universe as far as we know”.

There are other books like this: I can’t find a reference but there’s a series set in alternate history world where an extra ice age resulted in European countries not becoming the dominant world power – but it has airships so it’s steampunk.

But wait, hang on, an extra ice age? Which side of the line is that? It’s not a human decision. It’s not someone failing to make the “right” choice to make history go the way it is perceived to have gone. But it’s not unnatural. In fact it’s nature.

How good are you on Chaos Theory? It’s the thing that means we can’t predict the weather with any accuracy. Stated simply: The rules governing what happens in the universe are very complicated, and the slightest difference in starting conditions changes the future dramatically. You don’t know all the rules or the starting conditions therefore you cannot predict with any accuracy beyond a certain point.

It’s the butterfly flapping its wings at the wrong moment. It’s an asteroid being on an infinitesimally different orbit and missing the Earth by a million miles – or hitting it.

That means a different natural event has to be alternate history, right? It’s not fantasy. Okay some people call it “parallel universe” but then alt history didn’t actually happen so that’s parallel universe as well. No difference.

What does that make West of Eden by Harry Harrison? In that story the dinosaur extinction event did not happen (or was less destructive) and humans eventually evolved alongside highly intelligent saurians. (There are some geographical features to keep them apart for a while – that’s “a while” in geological terms.)

Well, there may be some weird science in that one but nothing impossible. And you could write a story with a similar premise and no weird science. That would be alt-history.

Okay, so we can accept that natural events and human choices can create an alt-history. (Perhaps you disagree, well this is my article, and I’m saying it’s okay.)

Let’s look at it from the other side.

A lot of steampunk has magic, supernatural and weird science. Here we’re suggesting that weird science is something that could not happen in the universe we live in. (Arrogantly assuming we know it all.)

Those things aren’t alt-history, that’s just fantasy.

But what about William Gibson/Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine? That’s about the effect on Victorian society if Babbage had not run out of money and succeeded in creating the Analytical Engine. (And what Lord Wellington chose to do about it.)

The computer age in the 1800s? Outrageous? No: it’s alt-history.

Let’s talk about Cherie Priest and her Clockwork Century stories. The series title is pure marketing; the stories have nothing to do with clockwork. The premise of the setting revolves around Seattle, in the late 1800s, and the cracking open of a vent in the earth that spews out a poisonous gas. Yes, it has airships but they’re just airships.

The gas, however, steps us over the line I’ve drawn (whatever colour it is in your universe). If I tell you why it’ll be a bit spoilery, so I won’t. One of the later books also has an analytical engine and an amazing programmer who does things it’s hard to do even now, which is a bit of a jump technologically.

So these books are not alt-history, but they're close.

There’s another way to step across the line—and this is where we move into gratuitous self-promotion—what if there is a difference in the physics of the universe?

My own Voidships books are based on the premise that it is possible to nullify the effects of gravity. Not 100%, in fact only about 20% in 1843 (as demonstrated by Sir Michael Faraday – not Tesla) rising to a bit more than 70% by the 1890s. In the 1900s, Tesla and Rutherford together achieve complete nullification using a completely new technique.

However that is the only change although I make some decisions that change the nature of the Solar System based on it. And if anyone complains I, as a petulant child-God, stamp my feet and say: It’s my universe, I can do what I like as long as it’s consistent.

The stories map the slow changes as the technology infiltrates society, from increasingly mobile artillery in the Siege of Lucknow (1857), through to space flight (1874) and the outbreak of the Modern War in 1911. Imagine the attitudes of the main combatants in 1914, with weapons that make it more like WWII. It’s not pretty.

My books are an alternate reality but not alt-history though until 1911 much of it is the same history. I like to call it Hard Steampunk, but even the hardest steampunk is still soft SF.

If you like your alt-history stories pure there are still some labelled as steampunk that would fit the bill. If you’re happy with small reality changes, the options are much wider. Not all steampunk is Victorian werewolves – though they can be fun too.

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Steve Turnbull has been inventing worlds for over forty years—but writing about them for only half that. By day he works in software development which, like writing alt-history, is another exercise in consequences. Check out his mailing list and Twitter profile.

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