[GUEST POST] Peter Higgins on Alternate History of the Disreputable Kind (+ Giveaway!)


Peter Higgins read English at Oxford University and Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. He was a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford and worked in the British Civil Service. His short stories have appeared in Fantasy: Best of the Year 2007, Best New Fantasy 2, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fantasy Magazine, Zahir and Revelation, and in Russian translation in the St Petersburg magazine Esli. His alternate history novel Wolfhound Century is out now in paperback and the sequel, Truth and Fear, it out next month.

Alternate History of the Disreputable Kind

by Peter Higgins

There’s a kind of alternate history which, for the sake of argument, I want to call respectable. The kind that has a Point of Departure, and apart from that one POD, everything is obedient to the rules of recognizability. There’s a frisson of pleasure in the familiarity, the nearness to truth, the kiss of its world against ours. Yes, it could have been like this. This kind of alternate history really is very respectable now. Pulitzer Prize winners write it. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

And then there’s another kind of alternate history, and I want to call it disreputable. It’s not the counterfactual historian’s history. It’s something different. It’s the past as imaginative space, memory space, atmosphere: a place where histories and fictions, realities and fantasies, myths and legends, emotions and desires, morph and jumble and jostle in serious play. All is real and everything is possible in this marvellous junk shop. It’s a carnival.

Michael Moorcock’s Elizabethan England in Gloriana: Or, The Unfulfill’d Queen, for example, remakes not just the historical period, but also earlier fictional versions of that world from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene of the 1590s to Virginia Woolf’s time-hopping and gender-swapping Orlando of 1928. Fearlessly mucking about with works of high literature, Moorcock shoves them together and reappropriates them for his own use. Fictions are real and history is fiction. Instead of dark, troubled, warring Christianity, you get Zeus and Thor and Mithras. Real Elizabethans rub shoulders with versions of historical figures from other periods loosed from their own time streams. The 19th century cabbalist Cagliostro. A man called Adolphus Hiddler. This is art that consumes both the factual and the fictional past and recycles it all as raw material. It’s a process of plundering. A kind of purposeful freedom.

Gloriana is disreputable fun, but it also tells a vivid truth about the Elizabethan period, which really was a world of cabbalists and spies, adventurers and would-be magicians. The Elizabethans’ own literature was all about picking out fragments of history, fiction and myth and remixing them. Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the Elizabethan fiction that’s Moorcock’s biggest single influence in Gloriana, was the first full-on secondary-world epic fantasy in English, and also its first disreputable alternate history. It’s got a giant brass robot that pursues its victims, unrelenting as the Terminator. An android woman made of wire and coal and snow. Elizabeth’s courtiers are re-shaped into the knights of Arthur. And the real Elizabeth gave Spenser a handsome pension for the rest of his life for writing it.

In the alternative Victoriana and Edwardiana of The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Alan Moore turns on a world-generator that out-Moorcocks Moorcock. In the world of the League there’s no distinction between the histories and the fictions of the past. You want Allan Quatermain? You want a Bram Stoker vampire? You want the stories of Jules Verne and H G Wells to be real? You’ve got them. Moore builds an entire disreputable history for the League’s Britain, tracing its origin (like Spenser did in The Faerie Queene) back to the fall of Troy

Moorcock and Moore may be hardcore wild boys of disreputable alternate history, but it’s a current that flows wide and deep. In the behemoth tidal wave of sword and sorcery and epic fantasy from Robert E Howard and Fritz Leiber and Tolkien to now, the histories and cultures and geographies of Britain and Europe have been mapped and remapped, imagined and reimagined, times beyond count. Realms and princedoms come and go. Princes and assassins and adventurers. Wizards and dragons and warriors. Middle Earths and Hyborian Ages. Smashed up and remade over and over again. We all know this wonderful world. Fantasyland.

And then there’s GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which disreputably reconnects fantasyland with the history it grew from. History and fantasyland are remixed into one bottomless well of story. Other writers in fantasyland that do similar things. Guy Gavriel Kay. Mary Gentle. Robin Hobb.

