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December 21, 2007
S. M. Stirling’s Strange World of Alternate History

Posted by Fredric Smoler at 09:50 AM  EST

S. M. Stirling is one of the most prolific writers of alternate history marketed as genre fiction, and one of the best. Last fall Stirling for the first time published two books almost simultaneously, A Meeting at Corvallis, which was released in September, and The Sky People, released that November, and just has or will soon publish sequels to both The Sunrise Lands and In the Halls of the Crimson Kings. Both novels are variants of conventional alternate history, an expanding genre not only in numbers but in form. So what is the conventional form of so decidedly unconventional a genre? And what is Stirling now doing with it?

Stirling won his first laurels on the strength of what now seems a more conventional effort, the truly chilling and immensely effective Draka trilogy, which consisted of Marching Through Georgia (1988), Under the Yoke (1989), and The Stone Dogs (1990). The three novels were republished in one large volume as The Domination in 1999, shorn of 16 remarkable appendices glossing the departures from real history that produced Stirling’s alternate timeline.

Too much analytical or baldly narrative history can ruin the pleasures of reading novels, but the plausibility of an alternate history genre is sometimes increased by systematic historical analysis and technical information; Stirling solved the problem by including miniature essays in the original paperback volumes, and the appendices are still available online here. The trilogy, now out of print but readily available from online used book dealers, is peculiarly impressive, certainly the most chilling alternate history I’ve ever read. There is also a sequel, Drakon, and a volume of short stories set in Stirling’s alternate timeline by other authors (Drakas!). The original trilogy remains the most disturbing alternate history I have read; it describes an anti-America established in late-eighteenth-century South Africa.

The Draka novels are “conventional” alternate history because they imagine and develop a history differing from our own, beginning at one branching point; conventional alternate histories are worlds that very well might have been, and plausibility counts for a lot. In Stirling’s case, a small series of plausible alterations in the 1770s—Maj. Patrick Ferguson’s breechloader is adopted by the British and distributed to Tory units in the South, the American Revolution is thus more bitterly fought, culminating in our conquest of Canada, and the Dutch join the French and Spanish in declaring war on Britain after Saratoga. In a conventional alternate history smallish initial changes produce others and culminate in a history fascinatingly and sometimes horrifically different from our own. In Stirling’s alternate timeline, the British take and keep Capetown, settling South Africa with the American Tories who were historically re-settled in Canada. French émigrés join them, also the Confederates who are defeated in a replay of the American Civil War, also various refugees from the liberal nineteenth century. Most of the alternate path is self-generating, a logical consequence of the first relatively small alterations. Over time, a profoundly illiberal political and economic order takes root, and eventually becomes an independent and profoundly illiberal continent-spanning state. Stirling’s trilogy begins in an alternate 1942, his middle volume traces a very nasty cold war between his Draka and his alternate (and extremely attractive) United States, and his third volume describes the victory of one of his cultures over the other. Both cultures, however, are versions of our America, and the Draka are our dark twin.

The trilogy is hypnotic, and sometimes harrowing, so harrowing that you can find detailed Whiggish analyses on the web insisting that Stirling’s alternate history could not have happened, which seems to me to suggest that people fear that it could have; after all, no one posts long arguments insisting that vampires, Orcs, trolls, and Frankenstein monsters cannot exist.

The trilogy is illuminating for a number of reasons, one being that it powerfully suggests that no special Providence insured a liberal and democratic modernity, another because it rotates American culture a fair number of degrees and argues that in a different context, certain of its original elements—for example, race-based slavery in a dynamic and otherwise egalitarian culture—could have intensified and mutated, rather than be rooted out or slowly wither.

Another reason the Draka trilogy illuminates is that, written at the end of the Cold War, it dramatizes some of the most frustrating, and most terrifying, elements of the Cold War’s logic and structure, in a different and less auspicious historical context. Nuclear weapons on both sides mean that radical evil cannot readily be fought and defeated; it can only be destroyed at the cost of suicide, unless some unforeseen military technology breaks the stalemate. In the real Cold War, the strategic balance was pretty robust, but at the time many feared a destabilizing innovation might have occurred on either side, and in Stirling’s history, one does.

