The Other Kind of Alt-History

What do you call it when a military power, sends it’s navy and troops to somewhere else, lands there and claims the land as its own and under the direct control of that power?

You can call it lots of things but if you are in Australia just be really careful that you don’t call it an “invasion”. This is one of those issues where if you are outside of it the issue is simple and if you are inside it – well it is still simple but also a weird world of shibboleths.

Before I continue, I’d advise reading some of these links:

You’ll probably have noticed the strange topsy-turvy way in which people refering to an invasion as an “invasion” is denounced as “political correctness” by the people who typically denounce “political correctness” but usually reserve that term for when other people want to control language.

Why am I mentioning this now? Mainly because it ties in with the previous post about the US, the “South” and attempts to control history.

In the case of Australia there is a national myth – indeed more than just as a myth as it was enshrined as a principle “Terra Nullius” within Australian case law – that Australia was an empty place. Hence, according to that myth, it wasn’t anybody’s and hence when Britain claimed (and named) New South Wales it wasn’t an invasion per-se because the land was just sitting there. The myth is false, obviously, and eventually rejected by Australian courts in 1982 in the landmark Mabo case

Yet here we are and apparently rational people will vehemently tie themselves into rhetorical knots to claim that an invasion wasn’t an invasion. Even given the willingness of some on the right to boldly assert irrational claims, you’d think they would avoid such an obviously silly one. The most powerful navy in the world (at the time) plonks a full on colony of citizens half-way round the world, displacing the people living there and claiming the land as its own is somehow NOT an invasion is such a silly claim that you might assume no public figure would be willing to make it.

However, the absurdity almost makes the ‘controversy’ stronger. After all, if you can boldy talk nonesense and demand that people listen to you and more sensible people nod their heads and concede that your point should be given due consideration, well what better expression of power and privelege can there be? To quote the Simpson’s movie “Have you ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring nobody listens to you.”

So we have an issue that requires little more than a basic grasp of English and some fairly simple moral principles to settle:

  • The word “invasion” means something and it is a decent fit to what Britain did to Australia.
  • Stealing people’s stuff (including land) is wrong.

Really, unless your ideology is stealingpeoplesstuffiscoolism this should not be a moral conundrum.

So why the rightwing passion in the opposite direction (a passion that commits them to arguing that words don’t mean what they mean and stealling is OK sometimes)? Now part of it is a natural knee-jerk defence of one’s ancestors – except, in the case of Australia:

  • It was Britain that did the invading and Australia isn’t Britain.
  • Many of the first settlers were transported criminals – Australia was (at least partly & initially) settled by settlers their against their own will.

So whereas we might look at blowhards in other nations trying to edit their nations history into hagiographic sequence of events where the nation or its originators only ever did good things and the bad things they did were always justified and for the best etc etc, you’d think that the Australian version of such people would still be able to rationalise the original British invasion (sorry “settlement”) without having to rewrite the dictionary.

But they can’t and they won’t. Because it isn’t about the distant past but about the recent past. To accept that the events 1770 and 1788 amounted to an invasion would require them to accept that modern Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.

It’s not a syllogism and “invasion” isn’t the premise, but the conclusion they are trying to avoid remains the same: Australia owes a debt to the people whose land was taken.

Altering History versus Mashing Up History

The announcement by HBO’s Game of Thrones showrunners that they were working on alt-history TV show called “Confederate” caused some obvious concerns.

I’ve used the term “challenging” for a range of premises for stories (e.g. recently with discussing the notion of James Bond being played by a woman actor), by which I mean there are more ways for the story to go horribly wrong than normal. Yes, of course, there is some potential that with the right balance of script and actors and sensibilities that *somehow* this proposed show could finda narrow pathway between all the possible pit-falls and start a national conversation in the US about race, the legacy of slavery and unhealed national division that was the US Civil War. I say “some potential” but let’s face it that potential is close to zero. GoT showrunners, Benioff and Weiss, have avoid pitfall#1 of gazillion by bringing in two black writers Nichelle Tramble Spellman and Malcolm Spellman – a married couple with an excellent TV-writing background. Yet plenty of other horrible outcomes await. Ironically, the very idea of the show possibly not being f_king awful feels like an alt-history exercise in which we have to imagine all the branching paths (most which lead us to a what-were-they-thinking-when-they-greenlit-this-monstrosity) in which somehow the showrunners manage to make the right decision and avoid making a piece of inflamatory garbage.

But, you can see the temptation. There are more interesting historical what-ifs but popular culture keeps returning to one of them in particular:

  • What if the Nazis had won WW2? Of which the BBC has yet another contribution with a series based on Len Deighton’s SS-GB while the US series The Man in the High Castle is still on-going.

