Archive for category Alternate History

It’s No Mystery

My Latest Page-turner.

My Latest Page-turner

Mysteries, whether cozy English, police procedural, or noir detective, fill a psychological itch for us. The police, the detective, and the justice system represent the societal order we all need to feel safe, and the moral order that allows good to triumph over evil. The protagonist outwits the criminal, and brings him or her to justice. The act cannot be undone; the murder victim cannot be restored to his or her unfinished life, and so the detective’s victory is always tempered by the reality that there is more evil out there, always.

Most readers of SF I know read the occasional mystery. I heard someone say that every SF story is at heart a mystery. That may be too sweeping a generalization for me, but the affinity between the two groups is undeniable, given that many writers of SF have also worked in the mystery genres. More than a few writers have written both in the same book.

One of the favorite combos is the mystery combined with alternate history. The alternate history usually deals with different historical political outcomes and shifts of power. Three examples come to mind: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Jo Walton’s Farthing, and China Mieville’s The City and the City.

Some might question my inclusion of the Mieville work as alternate history, but as a kind of alternate now, it has many of the same combination of qualities I find so appealing in the alternate history/mystery sub-genre. The mystery genre has a utopian view of justice, in which the truth outs and justice prevails. The real justice system can never measure up. The alternate history political system strives to impose order, but causes its own chaos. The marriage of the two makes for very interesting fiction.

I finished Farthing, and immediately downloaded the second and third books of the trilogy, having found the first book a page-turner the likes of which I haven’t experienced in years. It begins with a country house murder set in an England that made peace with Hitler in 1941. The investigation of the country house murder, and the Inspector’s solving of the crime, is supposed to return us to the security of a lawful society, as per the world-view of the mystery, as described above. But there’s a problem, and that problem is the corruption of a sane and orderly legal system by the madness of a British government being overcome by fascism. How does the truth-seeking Inspector Carmichael restore order, when the integrity and fundamental morality of that order has been gutted?

China Mieville’s police detective has a different problem. He is attempting to solve his murder case as a citizen of a city state that coexists with another city-state that occupies the same territory, but which he must ignore. All citizens must ignore the other city-state which is right before their eyes. Reality has been fractured, and perception cannot be trusted. How can truth be found in such a state? The detective’s own perceptions are distorted by the lifelong conditioning of his culture, of not-seeing what is right in front of him. What greater handicap can a seeker of truth have than self-blinding from what one is forbidden to see?

The existential threat to Detective Landsmen in Chabon’s alternate history is at once remote and immediate. The lease on the temporary Jewish settlement/homeland in Sitka, Alaska, is about to run out, throwing the detective and all of Alaska’s Jews into statelessness. In the meantime, crime goes on, including murder, one of which Landsmen is tasked with solving. He expects to keep doing his job, in spite of the imminent demise of the jurisdiction he works for. Talk about being a lame duck. Madcap alternate history/police procedural it is, but Chabon also points squarely at a serious dilemma we’ve all faced. Why bother to do the right thing, if no one cares, and if it seems not to matter, to make any difference to anyone?

So here are my speculations for the week: What do we do when 1) We learn the authority that comforts us, and that we depend upon, has become hopelessly compromised? 2) We learn that we have been in denial all our lives about what is true and what is not? Or, 3) Our moral and ethical best efforts are probably meaningless to the world around us?


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What Not To Write

That fashion makeover series ended recently, and it put me in mind of my own set of rules for writing, and more importantly, reading. When I pick up a book, digital or paper, I try to be flexible. I try to get into the author’s world, the world s/he has built for me.

I try very hard not to constrain the author with my expectations, even though I always have expectations. I’ve read the blurb, I’ve looked at the cover, I’ve considered previous work of the author’s I might have read, I’ve considered what I’m in the mood for, and only then will I make a judgement about whether or not I wish to dive in.

And a book is never exactly what I expect. Or hardly ever. I try to be flexible, to go along with the author’s plan. I don’t have to instantly agree one-hundred percent with every authorial decision. I am forgiving. What s/he does right is much more important than what s/he does wrong. I am picky, but not unreasonable.

