If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be New Colonia

The hubbub over Confederate has spurred Amazon to reveal that they’ve been developing a new alternate-history series of their own which likewise has its point of divergence in the 19th century:

In the back story of “Black America,” the Confederacy was defeated. But instead of enduring the painful eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow, African-Americans received reparations. The former slaves and freedmen claimed Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, a nation known as New Colonia.

That nation has a “tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship” with the United States, which is described as both an ally and a foe.

Black utopianism? Now that’s what I’m talking about!

I have to wonder if Black America is a replacement for The Man in the High Castle, which is entering its third (and final?) season. Regardless, the possibility of independent nations occupying the geography of the real-life Lower 48 is an alt-hist concept I adore — I’ve used it more than once in my short fiction. Amazon, you had my curiosity but now you have my attention.

No Bad Ideas

Last week Variety reported that HBO is developing a replacement for Game of Thrones: a counterfactual drama wherein the Confederacy successfully seceded. Suddenly everybody has strong opinions about alternate history!

“Confederate” chronicles the events leading to the Third American Civil War. The series takes place in an alternate timeline, where the southern states have successfully seceded from the Union, giving rise to a nation in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution. The story follows a broad swath of characters on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone – freedom fighters, slave hunters, politicians, abolitionists, journalists, the executives of a slave-holding conglomerate and the families of people in their thrall.

My Twitter TL was awash in negative reactions, many of them authored by GoT fans. The sexy-time adventures of Dumblesticks the diddling dwarf? A-OK! But grays exiting the USA? NO WAY!

Wait a minute, you say. Isn’t there a popular what-if miniseries on Amazon Prime that posits an Axis victory over the US, based on an award-winning novel by Philip K. Dick that even has its own amazing album produced by Danger Mouse? Maybe HBO is trying to make a couple of Reichsmarks on the same sort of idea?

Nope! But don’t take my word for it — here’s TeenVogue, of all outlets, to piss on your Land O’Smiles:

To some, the existence of The Man in the High Castle effectively voids any initial criticisms people have regarding Confederate because they believe both shows are essentially the same. But to adopt that stance is to be woefully uneducated about the reality of how both events have been handled historically, in their nations and throughout the globe.

You see, the Germans are totally sorry for the Holocaust whereas Americans are like totally not sorry for slavery! That’s why a show such as Confederate is nicht gut! What are you, woefully uneducated? God!

To be fair, the reason why Man in the High Castle is well received and the mere suggestion of Confederate isn’t may be because the latter hits a little too close to home. After all, I’m unaware of any Nazis-win-the-war shows coming out of Germany. On the other hand, the fact that High Castle‘s point of divergence occurred more recently — there are still people alive who experienced the 1930s and 40s — suggests that familiarity isn’t the whole explanation either.

Now if you’ve just slid from the timeline where this blog is a one long string of poop emojis and you’ve never read my writing before, let me be glacially clear: the Civil War was initiated by bellicose and arrogant slave-owners for horrible, selfish, and stupid reasons. Outmanned and outindustrialized from the get-go, the Confederacy never had a chance of winning, and the fact the war lasted as long as it did is due less to any effort by the rebels than to confusion and Federal mismanagement early in the conflict.

That said, it’s certainly symptomatic of social-media’s outrage culture that the simple idea of a fictionalized southern secession drove folks to stuff the Internet’s complaint box.

Many of those instant-coffee Turtledoves seem unaware of the deep library of Civil War-based alt-hist literature already out there. How Few Remain alone spawned ten sequels. There’s Robert Conroy’s 1862. I can recommend Terry Bisson’s odd little novel, Fire on the Mountain. The most well-known is undoubtedly The Guns of the South. And most recently there’s Ben Winters’s 2016 novel Underground Airlines, nominated for several prizes. So many trees have been killed on the subject you need an entire page on Wikipedia to keep them straight, and I have to wonder if HBO, like Amazon, would be better off adapting and expanding an existing book rather than generating an IP whole cloth.

Among alt-hist writers, in fact, the what-if-the-South-seceded trope is so common it’s cliche. The first two alt-hist stories I ever wrote involved the Civil War. “Galveston” has Johnny Reb trying to enlist an independent Texas to the Lost Cause, while “Glorieta Pass” posits an underground abolitionist resistance in the post-secession territories. If those concepts sound familiar it’s because they are — I look back on those stories now and cringe at their banality. That recognition pushed me to write better stories.

But here’s the thing, a lesson that any true creative can tell you: It’s not the idea, it’s the execution. A monster terrorizing a group of people is the plot of countless schlocky horror movies but only one of those films is Jaws. For every million landscapes painted there’s The Starry Night. Every book or movie or artistic endeavor is, at it’s core, conceptually the same as something else, some other work.

Confederate hardly has a monopoly on iffiness. Hey! Wanna hear my pitch for a show about a bunch of inmates in a WW2 POW camp? It’s like The Great Escape only it’s a sitcom where the Nazis are a bunch of buffoons and the one guy goes, “I know nothing!” a lot! It’s funny because he’s fat and has a mustache! Ha ha!