I’d argue that this premise isn’t genuinely an alt-history theme – the question isn’t about how post-1945 history would have proceeded if Germany had won but rather what if people now had to secretly fight a Nazi government. It’s a lazy way of looking at living under fascism without looking at the mechanism of how countries become fascist.

It’s that laziness that pushes some alt-history into fantasy rather than SF, the difference being a desire to transplant one set of historical conditions onto modern times rather than the often supposed premise of alt-history: exploring how modern times would be different if a given event hadn’t happened.

For example. Imagine these two different stories:

  1. Queen Elizabeth I of England has a healthy child and grandchild and the throne of England stays Tudor after her death rather than passing to the Stuart line. The story is set in the British Isles in 2017 but in a very different world because of how history played out.
  2. Same premise as above but there as a rationalisation for a story set in 2017 but England is still like Tudor times but somehow modern as well (Wolf Hall but with mobile phones).

Actually I quite like the idea of story 2 but calling it “alt-history” is not doing any favours to the word “history”. Story 1 has the capacity to look at how events in the past shape our world (no English Civil War maybe? Scotland retain independence maybe?). Story 2 is just a genre mash-up – no offence intended towards genre mash-ups, just trying to be clear about the difference. I’m also not trying to police the term “alt-history” either. If it is easier to call both kinds of story alt-history then I’m OK with that but I do want to highlight the distinction.

Let’s call them Type 1 and Type 2. With What if the Nazis had won WW2 stories there is a lot of overlap because the events were relatively recent. With this proposed “Confederate” story where are the showrunners going to place the story between those two points? Type 2 plonks a 19th century Antebellum story in modern times. Type 1 looks at how the Civil War shaped modern America by removing its influence. I’m guessing they’ll end up with a Type 2 story but claim it is a Type 1 i.e. they’ll want the story elements borrowed from Civil War stories but claim a convuluted back story.

Either way, the capacity of a TV show to unpack and examine the issue of land, money, inherited wealth, race and the problems of agarain economies is close to zero. For example, the show isn’t going to be about how the Confederacy became a failed state in (say) 1890, collapsed, leading to a (northern) US take-over and resulting in a modern USA in which the legacy of slavery can still be seen in entrenched racism, police violence, an abusive prison system, economic inequality and aggresive white nationalism.

Review: The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

Bob Howard is back and added to his normal foes (modern management practices, office politics, the org-chart, work-life balance, Lovecraftian horrors trying to eat your brain) is the prospect of privatisation of public services. Of course, many public servants in post-GFC Britain have faced the prospect of having their jobs replaced by private contractors in the name of efficiency (though oddly often at higher costs) but unlike Bob, the move doesn’t usually threaten the very fabric of reality.

Since The Rhesus Chart, Stross has taken a different approach to the Laundry novels. Where the earlier ones four novels pastiched specific spy/espionage novels, the more recent three let the Laundry premise stand on its own strengths but had it intersect with tropes from other fantasy genres (specifically vampires, superheroes and elves). In addition, Stross has introduced other key characters and let people other than Bob take centre stage (in particular Mo, fellow agent, Bob’s wife and owner of a demonic violin).

With The Delirium Brief, the series shifts another gear. Where the events of one novel had a light touch on the next one in the previous stories, The Delirium Brief requires more familiarity with the series as a whole. In particular events and characters from The Fuller Memorandum and The Apocalypse Codex play a major role in the story. Bob returns as the main narrator but the assembled cast from the more recent novels play bigger roles as co-protagonists. This is The Avengers movie of the Laundry novels but with more genital parasites from another dimension – an ensemble cast doing spy-stuff against a cosmic threat.

Aside from these structural changes, the book is what you expect from a Laundry novel. Left-leaning, snarky, IT/office-work jokes, Stross’s genuine love of spy-craft, cosmic horror played as international intrigue and some big set-piece action sequences. While the past three novels were good, the tone of the narration works much better with Bob. However, having a broader base of familiar characters gives the story a bit more emotional depth.

I wasn’t so keen on the sexual-exploitation themes of the main villain. Yes, this was a bad person doing bad things but at times the writing pushed into tittilation/exploitation. Nor was there a strong plot reason for it – indeed it required characters to repeatedly note that this element was out of character for the villain.

The political framing of the story was both topical and (as Stross has noted) somewhat overtaken by events. The British government being parodied is the bumbling rightwing cynics we thought they were prior to the Brexit referendum rather than the evil incompotent clowns that have been revealed since. So no Boris Johnson analogue and no Donald Trump jokes. However, Stross doesn’t hold back on pointing out how Tory ‘auesterity’ policies have gutted important aspects of British life and made the country inherently more fragile.

