quinta-feira, 29 de maio de 2008

Different changes: interview with Harry Turtledove

He is a master of the Alternate History subgenre - some say he is THE master -, but also is a great fantasy writer. Maybe Mr. Turtledove is the great influence of the recent Alternate History trend in Brazilian Science Fiction, led by writer Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro and a few others, including myself. His speciality, different froom what we used to expect from famous Science Fiction writers, is not Engineery or Quemestry, but History and his sociological view of how small changing details, characters or decisions can turn the whole world upside down.

Our Intempol crew, aware of the importance of this guest and headed by Gerson himself, produced, after a heavy brainstorm, a consistent poll of ten questions that goes from the traditional “how do you do the research for your novels” to the truth behind the North American Civil War and it’s racist problems.

Now, let’s quit the small talk and go straight to the points.

Of divergence, of course...


Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, Ivo Heinz & Octavio Aragão - You had recently made your short story "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" (1992) into a novel of that same title. Your SF short story "Nasty, Brutish, and..." (1989) seems to have inspired you to write EARTHGRIP (1991). In terms of both kind of work and amount of work, what's the difference between to change short fiction into a novel and to write a novel from scratch? Also, when you plan a novel like THE GUNS OF SOUTH, you think it as a great series, planting plot points along the narrative for future development, or the subseqüent novels are consequences of the success of the first one?

Harry Turtledove - "Nasty, Brutish, and . . ." was the inspiration for aliens in the last,
biggest part of EARTHGRIP, yes, but not for the whole novel. I'd already written two other stories about the main character without fully knowing she and the Foitani lived in the same universe. The short "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" gave me a lot of the characters for the longer one. It didn't influence the plot much, not beyond the first chapter. GUNS OF THE SOUTH stands alone, and will probably continue to stand alone. It is not directly connected to HOW FEW REMAIN or to any of the books that came after HOW FEW REMAIN. They both spring from changes in the American Civil War, but different changes in each case.

Ivo Heinz & Joshua Falken - A great number of your great AH novels are based in divergences inside war facts. Why not follow a technology based point of divergence like, for instance, happens in THE DIFFERENCE ENGINE, by Gibson and Sterling, where steam based computers were invented in the XIX century? Why the focus in the war theme with the possibility of alternate technology appearing as a sidenote?

HT - I've focused on social and technological changes in the stories collected as AGENT OF BYZANTIUM. I guess the main answer to "why not more of that?" is twofold. First, I'm a historian by training, not an engineer or a scientist. And second, fiction is most interesting when it shows character under stress, and the two best ways to put people under stress are to make them fall in love and to put them in imminent danger of losing their lives.

Gérson Lodi-Ribeiro - Unlike other North American Jews who write science fiction - Asimov and Silverberg are just two of the names which I remember at once - you had been consistently writing fiction which deal with Jewish themes & motif in an overt way. In your short story "The R Strain" (1985), you proposed a genetically altered pigs that orthodox Jews perhaps could eat. Then, in your beautiful & pungent horror short story "Not All Wolves"(1988), you have a medieval teen werewolf being saved from a mob persecution by a Jewish oldman. In your alternative history novel In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003), half a century after Nazi final victory, you have a Jewish family living disguised as Nazist loyal citizens.

All right, those were overt approaches. My doubt is about your hard SF novelette "Last Favor". In that story, you talk of centauroid intelligent aliens whose species is split between two races; blue centauroid consider themselves superior and discriminate and oppress green centauroids. Should this text be read as a fiery critical comment on the way the European Gentiles had treated the Jews along the centuries?

HT - Interesting question! You're close about "Last Favor," but not quite there.

What I was looking at was the effect of long isolation and forced genetic selection for cleverness. If you select for creatures that live best in cold climates, you'll get ones with short limbs and muzzles and ears - think of Arctic foxes. If you select for creatures that live in the desert, you'll get ones with a slim build and big ears - think of fennec foxes. If you select for creatures in an environment where stupidity is likely to prove lethal...

Octavio Aragão & André Kenji - The Marxist based historian scholars refuse the whole concept of Alternate History based in the idea that History itself follow one only possible path. So, if Hitler doesn't have existed, History would “put” anyone else in his place, with the same role, as if the individual hadn't real importance. They also say that the exercise of AH doesn't help to understand the Historical process, but some scholars are real fans of your work.

