Steampunk Week

Challenges of Writing Alternate History Set in Other Cultures

Steampunk and alternate history have a lot in common; in fact, one might conceptualize steampunk as a branch of alternate history (at least, the steampunk set in the real world.) As such, we accept that some sort of change has occurred in the real world to cause a departure resulting in all sorts of exciting gadgetry and possibly airship pirates. While dealing with steampunk set in Victorian England or the United States, most western readers can easily recognize the references, and have at least some sort of an idea of what the original was like – and that enables them to spot the differences popping up in the steampunk-y alternate past.

As someone who writes steampunk set outside of the familiar western milieu, I find it extremely challenging – because many readers do not have a very detailed picture of Russian or Chinese real history, one of the images required to make a comparison to spot the differences is either vague or missing, and I found with my work that this lack of a clear image tends to draw criticism along the lines of “I’m not sure what alternate history element was and why it mattered.”

When I wrote my alternate-history adventure Heart of Iron, I decided the point of departure would be a Decembrist rebellion that actually succeeded. From there, I painstakingly extrapolated possible social and political effects: freed serfs create a surplus of employable labor that can be occupied to increase industrialization and railroad building, all in line with liberal reformism of the new Emperor Constantin; early railroads resulting in Transsiberian railroad leading to strengthening ties with China, which at the time was between the two Opium wars and in the middle of Taiping rebellion; education and property reforms after a British model to feed Constantin’s presumed Anglomania, etc…. But I found that because it was an unfamiliar setting, many readers and reviewers weren’t sure where, exactly, the history had been altered.

And unlike a novel set in a secondary (imaginary) world, there is no useful way of working this information into the book: alternate history explicitly relies on readers’ pre-existing knowledge. There’s simply no place to say “well, in real world, the Decembrists lost, and the Crimean War actually took place without Chinese involvement.” This information has to be extraneous to the story and thus there is no way to ensure that the reader will receive this information.

To make matters more complicated, for a writer who is not herself from the US, the frames of reference are going to be different by necessity, thus further increasing the rift between the writer and the reader. For example, Spring-Heeled Jack may be familiar to steampunk and historical readers, but it takes a different frame of reference to understand the importance of my heroine at university, much less the presence of the Chinese students who become her friends.

However, there are ways to address the problem. First, a writer can rely on readers to find out the necessary information. It requires no extra investment of time on the writer’s part, and leaves the reader in charge of their reading experience. The downside, of course, is that many readers want to be lost in the story and not distracted by the need to constantly Google one thing or another.
Secondly, the writer could provide a bibliography, offering some guidance to readers who want to find necessary information. It still requires a significant effort from the reader, and the effort might not be worth the experience. Since many people read for entertainment, providing a bibliography may seem excessive.

Thirdly, the writer can offer supplementary material on her website. This is the path I have personally chosen (the background history section is still under construction, but there is a series of blog posts explicating certain issues I thought were interesting and/or could prove to be a stumbling block for many readers). The downside, of course, is that it still requires the readers to go looking for the information, even though it is conveniently aggregated in one place (also a good place for a bibliography, should you desire to include one). It also requires a significant time investment on part of the writer – external to actually writing a book.

And finally, one could write an appendix for the book itself. It will of course place an additional burden not only on the writer, but also the publisher and the editors; some fact-checking would probably be necessary on the editor’s part, and the increase in page count would be a consideration for the publisher. This is, however, the easiest way to access information for the reader, and avoids any potential confusion regarding matters discussed above. It is an approach I intend to try should I ever write another alternate history book.

None of the methods is ideal, of course, but I feel that at the very least making information more accessible will encourage some readers to try books set in milieus and histories foreign to them – a subject some would perhaps be reluctant to approach otherwise. But what do the readers think? What can writers do to make unfamiliar alternate histories more accessible and more welcoming, and to help the readers to recognize points of departure and alternate history elements?


Ekaterina Sedia is the author of several novels, including The Secret History of Moscow, Heart of Iron, and The Alchemy of Stone. Visit her website here.

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