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The Appeal of Exotic

Fantasy, it seems to me, is the ideal place for the appeal of the exotic and the strange.

I know of whence I speak, because I grew up reading stories of explorers in Africa (some of which I realized later were small print run first source) and South America.

By about twelve, I had trouble figuring out which continent had which fauna, but I could tell you things like how to set up your camp to avoid attacks in the night; how to walk through tall grass and avoid being jumped by a lion; and to get worried at tom toms or smoke signals.

What use all these things had for a little girl in a Portuguese village, and who, in the normal way of such things (which we can agree I’ve left way behind) wouldn’t even ever leave the village…. is a mystery.

But I liked it as much as I liked stories of the future and the past, because all of them were an escape and fodder for thought and imaginings.  “What would I have done if I were a pirate in the age of privateers” is way more interesting than seventh grade social science.  Probably more useful too.

The thing is that I seem to be normal in this respect. People like the exotic, the strange, particularly when mixed in with enough of what they are familiar with to make it accessible and interesting.  All those eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings of redheaded models in kimonos are the best representation of this wish.

Fantasy is, of course, the ideal ground for this.  Urban fantasy makes the familiar world strange, with just a touch of “it’s a secret conspiracy” which humans also like for reasons too complicated to go into.

I’m not 100% sure how you distinguish “made up, with hints of history” fantasy from “Historical fantasy” on Amazon and I THINK their alternate history is under science fiction, which is a right peeve and might mean you have to use keywords to make that leap.

These type of other world fantasies come in several flavors.  One is: completely different.  This other world has humans, that’s about it.  Yeah, sure, I can normally identify the time period of their technology, but other than that it has nothing to do with us and is completely exotic.

I guess here you bring familiarity in by human nature being similar, only.

One pet peeve is in these worlds using names from our world that have known cultural derivations (say Biblical.)  It’s not enough to throw the book against the wall, but it’s an annoyance.

The other problem I have is often finding the world building thin.  But that’s me, because I love history.  I want to know moar.

The other is the totally fantastic world with familiar overtones.  Pratchett does that brilliantly with the disc world.  Diana Wynne Jones with Chrestomanci.  With the added bonus that Chrestomanci is also vaguely historical.  I kind of tried for that with Witchfinder.

Then we have alternate history fantasy.  In this the fans get as picky as in hard science fiction. They usually know or research the history you’re using, so you’d better NOT step wrong.

And there is, as in hard science fiction a certain amount of handwavium.

Depending on how far back magic entered the world, how can the history be parallel enough to be recognized?

The hard answer is: it can’t.  Unless there is some law of history that makes histories parallel even when they shouldn’t be…  Unless the divergent effect happened very recently.

So, as with “this invention is possible and will change the world” the reader must invest in not picking it apart.

Part of the fun, both as a writer and as a reader, I think, is recognizing historical figures under exotic attire.

OTOH on vicious fans, you also have to be careful, because if you got hold of primary sources or some other outre form of research, and your fans google it, they think you got it wrong.  It is for this that the afterword was invented.  For the love of heaven, if you moved something to another year, changed a name, or have a reason to think they used a strange type of lamp, tell them in the afterword, or you’ll spend a year answering emails on it.

All of these fantasies are “inadequately” signaled on Amazon.  The most important thing to remember when putting them up is don’t call it alternate history unless it has some content that matches our history, and don’t call it an entirely made up world (in your blurb) if it’s mostly our world with magic and same history we have.

Weirdly even readers who read both genres can get testy if you signal one and deliver the other.

 

37 Comments
  1. Christopher M. Chupik #

    “The hard answer is: it can’t. Unless there is some law of history that makes histories parallel even when they shouldn’t be… Unless the divergent effect happened very recently.”

    Something that bugs me about alternate histories in general. A lot of the more mainstream writers that have adopted this subgenre seem to think you can introduce huge changes say a hundred or more years ago, and yet still have a present identical to our own time with only cosmetic changes and even the exact same people. Sliders was bad for this, but they had TV budgets as an excuse.

