Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Best and the Worst Alternate Histories

Another post from the vaults, which I'm rapidly burning through. (Hope my schedule settles down soon.) I vaguely remember being told I was misrepresenting Pavane; that "the Holocaust" referred to in that book was some other event. Even if that's true, a writer would have to be monumentally tone-deaf to write and publish a story in the mid-20th century with a different referent for "the Holocaust." So I stand by what I said: it has some very nice pieces, but fails as a book. This was originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written 11/23/00, as part of a general discussion:

For my money, the very best Alternate History book (it's not really a novel) is Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail,which masquerades as a serious work of history of the world in which Burgoyne won at Saratoga and thus the (US) Revolution was nipped in the bud.

But I think tastes in AH may be even more divergent than in other subgenres, since the suspension of disbelief is so integrally tied to one's knowledge of real history (and, often, to one's political and/or philosphical beliefs.) For example, I'll agree that Bring the Jubilee is a wonderfully written book, but I just couldn't believe the world it was set in (the South simply didn't have enough young white men to police the areas they were supposed to have controlled -- let alone enough power to keep down the industrialized North for that long). That kind of "I don't believe it" reaction is enough to completely doom an AH.

In a more severe case, I recently read Pavane, which has its own problems of believability (the effect -- Catholic domination of the whole damn world for just about forever -- seems greater than justified by the cause -- the assassination of Queen Elizabeth I and the subsequent Spanish conquest of England). The individual stories are all excellent, but they don't quite add up to a novel. But the epilogue ruins the entire book! We learn that this entire history was deliberately created by time- and/or universe-travelling busybodies who decided that four hundred years of Inquisition, intolerance, deaths in childbirth and witch-hunts (not to mention what must have been a very bloody series of wars to re-Catholicize northern Europe) was preferable to the Holocaust. Leaving aside the pure self-important smugness of that sort of moral calculus to begin with, I simply insist that this created history actually has more people suffering for longer, more people dying. I'd thought the book was a flawed masterpiece before the epilogue; now I just want to get its taste out of my mouth.

I expect others will strongly disagree on those two specific books, but that was my main point.


Anonymous said...

I may just have been isolated in hickville, Ontario but I could swear that I didn't hear the term "holocaust" used as a name for the Nazi genocides until the late 1970s.

Anonymous said...

As I understood the epilogue, the elves were not time-travellers.

Human history is cyclic. The elves did not go back in time. They kept history from repeating EXACTLY, which is what would otherwise have happened.

There was no explanation of how many times (infinite?) the world had been bombed back to the beginning of the Stone Age. No explanation of what the elves were, and how they were able to retain their knowledge of what had gone before.

Paul Weimer said...

The Elves did seem very much like a Deus Ex Machina at the end of Pavane, which sort of jarred me out of the book.

When they invoked Passchendaele, I was mightily confused.

Post a Comment