That said, there are a few things that stop me cold. I may not throw the book across the room, but I may put it down and go watch TV or play Candy Crush.

I would prefer you don’t:

1) Overuse italics.

Italics are wonderful for indicating emphasis, foreign words, or a character’s internal dialogue. For pages-long backstory or flashback, they are horrible. Exposition of backstory in itself has issues, but put it in italics, and it ruins my eyes as well. It’s not easy to read. A multi-page chunk of italics signals: Here comes a bunch of stuff I somehow have to get through before I can continue with the actual story. So please just give me the actual story.

2) Let a single paragraph go on for pages and pages.

All right, maybe I don’t have that much of an attention span. Or maybe I need to rest my eyes. Or I’m sleepy and need to turn out the light. Whatever the reason, I like to stop at a logical place. If a chapter or scene break isn’t coming up soon, I’ll stop at the first paragraph at the top of the page. I don’t enjoy stopping mid-paragraph.

3) Use science fiction or fantasy tropes only as metaphor or literary device:

Many years ago, I picked up P. D. James’s The Children of Men. I kept waiting for scientists somewhere to figure out the physical cause for the worldwide male infertility at the center of the novel. Chapter after chapter passed, but scientists were barely mentioned. It seemed we were meant to believe they had given up, that somewhere, off camera, they were shrugging and saying, “Oh, well. That’s too bad.” Eventually, I understood that no cause was being offered, that the author had no interest or curiosity whatsoever in a physical cause. Universal male infertility was a literary device, a metaphor for an expression of the author’s religious views. Realizing that was a kick in the ovaries for me.

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife uses time travel as a literary device to tell the story of a romance and marriage. Although it was enjoyable, the story as a whole fell flat for me. Time travel becomes mundane used in this fashion, reminding me more of the trials of any married person who can’t keep track of the comings and goings of a spouse, rather than the mind-blowing possibilities inherent in time travel.

4) Go on and on about whaling, to the detriment of character and relationship development:

I’m talking to you, Herman Melville.

5) Let your isms show:

Are you a communist? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as China Mieville, I am happy to read your work. Are you a conservative Catholic? I’m not. But if you are, and you write as well as Tim Powers, I’ll read your work, too.

Every one of us has deeply held beliefs the right of which to express are guaranteed by our Constitution, and bestowed upon us by our Creator. Those beliefs will be embedded in our fiction, but subtly, if we are good storytellers.

The foregoing is  not intended to tell anyone how to write. It is intended only to express my opinion. What are your great reading gripes?

So not east to read....

So not easy to read….


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What Are Your Sincere Intentions, Author?

Recently, I have listened to, or have participated in, discussions of the differences between mainstream and science fiction. What is the difference between what a science fiction writer writes, and what a lit-fic writer comes up with, when both are working in, say, a near-future setting?

Many years ago, I read P.D. James’s The Children of Men, in which human sperm, worldwide, becomes nonviable. The setup is pure SF. I waited, therefore, for an SF payoff. I expected someone, anyone, some scientist somewhere, to try to find out why this was happening, but no one really did. Oh, they sort of tried, offstage, but then they just threw up their hands and decided it was hopeless. (Yeah, that sounds like scientists, doesn’t it?) Nor did she ever explain why sperm that had been frozen were rendered equally nonviable. Even after I figured out James didn’t care about science fiction, or the sperm, and that this book was about something other than the sperm, I couldn’t turn off the expectation that it should be about the sperm. At least a little. Because she was being totally insincere about the sperm.

Now I’m in the middle of Blueprints of the Afterlife, by Ryan Boudinot, which the cover copy describes as a near-future, post-apocolyptic novel. The engine of the plot is the FUS events that have changed the landscape of North America. What FUS stands for is pretty easy to figure out, but it so far is a kitchen-sink catch-all concept, with a heavy emphasis on global warming. The first quarter of the book excited me: two sections of two main characters, both of whom I loved. The first, Woo-jin, was my favorite. He is a delightful dishwasher (the best dishwasher in the world) living in incredible poverty. The second, Luke Piper, suffers a devastating loss in childhood, which leads to a one-eighty reversal of his life’s trajectory.