    November 1, 2017
    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

      Remember that “War Of The Worlds” TV series?

      A major alien invasion happen in the 1950’s and not only was it forgotten but the world was the same as our world. 😦

      November 1, 2017
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        Yes, they managed to clean up the rubble and bodies and completely suppress the memory immediately afterwards . . .

        November 1, 2017
        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard #

          I suspect that the Soviet Union wouldn’t have survived the Alien Invasion but in the TV series it had. 😉

          November 1, 2017
    • I found five small changes I could make in Central European history I could make, starting in 1626 – 1890 that let me re-work the Habsburg Empire in ways that left a recognizable world but that were all plausible. The trick was learning enough history to understand why those five points were workable. And then using real events and real details to blend in with the purely fictional.

      I’m including a bibliography in the next two books, so readers who have questions about my sources can go read for themselves.

      November 1, 2017
    • Mary #

      A lot of them, additionally, produce the changes from the event, and then everything goes static. Fun though Lord Darcy is, the stability of the dynasty seems implausible.

      November 2, 2017
      • Terry Sanders #

        Well, he does imply that part of it is the Church and its magician/confessors, etc., doing some of the job of the Lensmen in Doc Smith stories. No lethal levels of corruption in Church or State bureaucracies, etc.

        But you’re right, he didn’t try too hard to justify it. One gets the impression he didn’t think of it as Alternate History, just a setting for some cool stories; and saw no reason to distract from the stories by microscopic examination of the setting. His tech is rather inconsistent, for instance, because it’s mostly irrelevant to the magic.

        November 2, 2017
    • mrsizer #

      The 1960s books in Turtledove’s “Aliens invade during WWII” series. The original set (3? 4?) were fine, but that latter series made no sense at all for just that reason.

      November 2, 2017
  2. C4c

    November 1, 2017
  3. Mike Houst #

    “Depending on how far back magic entered the world, how can the history be parallel enough to be recognized?”

    Well, playing devil’s advocate, it might work if magic were used in place of technology with the same result. If the use of magic in those cases was more cost effective (time, energy, resources, etc.) then its use rather than the historical solution might logically occur. Especially if the cost for either was only marginally different. e.g. If a magical ritual to destroy the city of Hiroshima (Think the Biblical story of Jericho, or Sodom and Gomorrah) required the same kind of Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, and both were possible, but the magic solution was projected to be ready 45 days sooner, would it have been used? Trouble is, that opens up other historical turning points as possibly going either direction also, magic or tech.

    I suppose the same can be said for how far back magic LEFT the world. Consider all the magic and miracles of historical legend and myth; how many of those effects could have been done technologically rather than magically? And would they have the same effect on history? Or perhaps there is a law of conservation of universes which causes those with different histories that lead to the same result to merge, blurring ancient technologies and magic so we can say with equal truth that both happened?

    November 1, 2017
    • The trick to the first paragraph is keeping the balance of power roughly the same. Which is trickier than it sounds. Which is why I have a project that is shelved. It won’t let me just junk it but it is currently letting me play the ‘I will write you when I can figure out how it happened the world wound up so similar even with magic from the dawn of time.’ Not sure how long that’ll hold out for.

      November 1, 2017
  4. The worst are alternate histories where there’s some major change a long time ago and yet the key people in the present day are recognizable. E.g. we learn that Columbus used a fleet of magic carpets to discover America in 1492, but the story itself revolves around the Russian Empire trying to use magic to influence the 2016 election–which is still between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

    It’s as though those writers are either very unimaginative or else very lazy.

    Exception: if the whole thing is played for laughs, this can be okay. E.g. the magic is called “FezBook.”

    November 1, 2017
    • Christopher M. Chupik #

      Yeah, I hear you. I want to loudly declare in my bitterly pedantic voice: “ALTERNATE HISTORY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY!”