Witty, snarky, spy-thrills fun.


But, but you wouldn’t change Wonder Woman’s gender…


The rhetorical ju-Jitsu move from some critics of the recent Dr Who casting announcement is an attempt to flip the argument. If gender doesn’t matter and characters can be recast as different genders then shouldn’t you essjaydoubleyous be cool with a man being cast as Wonder Woman?

There are some good and bad counter-arguments on this:

  • A bad counter-argument is any one based on the in-universe canon for the character. That kind of argument ignores how flexible superhero canon (or Dr Who canon) is. The story can do anything and parallel Earths or gods or cosmic powers can make any outcome canon. In the comics, there have been at least two short-lived male versions of Wonder Woman.
  • A more specific argument about what Wonder Woman is about as a character is a stronger argument. Unlike other characters, being a woman is more closely tied to the *premise* of the character – not in terms of backstory but in terms of what the character is about. In this sense, Wonder Woman is more like James Bond – the character is more closely connected to the issue of gender roles than other (although Wonder Woman has been about subverting traditional roles and Bond has been about reinforcing them).
  • The strongest argument is the pragmatic one. No, casting a man as Wonder Woman is a stupid idea because there is a tiny number of superhero franchises with a lead woman character. Between Marvel and DC films the sum total is currently ONE and that’s Wonder Woman. Even counting superhero team movies women are seriously outnumbered. Adding in Marvel and DC TV’s shows doesn’t improve matters much.

But that last question leaves open the question of whether in principle a man could be cast as Wonder Woman. I think my answer would be similarish to the Bond one – it would be difficult to do but not in principle impossible. Of course, that implies there are lots of ways it could be done wrong (e.g. just for the purpose of sexist/transphobic comedy). I’m also not sure exactly what a successful attempt would be like or why that story would be a more important one to tell than the many other untold stories of a woman who is a superhero – so accepting the possibility doesn’t imply it is necessarily a priority.

In short – cast a man as Wonder Woman but not yet and not for a long long time yet.

*[ the depth cues on that artwork feel all off to me. Superman’s fists don’t look like they belong to him and Superwoman looks like she is a tiny person kicking Superman’s shoulder]

The Name’s Who, James Who

As we are on the topic, let’s talk about James Bond* and Doctor Who. Along with Sherlock Holmes, these characters are the superheroes of British pop-culture: they exist independent of their stories, they are re-inventable and yet recognisable, and effectively have super powers.


With a woman cast to play Doctor Who people have cast around for suitable analogies for an equally significant change. As a new James Bond has not been cast and as Daniel Craig is moving on, comparisons with James Bond being cast as a woman have been made. I don’t think the comparison is apt.

Having said that I very much NOT saying it couldn’t be done or that it would be a mistake. Certainly, we’ve already had women cast successfully in similar super-spy roles of one kind or another. There is no reason why a ‘Bond Film’ (i.e. a film with the core elements of the movies and the same dramatic beats and set-pieces) couldn’t have a woman as the lead character. However, I think successfully creating a version of James Bond who was both a continuation of the character AND a woman would be a substantial challenge for both the actor and the writers in a way Doctor Who simply isn’t. Nor is that a reason NOT to do it – if anything it is a reason TO do it. Avoiding doing something because it would be difficult and challenging is not what James Bond would do, now is it?

So what’s the difference? Aside from one era, Doctor Who as a character has never been about ‘maleness’. Now by ‘maleness’, I mean a fiction – a fiction that comes out of a bigger fiction about society having two distinct gender roles. This isn’t to say both the show and the character hasn’t reflected social views of its day, including hefty heaps of casual sexism but they have not been central to the character.

The exception was (I believe) the Matt Smith/Stephen Moffat combination. I’m not rehashing all the various arguments about Moffat’s sexism or lack there of but rather a core element of his writing. Moffat’s comedy gold mine has been his particular view of the ‘battle of the sexes’ which in turn arises out of British TV comedy. Repeatedly (and it has to be said amusingly) Moffat has relied on a number of tropes/stereotypes around heterosexual romantic relationships:

  • Moffat men are emotionally illiterate
  • Moffat men are essentially big kids
  • Moffat men are infuriating to their partners
  • Moffat women are confusing to their partners
  • Moffat women are great and lovely etc but also hard to fathom
  • Moffat women are mercurial