Then we get to Abby, who encounters a bunch of clones, and my heart sinks. It sinks, because the clones are not real, not in any sense that human clones have been depicted in dozens of other novels. They are not emotionally true. They are kind of funny, the endless numbers of them attending an impossibly old grand-dame, aging Mae West style, but at the same time, they feel inauthentic. I do not believe the author believed in them.

Likewise the sentient glacier that ravages Canada and the U.S. Yes, this is a big global warming moment. The glacier sounds totally cool (no pun intended), but it happens as a throwaway, its story given to us in an awkward lump of exposition by a teacher-character to another character who already knows the information. The sentient glacier reminds me of something in Gabriel Garcia Marquez–it hints magical realism–except this is not magical realism. In magical realism, everyone in the book accepts weird events as normal. Here, everyone freaks out. I must conclude, once again, that the author doesn’t care about this magical glacier he has created. He doesn’t love it on its own terms; he is using it. I don’t know what he’s using it for, a symbol, a joke, but at this point, I am expecting the story to grow faucets and a drain, because it is beginning to resemble a kitchen sink.

The farther I get into the book, the more confused I become as to the author’s sincere intent. It turns out that Abby, the character who encountered the clones previously, is a clone herself. Gasp! So that’s why those other clones upset her before! But Woo-jin has come back, too, and that is a good thing. Also, we are alerted early on to a puppet-master, Dirk Bickle, who may very well tie this all together. We’ll see.

In spite of my difficulties with the book so far, I’m enjoying it. It is witty, tragic, and satirical. The parts I like the best, however, are the mainstream parts. None of the post-apocolyptic SF elements are new, and for all their noise and flash, not much of the author seems to be invested in them.

Boudinot is compared to Phillip K. Dick in one of the cover blurbs. There is a paranoid aspect to the novel, but where Dick related a paranoid and dark view of the near future, every bit of what he wrote came out of his core. He was not trying to tell us anything. He was being. He was in every one of his inventions one-hundred percent. I’m not sure Budinot is.

When it comes down to it, intent is the difference between someone who’s writing SF, and someone who’s writing mainstream, but using the trappings tropes of SF for symbol or mere effect.

A force of nature like this one deserves respect.

Photo: Quelccaya_Glacier.jpg (Photo by Edubucher)

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Is It Better to Burn at the Stake?

I’m still in the middle of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. I’m far enough along that one of the central questions–maybe the central question–of the book is clear. The question is this: if Galileo had chosen to be martyred rather than to recant his pro-Copernican astronomical observations, would our society today be more pro-science, and less anti-intellectual and superstitious? Is Galileo’s recantation a turning point of history?

It is tough to see how that would work, how Galileo’s being burned at the stake would change the course of history. His astronomical observations were a matter of fact, of direct observation. As high resolution telescopes spread across the land, anyone and everyone could replicate Galileo’s observations of the moons of Jupiter and the phases of Venus. The Church’s forces could not win this argument, not in the long term.

They could, however, beat him down in the short term. They could shut him away, and forbid him from publishing, even if they could not change the truth. and the short term was what they cared about. They cared about discouraging others from shaking up the approved cosmology. Galileo’s enemies didn’t give a toss about the solar system, but they cared about protecting their position.

Challenge of authority is what martyrdom is about, and when the martyr finds the sacrifice necessary, it is to make that point, that they recognize a higher authority. Joan of Arc, Nathan Hale, John Brown–they confronted authority over ideas of religion, political sovereignty, and social justice. These are concepts, less tangible than Venus or Jupiter, and they could not trust time or reality to make the truth as they saw it plain.

Galileo had to know his truth would prevail. He may or may not have said, “Nevertheless, it moves,” but in fact, it–the Earth–does. The problem is that Galileo’s enemies are still with us. Some are in positions of power, and to them, control of “message” is more important than what is right before them. Religious doctrine assists Galileo’s enemies and their descendants. All of this has nothing whatsoever to do with spiritual connection with the First Cause of the Universe, and everything to do with adherence to rules, even when those rules no longer serve any purpose, and have become a hindrance.

