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Least favorite alt-history story?

Elektronaut

Cobs? 3? Yes we do.
Well, one might argue that pretty much all fiction tends to be riddled with author biases. For example, I've just been reading Chandler's The Simple Act of Murder, which is quite intriguing for what it reveals about bias in writing.
Does it end with the Germans and Japanese shaking hands in Colorado? If not, I'll probably give it a pass.
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
Patreon supporter
I think that the problem is that military timelines are particularly revealing in their biases. A timeline on domestic politics will often feature the author's favored ideology being vindicated, but most authors are smart enough not to have their party win ten elections in a row- if for no other reason than that you need the other guys to win occasionally just to prove how terrible they are in government.

When you're writing about combat, though, the temptation is to have your favored side just sweep all before it. Which is tedious, and quite noticeable to the readers.
 

Japhy

S.M. Stirling Hates Him!
Published by SLP
Location
Troy, New York
Well, one might argue that pretty much all fiction tends to be riddled with author biases. For example, I've just been reading Chandler's The Simple Act of Murder, which is quite intriguing for what it reveals about bias in writing.
He's write about your standard English amateur detective solves a closed house mystery though. Give me a realistic homicide case any day.
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Location
Nu Yawk
I think that the problem is that military timelines are particularly revealing in their biases. A timeline on domestic politics will often feature the author's favored ideology being vindicated, but most authors are smart enough not to have their party win ten elections in a row- if for no other reason than that you need the other guys to win occasionally just to prove how terrible they are in government.

When you're writing about combat, though, the temptation is to have your favored side just sweep all before it. Which is tedious, and quite noticeable to the readers.
I think it's also that the TL format, especially how most of these turn out in practice, removes the biggest equalizer that a conventional narrative can provide, which is the low-level danger present in even the most lopsided conflict. A perfectly good story can be written where you'd know the big picture outcome, and there are plenty of tales where the author's bias is apparent yet the challenge is still present and the finished product is still good.

Now try that where there are no characters of note anywhere and it's written purely as a historical recollection. It gets harder. Even worse, a lot of the time it's done without much detail (or if there is, it's the wrong kind of detail, the "Hey I know the designation of a Scud TEL" trivia). I think the perfect example of this was in the "Clinton's Korean War" TL where the initial northern advance, the most dramatic and uncertain part, that could easily have an entire book made about it-was covered in a single six paragraph update full of OOB infodumps that couldn't even end on a cliffhanger and had to explicitly say at the end that the "the north's advance stalled".
 

Heavy

Go ahead. Make my day.
I think it's also that the TL format, especially how most of these turn out in practice, removes the biggest equalizer that a conventional narrative can provide, which is the low-level danger present in even the most lopsided conflict. A perfectly good story can be written where you'd know the big picture outcome, and there are plenty of tales where the author's bias is apparent yet the challenge is still present and the finished product is still good.
Sure, that's the thing about, say, Turtledove. He's not an especially good writer (bad prose) but he prioritises the human element and for all that people might complain that he isn't going into sufficient detail by providing a full list of all the legislation of the Socialist administration introduced in TL-191 or discussing the technical specifications of whatever those Confederate Messerschmidts were called, the fact is that these books sold as well as they did because readers cared about the characters.

I think it's a fairly classic problem which the TL format, as you observe, often falls into: too much plot; not enough story. I'm certainly as guilty as anyone where that's concerned. See, as much as I might have enjoyed writing them, when I go back and look at the two TLs I wrote on AH.com, I don't really like them very much, because neither of them really has a story.
 

The Red

Well-known member
Published by SLP
Sure, that's the thing about, say, Turtledove. He's not an especially good writer (bad prose)
Granted this is subjective but I’d personally disagree with this. I can’t say I’ve ever read any of his books or short stories that were badly written, even the worst (the last book in Colonisation, News From The Front) were silly but they never came across as bad writing rather than poor concepts.
 

