Pulp, Literature and Alternate History

29 Sep

Pulp, Literature and Alternate History

Shortly before I found myself in hospital, I started reading my way through most of Robert A. Heinlein’s works, a quest that I continued while in a hospital bed and eventually turned into Heinlein in Reflection, a short piece of literary criticism focused on Heinlein’s work.  The determination to understand why Heinlein had become and remains popular eventually lead to a realisation about science-fiction and fantasy writing (and indeed other genres).  Each and every book rests on a line drawn between ‘pure pulp’ and ‘pure literature.’

Now, ‘pulp’ is action and adventure.  The Lensmen and Skylark books of the early eras of science-fiction are both heavily pulpy.  They are focused on actions and have very little to say, at least as more than an aside, about the human condition.  ‘Literature’, on the other hand, is all about big ideas and the human condition.  Novels such as Foundation and Rendezvous with Rama are pretty much pure literature.  They are slower to get started than their pulpy counterparts – Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell is very slow to start – but once you get into them they stick.

My theory, regarding Heinlein, was that his earlier books struck an excellent balance between pulp and big ideas, as well as exploring the human condition.  His books all touched upon ‘coming of age’ concepts (more so in the juveniles) while also offering enough pulp to lure the reader into the story.  Red Planet is focused on a struggle against outside interference, and the heroes become part of the battle, yet the way they are brought into the events allows Heinlein to show both the underlying issues of the story and how they can be resolved.  In more general terms, I think this is true of books that have stood the test of time.  The War of the Worlds manages to combine both the war against the Fighting Machines (pulp) and musings on colonialism  (literature). 

Put simply, readers come for the exploding spaceships/daring adventures and stick around for philosophical concepts. 

Alternate History offers writers a chance to both explore wars or campaigns that never happened (and perhaps were never likely to happen) as well as exploring the worlds they created, the questions they raised and considering the likely outcome of major changes in the timeline.  One can both write a story of the defence of Washington after the CSA won the Battle of Gettysburg and explore the implications of the CSA taking the city, or trying and failing to take the city.  A more detailed look at how things would have stacked up, assuming the CSA got into position to storm Washington DC, would tell you many interesting things about how the Civil War really worked.  You can explore the how and why of history by discussing what would have happened if …

This is, in my view, the charm  of the genre.  You can take a look at options not taken – Operation Sealion, for example – and write a story following an attempt to put the plans into action.  Or you can consider a war that never happened, perhaps a clash between the UK and the US in 1930, and write a story following the development of the war from the first engagement to the final outcome.  There is no need, on the surface, to stick that close to detail.  You can get a very good tale without getting everything right.  At the same time, you can’t get too far away from the real world.  The Germans might have invaded Britain if they had ten Bismarck-class battleships to support the landing, but the blunt truth is that they didn’t have anything like enough warships to defeat Home Fleet in open battle. 

Pulp does not need to be perfect.  It just needs to be fun.

Or you can pretend that Sealion went off without a hitch, Britain fell and now your heroes are mounting an insurgency against the Nazis.  At this point, you are starting to slip further towards the literature end of the scale.  How do you fight an insurgency when Britain is apparently alone?  How many people will join you?  How many will collaborate?  How many would like to join you, but are too scared?  (There are lots of jokes about millions of Frenchmen joining the resistance on VE-Day, yet we must be honest.  It is very hard to risk one’s life and one’s family when there is seemingly no hope of victory.) 

These stories can work very well, if done properly.  They need to conjure the impression of a very different world, yet remain focused on the characters.  Harry Turtledove’s Ruled Britannia does both and very well too.

They can also focus on other things.  There is no reason why one can’t have a detective story, or a romance story, or indeed any sort of story that is primarily pulp, but includes literature elements.  The latter are what makes the story last.

And then we move into the territory of pure literature.  Literature books have action and adventure, but they’re not the primary draw.  The Two Georges (Harry Turtledove) is an exploration of a very different world, rather than a story focused on solving the mystery of the missing painting.  Hitler Has Won is a glimpse into the horrors of a victorious Nazi Germany.  It has very little action, and by pulpy standards it is a failure, but as a vision of a world where the Nazis won it is very good.  The author pulls no punches and rightly so.

This doesn’t always work out so well.  How Few Remain is both an excellent overview of an alternate America (and a second clash between the USA and the CSA) and has enough action to draw me in, but its sequels lost me somewhere around the alternate WW2.  Turtledove is more interested in his alternate history than his people, which is something of a weakness when anyone can die and the story doesn’t keep the reader’s interest.

At the extreme, there are books that are detailed campaign histories (Invasion 1940 or The Hitler Options) or basically written timelines and guides to alternate worlds (For Want of a Nail, Look to the West).  They don’t have any characters, not beyond mentions in alternate history writings; they draw in readers who are more interested in overall histories than following characters.  They are not for the casual reader.

Finally, and most importantly, there are books that combine both pulp and literature aspects to draw in the readers and keep them.