The trilogy ends in a startling and extremely unpleasant fashion, and before that it holds a terrible mirror up to Americans. These hideously distorted features of our culture are how mad polemicists see us. What if we somehow resembled such a thing? What if we were in fact menaced by such a thing? If the Draka trilogy works for a reader it is because the reader is persuaded that this history could have happened, which is how all conventional alternate history works. Stirling has since written alternate histories that could not have happened. What does it mean to write an alternate history that could not have happened? And how does one do it?

After the Draka books, Stirling wrote a trilogy beginning with Island in the Sea of Time, taking as his point of departure something that by the rules of conventional alternate history cannot happen: An inexplicable physical event hurls the early 1990s island of Nantucket into the Bronze Age. This event spawns a trilogy more or less descended from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Robinson Crusoe, also from Jules Verne, and more immediately from a much-loved alternate history from the 1930s, Lest Darkness Fall.

Plausibly stranding moderns in a barbarous pre-scientific world is harder to do in the 1990s than it was in the nineteenth century, where the partially unexplored Africa and Asia of Victorian imagination could contain a remarkable array of lost civilizations, and this is probably why Stirling employs a one-time suspension of natural law as we know it. But once the original and necessarily inexplicable event occurs, the laws of physics and chemistry do operate as we know them, and the events of the trilogy observe the rules of conventional alternate history. The succeeding events follow logically. The trilogy is in one sense old-fashioned: The alternate history is one in which moral as well as technical progress unfolds, so that history in one of its optimistic Enlightenment senses is accelerated. In this sense the trilogy reverses the thrust of the Draka books, where the idea of progress as anything inevitable is brutally subverted. Island in the Sea of Time, and its sequels, are an older kind of adventure story, but still recognizably alternate history.

A couple of years later Stirling wrote The Peshawar Lancer, reviving another kind of old-fashioned adventure story, the fictions of the British Raj. Stirling assumed asteroid strikes (and resulting nuclear winter) in 1878 wiping out the Northern Hemisphere, with enough warning to allow some mass emigration to British India (and, it turns out, French Algeria). The novel begins more than a century later, and it is a decidedly playful alternate history filled with homages to Kipling and other romancers of the Raj.

Up to a point, The Peshawar Lancers is conventional alternate history. The science is plausible (in 1815 the eruption of a volcano on Tomboro, in modern Indonesia, did produce, in some places, a year without summer, and resulting crop failures and famines; there was increased emigration from Germany to North America). Dust particles of a given size block incoming solar radiation but do not trap heat, and scientists have posited comparable phenomena as the cause of ice ages and of the extinction of species.

The Peshawar Lancers is not conventional alternate history in that Stirling seems at least as interested in reanimating a dead literary subgenre—Anglo-Indian imperial adventure stories—as in exploring a plausible alternate history. The Raj is dead, India looks set to become a leading world power, and a once lively and influential element of our popular culture, the Raj’s sometimes delightful, sometimes detestable imperialist yarns, are now history themselves, something irretrievably of the past, in danger of being kept alive only by hostile professors of post-colonial studies, rather than by loving civilian readers. For more than a hundred years a number of those yarns were enthralling, sometimes magical, and Stirling has written an homage to them, half-disguising it as conventional alternate history.

What about the two books Stirling published in 2006? A Meeting at Corvallis is the conclusion of a trilogy (the earlier volumes were Dies the Fire and The Protector’s War), and another is in the works. These novels imagine the world left behind when Nantucket was displaced into the Bronze Age. In this new world, the laws of physics have changed. Explosives do not work, nor does electricity, and the behavior of gases under pressure has also changed. No explanation is given. There is a vast dying off, outlining the fragility of modern societies dependent on existing high technologies to even feed themselves. The world that survives sees a very ugly neo-feudalism triumph in Portland, Oregon, while more (and some less) humane political orders arise on Portland’s periphery, and in other parts of the world, whose older inhabitants are modern human beings with a scientific world view. The rules have changed, but reason still allows men and women the (sadly reduced) power to manipulate their environment, although harsh necessities exert powerful pressures on social forms.

These are very much adventure novels, and like The Peshawar Lancers, they are filled with homages to older forms of popular historical fiction, some of it from the 1930s. But the trilogy does not seem to be animated by medievalist nostalgia, or not by too much of it. Stirling, in some ways a feminist and antiracist writer, is always interested in and extremely intelligent about technology and engineering. He invents a subtly different technological history in his Draka trilogy, with (among other things) different developments in tropical medicine, steam power, small arms, and dirigibles.

