14.42: Alternate History

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard

Alternate histories (and historical fantasies) are a staple of genre fiction. In this episode we talk about the worldbuilding process, the tools we use, and the pitfalls we try to avoid when constructing these kinds of stories.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson


Write an alternate history by changing a cusp point in your own life.

Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon

8 thoughts on “14.42: Alternate History”

  1. I write alt-history where partial anti-gravity is discovered by Faraday in 1843 – history remains mostly the same through the next century, apart from space travel, slowly diverging until it all explodes in 1911.

    Mascara, in the early 1900s, was called “rimmel” (the trade name) in France, and the rest of Europe.

    Do I call it rimmel (because it’s a French couturier directing the make-up) or do I call it mascara?

    Yup, my life.

    The Tiffany Effect – when common knowledge is wrong:


  2. I might be in the minority on this, and I’m not fully clear on what that panel Howard mention was saying, but as a person who A. loves Firefly B. speaks Chinese: I find the actors’ (whom I love!) Chinese pronunciation awful to the point that I usually don’t even know what they’re TRYING to say. It’s one of the most aggravating parts of the show for me.
    Also, that for a show with a supposed melded Eastern-Western deal, I don’t recall there being any Chinese characters in the show.

    1. Also, the linguist quoted doesn’t seem to have spent time in any border country. In the Southwest you’ll find bilingual people who will use a terrible Anglo pronunciation of Spanish words (eg place names) when speaking English but pronounce the exact same words with Spanish pronunciation when speaking Spanish. Others of us retain the Spanish pronunciation even when speaking English. It’s just different styles of code switching. Also, even if you’re not bilingual, if you’ve only ever heard a word pronounced with a certain tone or inflection, I’m willing to postulate that the human ear is discerning enough that many would reproduce the tone even without knowing it’s a tone simply because that’s how the word is always said by native speakers. Or at least some would. Admittedly some people really just don’t hear the tones, but this notion they’d never get it right? I’m not buying it.

  3. Another quartet, Brandon, Mary Robinette, Margaret, and Howard, tackled the topic of worldbuilding for alternate history stories. Or perhaps worldbuilding for historical fantasies? Whichever way the cusp point went! Anyway, lots and lots of interesting points, starting with what we mean by alternate history, cusp point or background change? Handling the experts in your audience, and your own lack of knowledge. And much more! Go read the transcript, available now in the archives!

  4. The homework (writing an alternate history of one’s own biography) interacts interestingly with something Howard once said (in 2018, perhaps?): “And the story you tell about your journey — if it does not reflect back and have some regret in it, you’ve lied.”

    This exercise is a chance to exchange one set of regrets with another.

  5. Oh, I also just read Flat Broke with Two Goats (I picked it because it’s the Overdrive Big Library Read right now) and did not care for it either. Mostly, I think the writer was a whiner and I didn’t feel she was sincere when she said their trouble was her fault, too. I think she wanted us to go “there, there, you couldn’t have done better” but I think she could have.

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