Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Which is more fun: Alternate Earth/History or Brand-new Land?

One thing that's come about as I write and conceive my steampunk tale is where to set the story. Right now, it's an alternate Earth, not yet in the 20th Century, but with steampowered trains as well as airships and other SFnal crafts. Originally, I thought of creating an entirely new land, complete with different names for cities, land masses, and history. Gradually, I've begun to think of creating an alt-Earth with alt-history.

Which do you prefer? Do you like seeing freshly-conceived worlds with new ideas, characters, cities, creatures, etc. Or do you like seeing known historical figures/concepts in a different manner?

As a historian, I'll admit that I tend to prefer the latter, alternate history. I like seeing how authors/filmmakers create interesting "what ifs" in history. I also think alternate history can be easier for the author, to be sure, but also the reader. Abraham Lincoln is pretty much going to be the same no matter what alt-Earth you place him in, right?

Okay, y'all's turn.


  1. I think it all depends on how the particular bits work together. If an alternate history piece shows a great deal of originality and plucks the mental strings about the possibilities, then I love it. I think that depth is the key.

  2. I'm writing a serial novel at RGR that plays on a variation of a theme; it's a far future thing where Earth's genuine history appears as something that happened 'long ago in a galaxy far, far away' so the genuine history of Earth exists but plays a little like myth, and where Earth's history and myth mash-up in the retelling. Furthermore, since it's another place and another time, I'm also creating my own place and language and beasts and phrases. Earth things are there if I need them, but as distant history seen as through a mirror darkly.

  3. Doug - I agree. Depth is key to pretty much any creative endeavor. What I enjoy doing is dropping little references here and there, allowing me to give a backstory that I can fill in later, if I want to.

    Phy - I think I've seen your story. I'm going to start reading it. And I like that concept, where the history we know is now myth. I like that. And, I see you are a tech writer. You and me both.

  4. The alternative history makes world building easier. Harry Turtledove is a pro at this and I like reading his work.

    My second manuscript has an alternative history that I've been working at bit by bit.

  5. I enjoy a completely concocted world when it's done well, but even some of those often seem to come off as alternate Earths.

    While I'm all for "infinite diversity in infinite combinations," I really appreciate alternate Earths where the differences seems subtle, but unfold for the audience into more obvious differences. One of the few things that "Sliders" got right was their idea that in all the alternate Earths, many things were the same. I think that grounding the audience in the familiar makes the speculative aspects all the more believable or digestable. The focus is intensified on the character, action, and whatever is 'alternate.'

    Props to the world-builders, though, who have the added challenge of making it familiar enough but seemingly new. For instance, I always loved how the Star Trek universe was a melting pot of aliens based on various Earth cultures/ethnicities/movements. For those not otherwise interested in or simply unaware of the world around them, ST proffers a palette of humanity, and the stranger the aliens seem, the more they speak to humanity's significant issues.

    I think you can imbue a red, spherical being with a conscience, place it in a semi-transparent polygon-based crystal world, and then proceed to tell the most human of stories. Setting does not make the story, but if you've a Dickensian bent for exposition, better to take it out on the setting than the character and plot, IMHO.

  6. Barbara - As a history major, I have always loved alt-history. I'm inclined to think that alt-history is more like what Robesque mentions: slight differences rather than radical changes.

    Robesque - As you know, I've never seen "Sliders" but it'll eventually get on my list. What I like about ST is their ability to explain things with 20th-Century definitions. Ditto concepts where they'd list two Earth-bound persons and then a third alien one.

  7. I've tried to read some Harry Turtledove and found it dreadfully boring. While being a history buff I like the concept of alternative history-- in practice I found Turtledove to be so mired in details that I quickly grew bored and gave up on each book of his that I attempted to read (The Two Georges co-written with Richard Dreyfuss, and How Few Remain).

    That's just one author though-- and I'm not going to condemn a whole genre for my issues with one author. I have enjoyed Robert Harris's Fatherland and C.S.A. by Howard Means. Although I found the latter of the two books a bit more implausible.

    I'd like to have a crack at some of Aussie writer, John Birmingham's alternative history books at some point as well.

    As for Sliders, the first 2 seasons and about half of the third season were pretty good... But when they brought in the "Cro-Mags" it just got too convoluted.

    The show should have ended after season 4, but they opted for a 5th season even after the O'Connell brothers (Jerry & Charlie) left the show.