And yet if you turn on TV Land or dig deep enough into your television’s channel guide, you can watch the execution of that concept right now, still in syndication years later.

The point is, it’s not so much the elevator pitch that matters, it’s how an individual work is rendered that distinguishes it. It wasn’t the ideas for my stories that stunk. It was my execution of them.

Personally I’m a hundred times more excited to watch Jordan Peele’s production of Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed here, BTW) than I am Confederate. Maybe Confederate will be terrible, in which case viewers will be sure to let HBO know. Maybe, like High Castle, it will be brilliant.

But it’s a little rich for dorks who nerd out over E.L. James-scribed Dungeon & Dragons fanfic to shut down an idea before it even steps across the drawbridge. It’s even more ignorant for some of those same people to be writers and artists. They ought to know better.

Down on the Rio Grande

Altered AmericaMy story “Rio Grande” appears in the new alternate-history anthology, Altered America. Gambling gunfighter Lorenzo seeks vengeance against a card sharp in the Republic of the Rio Grande, an independent country based on the economic principles of Frederic Bastiat:

“When the Republicans defeated the Mexican army at Morales, everyone knew it was only a matter of time before Mexico tried again. They realized our little breakaway estado could only be held by force. Force means men. So they encouraged homesteading to grow the population. They tried various policies for a few years but nothing worked. Everyone wanted to go to California instead. Finally President Jordan discovered the writings of a French philosopher named Bastiat. This philosopher advocated free exchange. No taxes. No tariffs. No customs. A strictly confined government. ‘Law is organized justice,’ said the philosopher — anything beyond that is perversion. So they scrapped everything and started over with a new constitution based on his writings and principles. They advertised it in all the eastern newspapers. Cheap land. Live tariff free. Women can vote. And where there are women, there are men and soon enough children who grow up to defend against Mexico. Then there weren’t enough branches in the trees to beat back the settlers.”

“But how do you pay for the judges and the marshals? Who builds the courthouses?”

“The philosopher wasn’t against taxes so much as their unfair and arbitrary application,” said Valasquez. “So to keep everyone honest, there are none to begin with. Citizens can make donations. But that’s exactly how Jordan managed to convince his caudillo supporters to agree to the constitution. It meant only self-sufficient people could afford to be judges and marshals.”

“Only the wealthy, you mean.”

“How is that worse than America?”

Alien Space Bats maybe, but I’ve often wondered why banana-republic rebellions usually take such a distinctly left-hand turn. The answer, I suppose, is Marxism’s empty pledge to eliminate the elite classes, a mistake based on the assumption that class derives from economic systems rather than being a natural by-product of state-level civilization.

In any event, “Rio Grande” isn’t for or against libertarianism so much as it is a stab at that most pernicious of modern ideologies, utopianism. Earlier this week at Reason.com, author Anne Fortier noted the power of historical fiction:

To the freedom-friendly novelist, one further advantage of historical fiction is that the entire history of mankind is jam-packed with tragic examples of what Hayek called “the fatal conceit” and the corrupting effects of power — especially state power.

It’s worth reading her whole essay, though I’m not sure what business Fortier has throwing speculative fiction under the bus after writing a whole book about a mythological matriarchy (for all of her self-satisfaction, it seems Fortier hasn’t learned that genre — the difference of where you’re shelved in the bookstore — is simply packaging). But she’s right: history shows that power disparities are inevitable once a certain complexity of social organization is reached, and the key is not a false promise of eradicating those disparities but rather blunting power so that it does the least harm.

You can purchase the whole anthology here — I’m happy to report the Kindle edition has seen a steady burn of sales since its release — or read my complete story for free here. And if you enjoyed the antho, please leave a review at Amazon or Goodreads!

 

Full Steam Ahead

Reacting to IBM’s prediction that steampunk will reach the tipping point in 2013, Alternate History Weekly Update notes that, like it or not, corsets and goggles are the visible standard-bearers for the entire genre of historical what-iffiness:

Business News reported that IBM predicted steampunk will be the next major fashion trend in 2013. They based their prediction by having a supercomputer (presumably not a steam powered Babbage Analytical Engine) analyze “more than half a billion public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources.”

IBM and, frankly, most people don’t distinguish between steampunk the visual-arts movement, steampunk the sartorial movement, and steampunk the literary movement, nor consider how much overlap between the three really exists. Cinematically I think saturation has already occurred; just as time travel was once a very explicit subset of science fiction but is now a common plot device in mainstream television, tropes like airships in the sky to telegraph an alternate reality (e.g., Doctor Who, Fringe) will continue to be absorbed into popular consciousness. I certainly welcome renewed interest in Nouveau style and Craftsman architecture and furnishings, but those stand on their own. As for fashion, I’m skeptical of who’s chasing whose tail. Designers may embrace Victorian callbacks like high boots and snug bodices — or even mirror steampunk’s notorious mix of 19th-century décolletage with 21st-century gam — but looking around at the women of New York and Connecticut, I’m certain any similarities occur independent of a cosplay community. Using steampunk as a marketing gimmick is different than drawing inspiration from it — an obvious deficiency of a metric designed simply to count buzzwords.