An additional problem is that science is different now. In Robinson’s novel, Galileo is brought forward in time, and is exposed to the science of multiple dimensions, quantum mechanics, and so forth, which require observational techniques way beyond the common and simple act of picking up a telescope and pointing it to the sky. This difficulty aids those who would deny physical reality.

What is the difference between a martyr and a victim? Some, like suicide bombers, seek martyrdom. Others we might label martyrs, like Martin Luther King, Jr., do not seek to die, although they may see it as a possible outcome. Still others have no idea how much trouble they are getting themselves into. I believe Galileo fell into this category. He simply did not believe his enemies would want so badly to silence him, that they, or anyone, could see physical reality itself as a threat to their power.

He could not have believed his death would advance the cause of truth, and neither do I.

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The The Tar Tar Pits

I recently finished Eleanor Arnason’s Mammoths of the Great Plains, an alternate history novella in which the mammoth survives into the mid-twentieth century. Like all of Eleanor’s science fiction, it is more than plausible, it has me believing. And it is a very satisfying tale.

It also reminds me how I loved learning about the Ice Age here in Southern California. We studied it in third grade, at Rosewood Elementary School in Los Angeles. We visited The La Brea Tar Pits, i.e. The The Tar Tar pits, on a field trip, where we were taken on a tour. We saw skeletons, and we saw dioramas of an environment like today’s but wetter, colder, and way more exotic. (Oh yeah, and no great big city in the middle of it.) We learned how animals became trapped in the asphalt deposits between 11,000 and 55,000 years ago, thereby preserving their remains for posterity, which is us.

I wanted to go there. I wanted to time travel, to see the great mammals and birds of the last ice age.

One of my favorites was the dire wolf (Canis dirus), which is related to the modern timber wolf. I’m not certain there was all that much special about it wolf-wise, but I loved the name. I mean, a wolf already sounds a bit dire to me, you know?

The most popular animal among my classmates was probably the sabertoothed cat (Smiloden fatalis), which we erroneously called a sabertoothed tiger. It is not a tiger. It is more closely related to the bobcat, which we still see in these parts. The sabertoothed cat’s popularity extends beyond the third grade class at Rosewood; it is the official fossil of the State of California. And really, I think it has the hottest name after all. Smiloden fatalis? Fatal smile? You bet it had one.

Among our local herbivores here in SoCal Pleistocene times, I would love to have seen the extinct camel (Camelops hestemus). This camel more closely resembled the llama. According to the tar pit web site, modern-day camels evolved in the western hemisphere, and migrated across the land bridge to Asia.

Finally, I longed to see the western horse (Equus occidentalis). What young girl doesn’t want her very own horse?

There were lots of other animals, mastodons, bison, sloths, bears, turkeys, peccaries, American lions, tapirs, and mammoths. Some species from back then survive to this day: coyotes, bobcats, eagles, vultures, and termites. All those others, however, gone. Extinction saddened me as a child, and it saddens me as an adult. One must remark that the discovery of this fossil treasure-trove, at the end of the nineteenth century, happened as a result of oil drilling by the Hancock family, who owned the Rancho La Brea land. So. They drilled for oil, and found the fossils of extinct animals.

I would love to travel there, though. I would bring my camera. I would want to travel in comfort and safety. I would ask the time capsule operator to move away from the pits themselves, so that I wouldn’t have to watch the animals getting stuck, or hear their shrieks and cries. I wouldn’t want to see their suffering. I’m a typical tourist.

I would want to escape from the fact that time moves in a single direction, that the Pleistocene is no more, and that its inhabitants will never return. A reality I especially do not want to dwell upon the reality that my Pleistocene–my third-grade version of it–never existed, being as it was only a third-grader’s diorama without walls.

Oh well.

We can’t rewrite history, but we can re-imagine it. Mammoths of the Great Plains was a terrific re-imagining that took me down two alternate history paths–both Eleanor Arnason’s and my own.

Note: I researched tar pit facts on, which is the official La Brea Tar Pit website.


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