Here he is interested in what sort of technology would be possible with his changed natural laws and a lot of abandoned machines and buildings to cannibalize. His survivors include some technically literate people (it turns out that the parts of scores of millions of abandoned cars have some crucial military uses), but it is not obvious how a scientific (or feminist) worldview will survive in a newly feudalized, increasingly religious, and fundamentally agrarian world.

His trilogy is also very much about war. Adam Smith (and Aristotle before him) speculated about the links between military technology and political forms. Stirling knows about those connections, and he explores them in great detail. These are adventure stories, but their politics are tricky, and they owe a great deal to older forms of adventure story, whose conventions they intermix and sometimes invert.

The Sky People is set in 1988, in an alternate timeline in which the Russian and American space race revealed in the 1960s that Mars and Venus are rather like what some science fiction writers and adventure story writers thought they might be like between the early twentieth century and the 1950s. In fact, Stirling’s Venus and Mars are not wholly unlike what Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasized Venus and Mars might look like when he wrote A Princess of Mars in 1912, the same year he published Tarzan of the Apes.

Burroughs, who published around a hundred books, would have been the king of the pulps, except that he quickly became much more than that. In 1939 a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist described Burroughs, in The Saturday Evening Post, as the greatest American writer, necessarily making his case by ruthlessly antiliterary criteria. Although Burroughs, born in 1875, had graduated from Andover, attended a military academy, and aspired to West Point, his fictions did not espouse a proper Victorian-era scientific world view. He wrote escapist adventure stories, occasionally with some ludicrously pseudoscientific premises. He also enthralled millions, and his sales were still going strong when I was a boy and may still be. Amazon lists 1,156 results for old E.R.B., as he was affectionately known when I was a kid patrolling the paperback racks.

The Sky People is a poker-faced homage to the Mars and Venus of the pulps, although the science is as good as it can be, given what we now know. My guess is that you cannot read Burroughs if you are even a couple of years into puberty, whereas Stirling is clearly writing for adults, although presumably ones who read Burroughs at a tender age. What is he up to?

First of all, science fiction—and alternate history is normally understood to be a subcategory of science fiction—used to be an attempt to imagine the future, occasionally with startling success; the lovely title of a history of the genre is The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of. A conventional alternate history attempts to imagine a plausible history, a different past, just as a conventional sci-fi novel tries to imagine a plausible future.

Stirling’s alternate history is in this instance a history that by the traditional standards could not have happened (we now know what Mars and Venus are like—we have of course sent probes to both planets). Traditional sci-fi updates its science to keep up with real science, but The Sky People refuses that move. A second thing: Some interesting intellectual and cultural historians have investigated what we used to think the future would look like, and a very good science fiction story, the only one Invention & Technology has ever published (William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum”) explored the same thing. But Gibson’s story is sour, even savage, about the limitations of the past’s imagination of the future; revealing those limitations is its point, which it makes by juxtaposing an imagined future to a real one. Stirling’s imagination of the same thing is instead affectionate, a fiction of history about older fictions of history.

Thinking back on Stirling’s brilliant conventional alternate history, I now think that conventional alternate history attained its sometimes eerie power because it was a bit scandalous. It was conceived in an era dominated by the idea of progress. History was supposed to be lawful and heading someplace good. Hegel claimed that the real was the rational, and popular conceptions of history generally reflected that conviction. History was supposed to come out the way it had, and imagining a world where it came out differently (and often worse) provided a perverse excitement.

In the West, at least, we no longer have such strong confidence about how history is going to turn out, or in its lawfulness. This loss of confidence may have first unleashed a flood of alternate history, which has been a booming genre over the last couple of decades—if anything goes, why not play around with some of the possibilities?—but the same cultural change robs alternate history of some of its power. It is less scandalous, because there is less pop-Hegelianism for the genre to push against.

Stirling’s newer books celebrate the fictiveness of the fictions we used to make about history and about the future. To use an overworked but not always useless term, they are post-modern—a sort of post-modernist alternate history. Intensely aware of the history of the literary form they work in, they play with that form, and with its history. If you grew up reading the popular literature of the last century and change, they can be a lot of fun.

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