Or: Science Fiction v. Alternative History – Similarities and Difference
I’ve always thought it odd how science fiction, fantasy and alternative history get lumped together as one genre.
I’ve written very little fantasy (and have published none of it yet) but I have written some space-opera sci-fi as well as some alternative history, and the two sub-genres to me seem very different. Both, of course, are speculative fiction, but a lot of the underlying methods and plot structures are different. Here’s why.
Science fiction writers are often known for the breathtaking abandon with which we just make stuff up. Case in point; in my second science fiction space opera novel, Sky of Diamonds, I described two scientists inventing a quantum “bonded pair” communication device that allows instantaneous communication over interstellar distances. I surrounded the description with some vague language about what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” and the BP Communicator was born.
Now, any real physicist would probably read my description and burst out laughing. To that I can only refer them to the literary item “Device, Plot, 1 each.”
Needless to say my work in this genre isn’t ‘hard’ sci-fi; I primarily mean to entertain, my stories are character-driven, and I think I can honestly claim that at least I have not yet approached Star Trek levels of bullshit.
Well, not quite.
There are of course writers of ‘hard’ science-fiction, and I admire the heck out of these people for whom scientific accuracy is paramount.For example, the late, great Isaac Asimov was a physicist and his works, while in some respects dated now, reflected the best scientific information available when he was writing.
The other thing about most science fiction is that these stories are often set in the future. That gives the writer a lot of latitude in cultural issues, technological developments, politics, indeed almost everything, which brings me back to the breathtaking abandon with which we just make stuff up. Even the ‘hard’ sci-fi scribes have tons of latitude in things like cultural, political, and societal issues.
That’s not to say writing science fiction is easier than alternative history; it’s certainly not. Crafting a good story takes a lot of work, no matter when it’s set or how scientifically or technologically accurate the story is going to be.
Alternative History, on the other hand, requires a little more grounding, at least in the beginning.
Works in this genre start with a defined moment in history, where the author takes a key action or event and gives it a twist, so that an outcome is reversed, or at least changed. These have been called “What If” stories, and Marvel comics had a title by that name where this actual plot device was used. In the written word, a common one is having the Confederate States win the American Civil War.
In my Nova Roma series I chose the Roman Civil War as my setting. When the Optimate Senators led by General Magnus left Rome to escape the oncoming Julius Caesar, who had just crossed the Rubicon with his troops, the Optimates struck out not for Greece but for Spain.
This required knowing a little bit about the history in our own timeline; how big the port at Ostia was, how many ships could be assembled, a little bit about the construction of those ships, and the fact that Pompey Magnus had lands, men and gold in Spain that would have been useful in assembling an army. That made the journey to Spain a plausible one. Then, as the Senate and two legions of Roman troops set sail east across the Mediterranean, a freak storm blows them off course. They end up landing in what we today call South Carolina, and here some knowledge of pre-Columbian American native villages and lifestyles were required.
This also, of course, required a lot of willing suspension of disbelief, as Roman triremes and quadriremes made of cedar and mostly pegged together never would have survived that journey.
But the genesis of the series depended on the cream of Roman society and two legions of Roman troops landing in the New World in 49 BCE. So, in Nova Roma I, the fleet (mostly) survives. Again, I refer you to the famous “Device, Plot, 1 each.”
Just in case that wasn’t enough work, writing historic figures into fiction requires knowing a little bit about those people, what they were like, how they spoke, something about their habits, their friends, and family attachments. In Nova Roma, when writing Marcus Tullius Cicero, I had the advantage of the fact that Cicero was a prolific writer and many of his works and his speeches survive to this day. Marcus Porcius Cato, on the other hand, as a bit more challenging, as the only written work of his that survives is a short treatise on Roman agriculture. What others wrote about him paint a limited picture of a man who was scrupulously honest, a notorious Stoic, but also prickly and a bit of a misanthrope. That doesn’t give one a lot to work with.
That crucial point in time must be real, and if you want a convincing, compelling story, the people and events described should be as accurate as you can make them. Once the twist has happened, though? Katie-bar-the-door!
It’s fun to look over the differences in two related genres like this.
The key takeaway from all this? No matter what genre you’re working in, the fundamentals stay the same: Solid plots, in-depth character development, a solid story that evokes a response from the reader. Those are the basics, and they’re the basics for a reason; without them, no story. Let your stories go where they will; a lot of times stories and characters in those stories almost write themselves, and that’s good, because if they feel good to us, they’ll feel good to the readers.
And that, in the end, is why we are writers. We write for the readers. It’s always for them.
The newest book in the Nova Roma Series is available Tuesday, August 8th – be sure to get your copy!