Why do this? Why the disreputable take on history, these twists and turns of re-imagination, building worlds where all is real and all is possible? Gay Gavriel Kay has written about stripping away prejudice and assumptions. Clearing out the detail to get at what really matters. Releasing emotional directness and universalizing story. The complexity and ambivalence of the past is turned into myth and legend. Adventures of good and evil.

This kind of writing is inventive and disobedient, but it’s often also seriously purposeful. The world-building mix of reality and fiction, history and myth and legend (and the genre-mixing that goes with it) is put to use in the Cantos of Ezra Pound; T S Eliot’s The Waste Land; Homer’s Odyssey, which is the grandparent of them all. Allan Moore’s Watchmen plays games with alternate history and superheroes, but it has serious things to say about the urge to violence in fantasies of crime fighting and cold thermonuclear dread.

Conventional historians’ history is a site of power struggle: competing factions claim the sanctification of exclusive truth for their version of the past; nationalists build national histories into powerful myths that demand assent; the more oppressive the political regime, the more they try to control the version of history their populace is taught. Disreputable alternate histories have a kind of liberating endlessness. They’re (sometimes despite themselves) radically anti-authoritarian. They are in their nature disobedient; they reshape the maps and rename cities, blur and distort timelines and change outcomes for their own purposes. Where reputable alternate history respects the machine but changes its settings, fictions of the disreputable kind dispense with the idea that there’s a single machine at all. They open up inexhaustible sources of new story, and each story offers a kind of truth, never claiming it’s the only one.

Always epic in scope, disreputable alternate history seems to flourish in times when old certainties are coming apart: periods of white-hot social and technological change and the aftermath of wars, when conventional history struggles to tell us where we are. As our own world changes and we move forward into strange territories, as the digital age cuts us off from our analogue, Cold War past, the process is going faster and faster. Steampunk morphs into dieselpunk and atompunk.

Norman Davies’s inspired factual history, Vanished Kingdoms, excavates the real stories of some of the lost realms of Europe. Its maps resemble maps of Westeros or the Hyborian Age. It’s an atlas of elsewhere, tracing the empires and dynasties which have slipped from reality and entered a kind of fantasyland. Burgundia. Borussia. Rosenau. And new countries are appearing on the maps all the time. Real time rolls on, and remembered periods and places become accessible only to the imagination. They sink into the past and rise again. Vanished Kingdoms concludes with CCCP. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is the most recent empire to vanish from the presen world and begin to transform itself into dark fierce memory.

Every author gathers around them works by other writers, building their own histories and traditions, rethinking for themselves the genres out of which they write. The books I’ve mentioned here are some I’ve gathered about me. I’ve put some others on the bookshelves of my website. The kind of 20th century history that finds its way into my books Wolfhound Century and Truth and Fear is seriously disreputable.


GIVEAWAY (US/Canada): Win a Copy of WOLFHOUND CENTURY by Peter Higgins

Courtesy of Orbit Books, SF Signal has 5 paperback copies of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins to give away to 5 lucky SF Signal readers!

Here’s what the book is about

Investigator Vissarion Lom has been summoned to the capital in order to catch a terrorist — and ordered to report directly to the head of the secret police.

A totalitarian state, worn down by an endless war, must be seen to crush home-grown insurgents with an iron fist. But Lom discovers Mirgorod to be more corrupted than he imagined: a murky world of secret police and revolutionaries, cabaret clubs and doomed artists.

Lom has been chosen because he is an outsider, not involved in the struggle for power within the party. And because of the sliver of angel stone implanted in his head.

Here’s how you can enter for a chance to win:

  1. Send an email to contest at sfsignal dot com. (That’s us).
  2. In the subject line, enter “Wolfhound Century
  3. Please provide a mailing address in the email so the books can be sent as soon as possible. (The winning address is used only to mail the prize. All other address info will be purged once the giveaway ends.)
  4. Geographic restrictions: This giveaway is only open to residents of the U.S. and Canada.
  5. The giveaway will end Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 (9:00 PM U.S. Central time). The winners will be selected at random, notified, and announced shortly thereafter.

Good luck!

2 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Peter Higgins on Alternate History of the Disreputable Kind (+ Giveaway!)”

  1. I like this idea splitting Alt Histories into reputable and disreputable. A keen observation, that.

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