Heavy

Go ahead. Make my day.
Granted this is subjective but I’d personally disagree with this. I can’t say I’ve ever read any of his books or short stories that were badly written, even the worst (the last book in Colonisation, News From The Front) were silly but they never came across as bad writing rather than poor concepts.
I just don't think his prose writing is very good. All those narrative catchphrases and so on, the way he always has to remind us that Sam Carsten burns easily and has slather himself with zinc oxide every single time the character appears or how Winston Churchill is a good orator any time he's mentioned. Of course, it's not a big deal; I've read and enjoyed plenty of worse writers. It's just, he's not exactly Elmore Leonard, is he?
 

The Red

Well-known member
Published by SLP
I just don't think his prose writing is very good. All those narrative catchphrases and so on, the way he always has to remind us that Sam Carsten burns easily and has slather himself with zinc oxide every single time the character appears or how Winston Churchill is a good orator any time he's mentioned. Of course, it's not a big deal; I've read and enjoyed plenty of worse writers. It's just, he's not exactly Elmore Leonard, is he?
I haven’t read anything from TL-191 if that’s the worst offender. His character tropes didn’t ever seem to be particularly egregious in what I have read. I have heard about Sam Carsten’s sun burn through memetics to be fair.
 

SenatorChickpea

The Most Kiwi Aussie of them all
Patreon supporter
Turtledove to me is the very definition of a writer who is good enough. He is neither imaginative enough to conjure up worlds that feel wonderful and new, or adept enough with the pen that you can forgive tired concepts. However, his ideas are just interesting enough. His characters just human enough. His prose just good enough.


It's a minor work, but there's a short story he did that I'm very fond of. It's not precisely alternate history- it's a time travel number.


Shakespeare gets told by Burbage- 'Mate, you need to get along to the Rose. Some bastards are doing a pirated version of Hamlet.'

Right, says Will, let's see what's going on- I'll go to the play, find out what's what, then get the Lord Chamberlain on them like a ton of ceramic housing materials.

Off he goes, and to his bemusement this strange company (Some of them are women!) with stranger accents aren't doing Hamlet. They're just doing bits of it, interspersed with bizarre dialogue about flipping coins and how good it would be to be dead.
And the only characters of his who seem to feature are those two eminently disposable spear carriers- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!

And gradually, as this is revealed, the reader grins. It's a wonderful premise, and told simply.

Now, it's not as good as the idea. The dialogue has that standard Turtledove problem of everyone speaking in the same two or three narrative voices. There's a fair bit of clumsy exposition- Shakespeare almost crosses himself in surprise, because he and his family are hidden Catholics, which is not a good thing in Jacobean England because of the Reformation and yes, you get the point.

The thing is, it works. It's an excellent idea that in practice is merely good- but what an idea. Shakespare watching Tom Stoppard? The only thing that could have made it better is a epilogue with Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Vlad Lenin watching Travesties.

The fact of the matter is, is that Turtledove enchants. He's an entirely different writer, but he's a little similar to someone like George Lucas or Robert Jordan- it's easy to sneer at the workmanlike story telling and the way both writers tend to fall when they try to be especially clever.

But at their best, they have the knack of spinning simple yarns that younger readers in particular will just fall headfirst into. And hell- were it not for Guns of the South or How Few Remain or Imperial Space Lizards Get Horny on Ginger, how many of us would be on this site at all?
 

Alex Richards

Tends to eat truffles once found
Patreon supporter
Published by SLP
Location
Derbyshire
But at their best, they have the knack of spinning simple yarns that younger readers in particular will just fall headfirst into. And hell- were it not for Guns of the South or How Few Remain or Imperial Space Lizards Get Horny on Ginger, how many of us would be on this site at all?
I think you'd be surprised on that one actually- I only heard about Turtledove after joining AH.Com for example. Wouldn't surprise me at all if people who've come to the community in the last 10 years are generally unfamiliar with his work.
 

Coiler

Connoisseur of the Miscellaneous
Location
Nu Yawk
I think you'd be surprised on that one actually- I only heard about Turtledove after joining AH.Com for example. Wouldn't surprise me at all if people who've come to the community in the last 10 years are generally unfamiliar with his work.
I'd Turtledove's greatest period of output, visibility and relevance was in the 90s-2000s (I came of age at the tail end of it). I'd liken him to a band that remains popular enough to sell, but who used to be considerably more successful and more influential. I still think he was a gateway for many alternate history fans and that his books still can be one, but that he doesn't have the same cachet he used to.