On alternate history

Prolegomenon to al-Uqlidsi’s
Compendium of reflections on the use of the records of beginnings and events and on the contemplation of shadow history in the construction of plausible-fables

In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, with His blessing and with His help, upon who we depend and whose aid we invoke, I, the servant of God, in need of His mercy who is so rich in kindness, Daud al-Musafir al-Khilafahi bin ’Ammar ibn al-Afrangi, write:

The first clear sign of the rebellion was, perhaps, the nomination three years ago of Gabriel Goodman’s “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes” for the Victor Hugo award, plausible-fabulism’s highest honor; and if that nomination failed, in the same year the Man Leinster prize was given to Sri Nathan Zuckerman’s Patrimony — in defiance of the critics who asserted that Patrimony was not even a plausible-fable, but like Zuckerman’s other works a subliterate mimetic potboiler, albeit with a surface veneer of fabulation. The critics were divided; but what could not be argued was that while Goodman’s controversial tale had been published by a respectable literary press, Zuckerman’s book was a refugee from that most lurid of genre ghettos, mimetic fiction.

History, as ibn Khaldun wrote in the Book of Advice, “is a discipline widely cultivated among nations and races. It is eagerly sought after… both the learned and the ignorant are able to understand it.” Goodman and Zuckerman share little, apart from their apostasy from the Karaite faith, but in their works there is an undeniable similarity of technique. This technique — a rigorous extrapolation, according to Democritan logic, from (in Goodman’s words) “a single point of departure,” as if the world were a mere mechanism in which events were connected only by the lowest form of materialist causality — would be anathema to traditional students of shadow history, with their dedication to the rhythm of fable, the laws of poetry, the virtuoso revelation of hitherto unnoticed oneiric correspondances.

And yet in that jarring simplicity there is nonetheless a note that, in these times, is strangely resonant.

To the ordinary reader, it may appear that little has changed since the days of Hodge Backmaker and Jesse Strange. William Dreiser’s puppet theater of liberation plays to packed houses from Al Hamra to Great Zimbabwe; Howi Qomr Faukota has, with A Day in the Life, at last completed the great work he began a decade ago in Old Familiar Things, a work which one could justifiably expect to confirm his position as the preeminent shadow historian of our time.

Faukota’s work, indeed, is an instructive example, for the story of his “Columbian Moiety,” that peaceful and unified republic stretching from Algonquian Acadia across a continent to my native Caliphate of al-Aztlán, could be considered the apotheosis of the classical shadow history. The tragic career of Jagirdar Robert Lee Khan, in all its twists and turns, is a conventional theme that has given rise to many fine works, from Backmaker’s Bowdoin College to M.F. Zhang’s “Indian Country”; the romance of Adeline Stephen and Orlanda Nicholson in the twilight days of Albion is a vein no less rich, and no less exhaustively mined (not least by Zuckerman); but never, perhaps, has the dream logic of any shadow history before Faukota’s woven these two strands together with such delicacy.

Nonetheless — though I am aware that I court ridicule (if not, I hope, actual danger) by saying so in a publication devoted to the highest and most sublime art of plausible fabulation — future scholars of the art will remember this year not for A Day in the Life, but rather for an entirely different treatment of the Matter of Albion, displaced like Zuckerman’s from the mimetic ghetto — namely Malachai Cohen’s Guidebook to a Land of Ghosts.

There is nothing more distasteful to a plausible-fabulist than a fact, but the fact we must face is this: our ancestors created a complex literature for complex times. Our times are simple. The world of war-cities and Wisdom Servants is not the world of dream continents and familiar spirits. Faukota’s great work may be beautiful, but it is no more appropriate for our times than Cohen’s obscure memoir of Empire City, The Escapist, would have been appropriate for the times of Clemens and Korzenowski.

At a time when the art of the plausible-fable, as a whole, is more and more seen as retreating from the borders of memory and dream, so that many prominent writers have been accused of producing not fabulism but mere futurism, we should not be surprised to find, as we descend from the heights of imagination, a feeding-frenzy of realists rising from the depths of mimesis to meet us.

And yet the solution that many have proposed — a return to the ancient principles of plausible fabulation, a recommitment to the rules of poetic composition, and, most of all, a rigorous insistence on the unblemished lineage of the plausible-fabulist from teacher to student — is surely counterproductive. Ibn Khaldun also wrote of the inner meaning of history, that which “involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events.”

Our readers may be turning to the realists for work that would once have been done by the shadow historians, but it is hardly just for craftsmen who have grown complacent in their craft to blame their customers for demanding more tempting wares. It rather behooves us to turn our tools upon ourselves, to plumb the waters of causality, to map the currents of history that have carried Zuckerman and Cohen and their ilk so far downstream while Faukota and Dreiser spin in backwater eddies, and to learn to navigate those currents ourselves — if we can.

The author of this work — God forgive him! — says: I completed the composition and draft of this work on Shahr-el-Thamen 19, AM 5768.

Knowledge comes only from God, the Mighty One, the Wise One.

One thought on “On alternate history

  1. Pingback: “Black Swan” by Bruce Sterling « Torque Control

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