Panel 6 – Blurring the Boundaries of Alternate History
- Pascal Lemaire, (Belgium), “Our world, really ? Techno Thrillers and Alternate History”
- Andrew M. Butler, Canterbury Christ Church University (UK), “Quest for Love: A Cosy Uchronia?”
- Leimar Garcia-Siino, University of Liverpool (UK), “Alternate [un]Realities: The Possibility and Impossibility of the Fantasy Alternate History”
Our world, really ? Techno Thrillers and Alternate History.
Alternate History (also known as uchronia) is seen in the French academic tradition as something rather strictly defined, following the definitions given by Eric B. Henriet. For this reason many books are excluded from the genre, despite the fact that they describe worlds that seems very similar to our own contemporary environment but with a different political or geopolitical context that makes many readers think of alternate history.
Techno Thrillers, fictions usually mixing military and politic intrigue with the codes of the thriller and of the spy novels, are among those texts often excluded from studies on AH due to those strict definitions. One of the best known examples of an uchronic universe found in Techno Thrillers and felt to closely match with our own timeline is the one given by Tom Clancy’s novels, the author being often invited in the medias to talk about real world issues as an expert with as much credibility as academics.
Other authors of techno-thrillers or political fictions such as Larry Bond, Dale Brown or Patrick Robinson did also create complete universes which seem to parallel our own. Yet he lack of clearly identified point of divergence is often mentioned as one of the factors justifying this exclusion, as well as the fact that they are often thought to take place in a near future, a view which may be challenged.
The goal of the present study will be to examine how those stories relate to other alternate history stories and how they cope with the evolution of the real world issues they often use as background for their own plots and which sometimes evolve faster than the authors can write as shown by, amongst other, the 9/11 terror attacks and the second Irak war.
I study how the ancient world meets modern literature, especially in the SF and Fantasy genres. Among recent work are communications on Alternate History set in the Ancient World (Tel Aviv 2014) and vampires as modern mythologies (Madrid 2014, publication forthcoming). I’ve also had a paper on technothrillers published earlier this year.
Quest for Love: A Cosy Uchronia?
The science fiction of John Wyndham has been wrongly dismissed as cosy catastrophes by Brian Aldiss, Christopher Priest and others, although the last twenty-five years has seen this challenged. I wish to use the paradigm(s) of the cosy catastrophe to explore Wyndham's "Random Quest", a short story that first appeared in his collection Consider Her Ways. In this story, Colin Trafford, a physicist, is searching for a woman he had met in a parallel universe named Ottilie Harshom. The two universes had diverged in the 1920s and Trafford had transferred across to the other kind through an accident during an experiment. The story has been adapted for television twice, but I want to focus on Quest for Love (1973), a film starring Tom Bell and Joan Collins, directed by Ralph Thomas, who had made the Doctor in the House films and both Percy movies and executively produced by Peter Rogers. British film in the 1970s included the tail end of the Hammer horror and the Carry On films, some social realism, a number of sex comedies and a few science fiction films including dystopias and apocalyptic narratives. This film has been described as a romantic comedy and clearly uses elements of science fiction, whilst not sitting easily within either generic categorisation. It does, however, include a rationale for the alternate history and through the mechanisms of the plot and mise en scene exposes some of the problems in presenting the parallel world or the Uchronia - the identification of the Jonbar point of divergence between diegeses, the means of showing rather than telling the audience how these diegeses differ and the need for both recognisable similarities and distinctions between them.
Dr Andrew M Butler is the author of Solar Flares: Science Fiction in the 1970s, as well as books on Philip K. Dick, cyberpunk, Terry Pratchett, postmodernism, film studies and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He is a co editor of Extrapolation and the Chair of Judges for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. In another universe, he would have been born in Belgium.
Alternate [un]Realities: The Possibility and Impossibility of the Fantasy Alternate History
Alternate history narratives, like time-traveling narratives or dystopias and utopias, are commonly regarded as a subgenre of science fiction, and seldom associated with the genre of fantasy. In the Encyclopedia of Fantasy, John Grant states that ‘alternate worlds’ ‘is more a product of sf than of fantasy’, a distinction which Clute also emphasizes by citing Brian Stableford’s entry on alternate worlds (which was changed to ‘alternate histories’ in later editions) from the SFE. For Clute, the difference between sf and fantasy, when it comes to alternate histories, lies in the function of the altering, where sf ‘[argues] a new version of history’ and fantasy ‘presents a different version… without arguing the difference.’ This distinction is not only restrictive, but vague in its restriction. In this paper, I propose to conduct an overview of fantasy alternate history novels, with close analyses of select texts, in an attempt to suggest three alternative possibilities for why alternate history fantasies are so elusive. Focusing on structure, function, and narrative as well as metanarrative content, I will explore how all fantasies that take place in the primary world are already alternate histories because they propose supposedly plausible (within their narratives) ways in which our reality can accommodate the fantastic, and the problems that arise from this supposition; how the necessary grounding in reality and history imposed by the premise of AH limits the divergence points a fantasy novel can take, explaining why the vast majority of fantasy AH occurs no later than the 19th century and accounting for its apparent failure to ‘argue a difference’; and finally how the very fundamental premise of the genre of fantasy is intrinsically in opposition to the standard definitions of AH, and the solutions that can be theorized.
Leimar Garcia-Siino is a final-year PhD student at the University of Liverpool researching fantasy literature, modern genre theory, and Neil Gaiman’s fiction. She has contributed entries to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, reviews to Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction, and articles to Vector: The Critical Journal of the British Science FIction Association, and has been an organizer for the Current Research in Speculative postgraduate conference since 2012.