      November 1, 2017
      • snelson134 #

        The problem I think both you and Kevin are missing is you’re moving from what happens in micro (you didn’t survive WWII without the Atomic bomb) to macro (there wouldn’t be a Japan or an America) or whatever. It gets back to something we see today: people would rather keep as much of the same structure as long as possible, even though it’s being used against them by those who at bottom hate them.

        November 2, 2017
    • The alternate history scene cut from An American Carol. Slave Gary Coleman tosses a rag off camera and says “You finish, Barack.” Amusing, and, on the surface, seems to say people would wind up differently than they do now, but it misses that people in our world most likely would not exist.

      That’s what I led off with when one of the kids had an assignment of what would have happened if we hadn’t have used atomic weapons in WWII. “You probably wouldn’t be here, because I probably wouldn’t be here, because my father would have been in the invasion of Japan, and probably wouldn’t have made it home.”

      November 1, 2017
    • Stephen J. #

      Well, of course. Remember, all fiction is ultimately about us. If you couldn’t recognize or find any key figures in a historical period you liked, what would be the point of reading about that period or its variants?

      You don’t read The Dragon Waiting, by John M. Ford, for the plausibility of its world-building, you read it for the sheer glee of watching the intrigue of Richard III fighting the Byzantine Empire with wizards and vampires in his ranks. If Ford had really followed the logic of his historical changes — the most critical of which was assuming Julian the Apostate managed to thwart the conversion of the Roman Empire and its successor realms to Christianity, thus killing in its cradle the Church’s influence on Europe — his world should have had virtually nothing recognizeable in its sociopolitical setup, and certainly none of the people. But a Ricardian fantasy without Richard just misses the point of the exercise.

      November 2, 2017
      • One of the best for this is Operation Chaos. We get the touch-feel of WWII but their war is completely different.

        November 2, 2017
      • Christopher M. Chupik #

        I suppose it depends on the kind of story you’re telling. And a good author can get away with just about anything.

        November 2, 2017
  5. sam57l0 #

    Those drums! Those DRUMS!! They’re driving me MAD,;MAD, do you hear? MAAAAddddd. (Slap.) Thanks; I needed that.
    I just love those old jungle movies.

    November 1, 2017
    • *giggle* I love the drum scene in the Maverick movie for that very reason. Talk about playing a trope for laughs!

      November 1, 2017
  6. paladin3001 #

    It’s a fine line between alternate history and exotic history that’s for sure. Taking one change and realizing if you follow through it logically, it can change massive things. Something I am realizing with one project. Found the linchpin and working through the changes it would cause is something else again.

    November 1, 2017
  7. I found that, for me at least, taking a plausible “this might have happened, and then” minor event works a lot better than, oh, having Custer win at Greasy Grass/ Little Bighorn. What if a certain Holy Roman Emperor’s confessor had been sick a week longer, and so had not persuaded him to change his mind and take a harder line on something? What if Count General Windischgraetz’s wife had not been killed, but only injured in Prague in 1848?

    I don’t know enough history to make a massive change to things. And I look at my complaints about the alt-history in Steven Barnes’s _Lion’s Blood_ and think, “Eh, no, keep it small.” (The change he makes is based on two historical assumptions that fall apart, hard, if you really look at them carefully. Which then makes the book-world collapse. Still not a bad book, but I don’t want to go that route.)

    November 1, 2017
    • Mike Houst #

      Kind of like the Quantum Leap episode where everyone thinks he’s supposed to save JFK, when he’s really there to save Jackie.

      November 1, 2017
    • Beyond all the other problems… he never acknowledges that pre-Christian Ireland had (Irish and British) slaves, and in fact ran a slave trade with bits of Europe.

      (IIRC. I really really couldn’t get into those books.)

      November 1, 2017
      • I slogged through, but the more I learn about the history of the period he chose for his diversion, the worse the books fall apart. And that’s before the transpara-plot.

        November 2, 2017
        • The music the artist-formerly-known-as-Heather-Alexander did for the first book is better than the book, IMHO.

          November 2, 2017
          • snelson134 #

            Very much so.