But will supposed popular interest in steampunk extend to what initially began as a literary trend? Magic 8-Ball says Outlook not so good. I doubt I’m alone when I question if alternate-history’s poster child has sunk to self-parody; for every VanderMeer collection, twenty girl-on-girl steampunk anthologies inundate Amazon. Meanwhile, some editors report a scarcity of appropriate material for their pubs. Would anyone not already a heavy spec-fiction reader pick up a Cherie Priest novel? Forget Main Street — has anyone already involved in steampunk ever read a Jeff Barlough novel? My guess is that the biggest in-roads are being made in the Young Adult market.

I’ve no reason to complain if steampunk as a whole has raised the profile of alternate history, regardless of whether the written variety — or at least, the inventive written variety — will ever be ubiquitous enough to reach a general audience. So chatter it up, Internets! And then go hit the Kindle store.

An Interview With Jeffrey E. Barlough

Over at Black Gate, you can read my interview with Jeffrey Barlough, author of the long-running Western Lights series of alternate-history novels.

There’s nothing out there on the shelves like Jeffrey Barlough’s Western Lights novels. The series — called such because “the sole place on earth where lights still shine at night is in the west” — is a bouillabaisse of mystery, ghost story, and post-apocalyptic gaslamp fantasy. His seventh and most recent book, What I Found at Hoole, was published in November.

Dr. Barlough, who moonlights as a veterinary physician, kindly spoke to me about the world-building of the Western Lights, his latest project, and which Ice Age animal he’d most like to meet in a dark alley.

Barlough has flown under the radar for far too long; in a just universe, steampunk convention-goers would be cosplaying his characters and dressing up their pets as woolly mammoths. Here’s hoping the interview brings him a little more attention.

 

 

Recent Reads

The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans
Lawrence N. Powell
Harvard University Press, March 2012 (Amazon | B&N)

I spend so much time dinging academic historians and their usually constipated prose that I’m obligated to call out an exception when it hits the shelves. This isn’t a definitive history of the city — it stops soon after the Louisiana Purchase, with the Battle of New Orleans as an epilogue — but, frankly, a complete recitation of NOLA during the 19th century, particularly during the Civil War, would fill a thick volume all its own. Instead Powell focuses on the 1700s, deftly explaining the events leading up to New Orleans’s improbable siting, followed by the convoluted real-estate scheming that shaped it (I like a writer who drops the word “autarky” into an economic discussion without feeling the need to explain it). Powell conducts his chorus so smartly that we can hear the echoes of those 18th-century voices today: the rise of nepotism (from a time when everybody in town really did know everybody else), corruption and disregard of the law (a reaction to mercantilism and a centralized state completely unresponsive to the city’s needs), lavish parties and displays of wealth (to create hierarchies in a world where everyone was sloughing off previous failures or humble origins to reinvent themselves), a rich African tradition (whites have always been a minority), and strong Francophile identity (a reflex against nearly 40 years of Spanish rule). Powell doesn’t overemphasize events either, which is always a peril for authors tempted to make A Point. The Accidental City is an accessible history of New Orleans’s haphazard beginnings.

 

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, May 2007 (Amazon | B&N)

There are bad books, which I’ve decided aren’t worth talking about anymore. There are mediocre books — ditto. There are good books, which are worth promoting, and then there are books that provoke me as a writer to say to myself, What the hell am I doing with my life? I’m a complete fuck-up. I’ll never be able to make something like this.

Michael Chabon and I started off on the wrong foot. The first book I read — or tried to read — of his was Manhood for Amateurs, which included a ridiculous chapter on Lego, followed by an equally obnoxious interview. Lack of enough synonyms for “awful” prevented me from scribbling a full review of the book; suffice to say Chabon is a better fiction writer than public intellectual. This experience scared me off his work. Then recently I read his alt-history “The Martian Agent, A Planetary Romance” in the VanderMeers’ Steampunk anthology, which was wonderful enough for me to seek out The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I’m so glad I did.

Only after the last page did I learn the novel, a police procedural set in an alternate history wherein Israel was defeated in 1948, won a slew of awards, including the 2007 Sidewise. The first 11 chapters are very slow — he could’ve used a better hook — and Chabon’s cynicism runs more to the grotesque (people are defined by their deformities, by their fatness or dandruff or “larval white fingers”) than toward Chandler-esque wit. Still, Chabon has his moments:

The outer room holds a sleeper couch, a wet bar and mini-fridge, an armchair, and seven young men in dark suits and bad haircuts. The bed is folded away, but you can smell that the room has been slept in by young men, maybe as many as seven.

And:

One is a black man and one a Latino, and the others are fluid pink giants with haircuts that occupy the neat interval between astronaut and pedophile scoutmaster.

For me, Union hit every right note: a brilliant noir in which a detective doggedly pursues a lone murder, only to uncover a greater conspiracy. There’s a very sweet love story too. But most of all, Chabon gets alternate history. It’s a setting. It’s not an atmosphere or a corseted costume or even a genre — it’s a time-space geography the characters inhabit and interact with. Can you tell I really liked this book?