Note I’m not saying this is Moffat’s actual view of human society but rather this is a formula he works into his comedy writing that has worked for him and with he applied to Doctor Who as well. He returns to it because it allows for a comedy of errors that feels modern and fresh but which rests on a very simple view of society. That doesn’t mean he never writes gay characters nor does anything in those trope force women into specific kinds of professions or wider social roles but it does shape how characters interact. So, in this sense, the Matt Smith Doctor had existing elements of the character emphasised so that the Doctor became a Moffat male comedy lead.** Ironically this kind of self-deprecating maleness is something that the assorted forces of misogyny currently howling about Jodie Whittaker becoming the Doctor, should be glad to see gone – while it emphasised a Mars v Venus dichotomy it was less then complimentary about maleness (yet still steeped in privilege i.e. men-are-a-bit-crap-but-you-should-love-them-and-find-their-faults-endearing).

Back to James Bond – unlike the Doctor, Bond has always been tied not just to attitudes of the day but also to a specific view of masculinity both as supposed ideal but also a wish-fulfilment. Bond is physically fit, strong and virile. He is rarely prone to self doubt, he is hyper-competent, he has excellent taste but is not pretentious, he is knowledgable but not intellectual, he understands women better than they understand themselves and so on. He is also a sexist pig.

More broadly he is also a kind of walking avatar of privilege. Even his iconic double-O code is a privilege: a license to kill. He does things and gets away with doing things. While he, himself is not rich nor politically powerful, he moves easily among the rich and powerful. Now, arguably the Doctor does all that as well but there is a dramatic difference. Bond is comfortable in the surroundings of wealth, power and authority and belongs to what is best described as the British military officer class (not necessarily rich or from an aristocratic family but familiar with that world). Both Bond and the Doctor might, in the course of their adventures, walk into a room full of military officers and boss them around, Bond is doing so in a way that doesn’t subvert of disrupt the existing order, whereas the Doctor does so subversively and in a way that requires suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer. Of course of the two it is the Doctor who is actually from a kind of aristocracy (i.e. a lord of sorts…) whereas Bond isn’t and arguably the Doctor’s tendency to disrupt and subvert the existing order of things (including everything from the chain of command to what genre the story is in) is also a kind of privilege.

Casting a woman as Doctor Who has been a long time coming but part of that, aside from the general lack of leading roles for women actors, is that it was never a truly radical change for Doctor Who in terms of its own structure and in terms of the character. The Doctor’s capacity to walk into any situation, any social structure or civilisation or organisational hierarchy and reshape things has never been based on him being a manly-man who people obey because he is so manly but rather has been on the basis of an implied super-power or psychic ability (in reality plot convenience that has become a character trait). Overtly sexist characters being discombobulated by the Doctor upending everything will be fun to watch but also quite in keeping with the various ways a ‘dandy and a clown’ have bossed around brigadiers and space monarchs.

Bond is a bigger challenge to recast as a woman precisely because privilege has been a core part of the character operating within environs in which racism and sexism is entrenched. However, that doesn’t imply it shouldn’t be done. The two Lovecraft themed Hugo 2017 finalist novellas demonstrate that there are rich creative possibilities in looking at existing fiction within which racism and sexism are deeply baked and looking at them with new perspectives. The challenges in recasting Bond as a woman are revealing in themselves, as indeed they would be if the character was cast as non-white. The issue is not his physical strength but the assumption that only a person with the right appearance and accent and gender is entitled to act that way in the circles he moves in. Of course, attempts have been made to update that setting – Timothy Dalton’s Bond was less promiscuous, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond retained the casual sexism but was cast with a formidable Judi Dench as his boss. More interestingly in terms of re-examining the character, Daniel Craig in Casino Royale played an agent called James Bond through most of the film but one who doesn’t adopt the sociopathic demeanour of James Bond until the end (with the classic them, and gun barrel animation only playing at the end of the film).

My point being, a woman Doctor is never going to be as interesting or as challenging to our view of the world as a woman James Bond would be – or indeed any James Bond that departs from white-male-British-military-caste. Casting a woman as James Bond forces people to think about how Bond has functioned as a character and how that relates to maleness not in terms of, say, physical strength but in terms of a character who can act with impunity because he acts on behalf of a monarchy, a military caste and British interests. These are all reasons for casting a woman as James Bond, simply because it would be a more interesting world if that happened.


*[throughout I’m referring primarily to the movie character rather than Ian Fleming’s character or later written versions]
**[I think the Clara/Danny Pink relationship may have been an intentional attempt by Moffat to reverse and subvert his own tropes, with Danny often taking the emotionally more sophisticated and long term perspective of the relationship. Moffat has many faults but he does change.]