            November 2, 2017
  8. One pet peeve is in these worlds using names from our world that have known cultural derivations (say Biblical.) It’s not enough to throw the book against the wall, but it’s an annoyance.

    OTOH, having a fictional world populated entirely by characters with made-up names is off-putting to a significant population of readers. When I was writing Khuldhar’s War, I had critiquers who adamantly Did Not Like reading a story in which there was not a single character with a familiar name. For them, every name was noise, meaningless gibberish, and they hated, hated, hated it.

    When I wrote “Royal Steel,” I used names from the Caucasus (Armenian and Ossetian in particular), and when I wrote “The Sound of One Child Crying” in the same world, I used some more names from that part of the world. I may go back to that fantasy world one of these days, but of late I’ve been working more in worlds which have some clear cultural ties to The Fields We Know (including one country that is “what happens when a bunch of Chicagoans go through a worldgate to a fantasy world with magic”).

    November 1, 2017
    • It helps if most of the names are if not familiar, at least readily pronounceable. X!patkl might be alright for *a* character, but Sevvuk and Pinnom will be more easily followed.

      November 2, 2017
    • mrsizer #

      “I still prefer World Walker to T’hn’uuck because it’s cooler; also I cannot pronounce T’hn’uuck.” I read that last night and laughed because I don’t even try to pronounce names/titles like that. I had read “Aragorn” as “Argon” until the movies came out. I don’t read out loud, so I don’t care how it is pronounced. Gaelic and Chinese names are much the same – phonetic pronunciation gets you nowhere, so why bother?

      It does need to be readily identifiable, though. X!patkl is fine, but having a brother X!pakh and a sister X!rahtl is not at all fine.

      November 2, 2017
    • Ohhhh yeah. It gets worse when you have just enough etymology to understand why words are the way they are and you realize that you have to scrap a large part of your working vocabulary. (It is surprisingly difficult to remove “OK” when you’re pantsing.) All names ending in “-el” are pretty much Biblical (Michael, Raphael, etc.) Let’s not even get into math…

      November 4, 2017
      • I had a civilization where “el” in their language was the affectionate diminutive of a name. Just like in another “Kal” is sweet and used to change the name to “child name” BUT those are created languages and the names being modified are not of Earth.

        November 4, 2017
  9. Mary #

    The fun thing about many extrapolations is that as fiction they are one thing, but as logical exercises they depend on hypothesized character.

    Suppose Constantine had not executed his oldest son. What would the effect have been? Well, it would have depended heavily on the son’s character. Likewise with, say, the notion that Prince Arthur got his wife pregnant before he died, thus meaning she never married his brother Henry, and the child inherited the throne; much depends on the character you impute to the child.

    November 2, 2017
  10. BobtheRegisterredFool #

    I came here this morning because at the time, I was playing with a LitRPG notion, that involved the rail companies secretly discovering otherworldly videogamey dungeons before the civil war. In a world with secret martial arts underworlds (in the criminal/wuxia not mythological sense.). I have little sense of the intervening history, except that the secret has been kept, mostly, until the story starts, and that the story setting might be interstellar. Also, WWI and WWII happened, and history was roughly similar into the sixties.

    November 2, 2017
  11. Mary #

    I have to recommend L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Rachel Griffin series here. Yes, the world is strangely similar for what changed, but — a reason for that is unfolding.

    November 2, 2017
    • I was going to mention that series. Jagi does a really good job of building a world that’s so entirely different from ours and yet so similar. I started reading it thinking it was a Harry Potter-like hidden magical world, then…

      The travel glass led to New York City. Her parents had taken them through the busy city to see a few sights: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the gilded Temple of Apollo on Fifth Avenue, the Shrine of the Goddess Amaterasu. All five of these landmarks had been crowded with mundane folk. Rachel had seldom mixed with the Unwary, those who were ignorant of the magical World of the Wise. She had kept her shadowcloak tucked around her and stayed close to her family.

      Um, what? This world’s different for the Unwary (= muggles) too?

      But of course the similarities need justification even more than the differences do—and that’s where this series shines.

      November 5, 2017

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