There has been a lot of chatter about The Guns of the South, recently, so I’m going to start with one of the best ASB books on the market.  The pulpy elements are the introduction of modern weapons and the effects they have on the battlefield, from the CSA rebounding and suddenly winning its independence to the second war against the AWB terrorists.  Turtledove makes it very convincing and deserves credit for it.  The literature elements are the slow realisation that the CSA was not going to win, and that the Confederates were on the wrong side of history, and – finally – that now they have won they have to start thinking about what sort of nation they want to be.  Turtledove allows his characters to grow and develop, to question the rightness of slavery and eventually decide to abolish it.  It is possible to argue, from a real world point of view, that abolishing slavery would have been pretty much impossible (even if General Lee wanted to make it happen and modern research suggests he wouldn’t).  However, for the good of the book, it had to happen.  We side with the characters because we can see them slowly realising they need to change.

The Draka books can work along the same lines.  On one hand, they portray a military campaign and occupation that would never have happened in the real history.  On the other, they do touch on precisely what the Draka actually are, as well as their impact on the rest of the world.  It’s easy to get drawn into the hero’s view in the first book, then have the veil torn away as you realise the Draka are such monsters they make the Nazis look good.  And then you realise they might well be unbeatable (to be fair, as Ian Montgomtie noted years ago, Stirling wrote the books before the fall of the Iron Curtain). 

A lot depends on the writing.  Stars and Stripes Forever was a failure on both sides.  It does not portray battles very well (the battle between the ironclads is appallingly bad; the rest is not much better) nor does it explore the real-life implications of the UK entering the American Civil War (particularly not as a third power, which is so improbable as to require ASB intervention).

Is there a point to this?  Good question.

If one is an enthusiast about something – anything – there is a certain tendency to get bogged down in the weeds and ignore what makes the genre interesting to the average newcomer.  An alternate historian may spend hours detailing the development of German tanks in an alternate WW2 where Germany never declares war on the United States; the average reader may not be so interested in the nuts and bolts, the little details that will impress the enthusiast (for example, the appearance of Henry Stuart in Look to the West) and prefer, instead, a solid story that draws their attention and holds it, even if they know relatively little – or nothing – of history.  Indeed, their interest in the nuts and bolts may be sparked by alternate history; The Guns of the South certainly interested me in the American Civil War, despite the book’s weaknesses. 

Whether we care to admit it or not, alternate history is something of a niche interest.  There are only a handful of truly successful mainstream alternate history writers – most people who write in the field started in other genres – and most of the alternate histories we see on TV and film are based in other franchises (Star Trek, What If, ‘For Want of a Nail’ Fan Fiction).  The perception that one needs to be grounded in real history to understand alternate history, and that one really needs to have an interest in history, is damaging to the genre, because it encourages readers to skip our books. 

There is nothing wrong, of course, with being an enthusiast.  However, if one’s intention is to draw in new readers, particularly readers who are already spooked by long-running series that may never be finished – Game of Thrones being the obvious example – one must consider that not everyone is as enthusiastic as one’s self and therefore do one’s best to provide material that will interest the newcomer as well as the enthusiast.

In short, one must give room to pulp as well as literature when it comes to writing alternate history.

10 Responses to “Pulp, Literature and Alternate History”

  1. Roger Klingman September 29, 2021 at 1:34 pm #

    Your Heinlein in Reflection led me to some Heinlein I had not read. Am rereading Foundation for the first time since 1969. Would read any alternate history you recommended and, as a retired history teacher, confess to being a “nuts and bolts” type guy.
    Roger in Wichita

    • chrishanger September 30, 2021 at 11:39 am #

      I’ll put together a list, when i have a moment. Of course, YMMV about what’s great and what isn’t


  2. Steve Choquette September 29, 2021 at 2:15 pm #

    Your Royal Sorceress series does that with an alternate history of the American Revolution. Built into it is your love of history, while it focuses on Gwen.

  3. George Warner September 29, 2021 at 4:33 pm #

    An alternate Civil War history I’m curious about is what if it had never happened? Slavery was doomed economically. Tractors, combines, cotton pickers, etc. would have made slavery too expensive within 50-100 years.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 29, 2021 at 5:26 pm #

      I’m skeptical about the “slavery was doomed economically” idea.

      Is there Real World evidence for a slave-holding society giving up slavery solely for economic reasons?

      • gbarbay00 September 30, 2021 at 12:41 am #

        Why not? What kind of business does not revolve around money? If the cost of keeping slaves exceeded the income of the plantation, something would have to give. Now, whether technology would truly reduce costs to the point that slavery was not economical, I don’t know, but I can easily see economics driving the decision.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard September 30, 2021 at 1:45 am #

        Please tell me where Slavery died solely for economic reasons.

  4. Jill September 29, 2021 at 10:41 pm #

    Chris, are you using a different website address for your book writing website? I couldn’t get http://chrishanger.net/ to open up the last several days. Is that site being discontinued?

    • chrishanger September 30, 2021 at 11:39 am #

      There’s a glitch somewhere in the server. They’re working on it.

  5. Ron October 31, 2021 at 9:36 am #

    Heinlein’s Lazarus books are a great read. I remember as a young man reading about the curse of immortality the philosophy behind it and had to stop a lot and just ponder what if….Pleas read them along with his hard S.F. All are worthy of review, today.

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