Oct 4 2011 12:30pm

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.

This article is part of Steampunk Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
John Ginsberg-Stevens
1. eruditeogre
It would be great if alternate histories set in non-Western cultures made folks go and enlighten themselves about the wider world. I think the background history idea is a great one because it does make it somewhat easier for readers to go find out more, can bring more people to your site, and hopefully start conversations around the book and the historical issues it brings up.
Jaymee Goh
2. Jha
I remember reading Susan Johnson's historical romances, and she would always always have these inane battle scenes filled with history textbook dates of whatever battle happening when with what outcome, and they'd be interspersed between chapters. I always skipped them.

BUT! She ALSO tended to have footnotes, especially if she was riffing off an actual historical figure for actual characters/protagonists. Because those extraneous details were relevant to the plot I was reading, I loved those footnotes a lot, and after the first pass of reading, would re-read and take my time checking out footnotes. I don't know if other people feel the same way though.

Scott Westerfeld has afterwords in his Leviathan books that explain how his books deviate from history, what he drew from, and so forth, which is useful for audiences as a platform to do further research.

When I wrote "Between Islands," I didn't add any extra footnoting or whatever, because I was writing it for a Malaysian audience who would understand, straight off, what's being referenced. I wrote a blog post explaining it because I was bored and wanted to talk about my work, although it enables non-Malaysian audiences to understand. So the question of audience plays in the decision too.
Alex C. Telander
3. Alex C. Telander
You raised some very good points here, and I prefer to find stories not set in the familiar western world as there are so many of those. But the reason I'd be more likely to pick up one of these books would because of both the alternate history aspect, but also the historical one of being curious about the period and perhaps not knowing too much about it.

I believe the easiest way to get your point across to the period would be to have a foreword of a couple of pages briefly going over the real history, and then do something like: "But in 'Heart of Iron' the history was changed," or something to that effect. And then to have some afterword in the back leading readers to your site for more background. That way they at least have the framework of the events and history to understand what you did differently.
Alex C. Telander
4. Natenanimous
I like the idea of a foreword consisting of a few pages briefly outlining what the real history was, noting that this history is different, and providing a link to the website where more detailed information can be found. I think this strikes a good balance between publisher convenience and reader convenience, though of course a burden of extra work falls to the writer. I think this would be the best way to make sure as many readers as possible feel comfortable approaching the story.
Alex C. Telander
5. Ki
One of my favorite traditions, as soon as I finish a historical fiction or alternate history book, is to hie myself to Wikipedia and find out what really happened. If an author is so good as to list other resources in a bibliography or afterward, you can bet I'll be checking up on those, too. Many readers read to expand their minds as well as to entertain themselves, and I love a book that opens up a new world to me. And if I'm a little confused to begin with, the reread is only that much better. :)
Alex C. Telander
6. PhoenixFalls
I like all of these options, personally; I have no problem hitting up Wikipedia when something confuses me (and I'd probably expect to have to head over there if I knew the setting was unfamiliar to me), but I also have no problem with the writer making my task easier by providing bibliographies, footnotes, forewords/afterwords, and stuff on their website. Of them all I suspect my favorite is the website route. . . gives me insight into both the history AND the writer's thought process. . . :)
Alex C. Telander
7. Polenth
I fine with doing my own research if something doesn't make sense, but I'm also already interested in reading books set in other places. Persuading someone who is hesitant is a different thing. A foreword seems like a good idea, as readers can skip it if they don't need it... but it'll give a bit of background for those that do need it.
Alex C. Telander
8. A Jablokov
I think you overestimate how much most readers know about the history of their "familiar western milieu". That's why most writers stick to alternate WWII or Civil Wars, stock characters like Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and Mark Twain, or, as you say, standard-issue steampunk variants of a past that's really odder than moderns give it credit for. So you would have the same problem if you started with an alternate Treaty of Ghent or give Napoleon III a different career.

The real secret? Good jacket copy. And a warning up front that no student should use your book as a crib for acing a test on 19th century Russian history.
Dominic Wellington
9. riotnrrd
The facile, not to say lazy, use of the term "Western" to mean "US and UK" is something that bugs me enormously. As A Jablokov at #8 says, most readers have little to no idea of history outside of their national borders. I would be willing to bet quite large sums of money that most readers would not be able to tell whether the Grand Duke of Tuscany was a real figure or not, or in which period his presence would indicate anachronism.

That said, I do think that if the point of the book is the story, then it should work regardless of how much of the setting is understood. Some sort of resource explaining the references and in-jokes is good to have as an add-on, but I have some doubts about how many readers will actually access that material.

For myself, I love info-dumps, whether in Neal Stephenson or (to stay with the Tuscan theme) Alessandro Manzoni, so I would find it perfectly acceptable even to explain it in-line somehow, but many readers, my own wife included, find these lengthy asides a turn-off from an otherwise enjoyable read, to the point of not finishing the book.
Alex C. Telander
10. Foxessa
Historians hope that those trying to find out the events and causes of historical events with which the reader is unfamiliar will check other sources beyond wiki, which often does not get things right and / or leaves out essential information.
Sarah Purssell
11. TimeGirl
I always liked Bernard Cornwell's historical notes at the end of his books which filled in the superfluous-to-story details and explained anything that had been changed to incorporate Sharpe and the others. I definitely like the idea of something similar in alternative history. For me these notes often inspired me to go on to do my own research where just reading historical novels didn't.
Alex C. Telander
12. kev mcveigh
The issue of how much the reader can be expected to know and what needs explained is not just an issue in Alternative History but I agree it can be tricky to handle. It can also work the other way, what happens if the reader knows too much? Changes in Alternative History ought to be made for a reason and with some kind of internal logic. I had issues with Peter Ackroyd's The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein over its seemingly arbitrary historical rearrangements http://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2011/09/17/the-casebook-of-victor-frankenstein-peter-ackroyd/ An intriguing novel spoiled by a clumsy, kitchen sink approach, and it seems to me that much steampunk suffers the same way. At its best there is a reasoned change point, and the world is extrapolated from there. Unfortunately I often feel that I'm reading Victoriana with gadgets bolted on, with no conception of the historical consequences involved.
Alex C. Telander
13. Ikke

Finally someone who doesn't think that Steampunk means Victorian!

The effect you describe (readers do know more about the Western world) probably caused why Steampunk is so strongly related to the Victorian era. However, after a while, it becomes a little boring. Exploring these (for us, inhabitants of the Western world) foreign cultures in a altarnate/Steampunk-setting can be something totally different.
Alex C. Telander
14. kev mcveigh
It's also worth noting that some big name authors don't come close even with mainstream western history. Connie Willis' shoddy research and total ignorance of aspects of British culture and history make Blackout/All Clear not just flawed but desperately bad books. Readers and critics alike seem not to care judging by the Awards results, and criticism from Brits is widely dismissed as irrelevant, so are you flogging a dead horse here?
James Smith
15. nelsonjames
@#8. I think you're right. One of my favorite bits from the comedian Eddie Izzard is from the NYC show when he makes a comment about Lafayette, and then realizes that the majority of the audience didn't get the joke and makes the quip "Don't you even know your own history?" It's terrifically funny, but true. The same can be said of SF fans who do read alternate history. (I consider all Hollywood attempts at historicals to be alternate history and immediately go to wikipedia to find out the truth.) I think most prefer to make it up wholecloth and just go for the fantasy, but even then the ignorance of any historical perspective shines through even when that perspective focuses on western culture. For example, many western steampunk fans couldn't name 5 non-white persons of note in Victorian England during the period. Most assume there were none, and the writers and filmmakers choosing to work in this genre aren't doing much to enlighten them.
Alex C. Telander
16. Chris Berman
I think Ms. Sedia makes an excellent point. As a military historian and science ficiton-alternate history writer myself, reseach into proper historical and cultural settings is imperitive. A few of my own works, including my book Das Bell, are set in Eastern Europe, but I have an advantage here in having lived in Ukraine for about 6 months and that my wife is Russian-Ukrainian. When I set out to write an alternate history or historical fiction, I attack the research as if it were a nonfiction project.

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