How do you deal with that? How would you advocate the importance of AH as a tool to understand History and how do you proceed you research in order to build a coherent alternate history line?

HT - Let the people who talk about historical inevitability and purely economic motives explain away the careers of Alexander the Great (had Philip of Macedon attacked Persia, the world would have looked very different, as it would have in another way if Alexander had lived to be 75) or Jesus or Muhammad. I don't think much of AH as a teaching tool, because most of the time you have to know a lot of real history to appreciate what the AH is doing. AH does inspire people who already know some of the real history to try to find out more. I ended up in Byzantine history because of L. Sprague de Camp's LEST DARKNESS FALL. My AGENT OF BYZANTIUM, which I mentioned before, got someone else interested in Byzantium. What goes around comes around. :-)

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro - Your fine novelette "Gentlemen of the Shade" (1988) about a Victorian group of vampires seems rather similar to Kim Newman's Anno Dracula (1992). In the same vein, the short story you wrote with Elaine O'Byrne, "Death in Vesunna" (1981) presents a provincial Roman acting as police chief in a small Third Century Roman village owns certain similarities to Lindsey Davis's series of novels about Roman investigator Marcus Didius Falco (first novel published in 1989). Even if in a tongue in cheek mode, did you ever think you could have somewhat "inspired" those two authors?

HT - Actually, they inspired me. I had my time machine handy, and stole their ideas before they got the chance to use them. Oh, wait - that's my story "Hindsight." I wonder who and what inspired that.

André Kenji - Some scholars such as Thomas Woods Jr., Thomas DiLorenzo and the brothers James Ronald and Walter Donald Kennedy are pointing that the South States had the right to the secession and that the whole civil war was a worst malefice to the country than the servitude per se. How do you see it?

HT - The real problem was that the southern separatist cause was almost inseparable from the cause of slavery. Anyone who tries to say anything different is, in my opinion, romanticizing the way things were. The Confederate Constitution enshrines the right to own property in Negro slaves in three different places. The South Carolina Ordinance of Secession - which took the first state out of the USA - says, "We affirm that those ends for which this government was instituted have been defeated, and the government itself has been destructive of them by the action of the nonslaveholding states. Those states have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of thes tates and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted the open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and eloin [a rare word that means "take away"] the property of the citizens of other states. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books, and pictures, to servile insurrection." I don't believe we could have ended slavery peacefully, as you did 20 years later. Whether the U.S. South had a constitutional right to secede or not, secession here was almost certain to mean war.

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro - We know that there are alternative history stories whose points of divergence are not placed in (human) history itself, but rather in some point of the past, usually prior to the dawn of humankind. For the sake of genre taxonomy, do you think we should consider those stories as alternative history proper, a kind of alternative natural history? - as your novel A World of Difference (1990) (which proposes an astrophysical divergence: the fourth planet of the Solar System is not Mars, but Minerva, a Earth-sized and life-bearing world); your fix-up A Different Flesh (1988) (a paleontological divergece: when Europeans discover America, they find Homo erectus there instead of Amerindians) or your Hugo-winner novella "Down in the Bottomlands" (1993) (a geophysical divergence: Mediterranean Sea stays as a huge desert till the present day and, as a consequence, Neandertals survive in Europe) - Or would it be better to classify that kind of story as mainstream science fiction?

HT - They seem like alternate history to me, but I haven't really spent a whole lot of time worrying about how to classify them, I'm afraid.

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro - In the Eighties and early Nineties, besides writing alternative history and fantasy stories and novels, you wrote a bunch of fine science fiction novels, like Noninterference (1988) and Earthgrip (1991). Nowadays, however, you dedicated your novel writing only to alternative history and fantasy. Why is it so? Is the market really much more favorable to AH? Or you simply gave up to write science fiction novels, albeit you do keep writing sf short stories?

HT - It seems to be a question of ideas. Lately, my novel-sized ideas have been AH or fantasy. . . or, under the name H. N. Turteltaub, straight historical fiction. That may change - I have no idea whether it will.

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro - There is an unanimous consensus among alternative history buffs and scholars that your solo AH novels (like In the Presence of Mine Enemies; The Guns of the South and Ruled Britannia) are rather better written than the books you had launched in all those trilogies and longer series along the last decade. Do you agree with that point of view?

HT - No.

Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro - Besides being a very successful alternative history writer, you have been organizing some of the best AH anthologies in the last few years. Particularly, you had edited Alternate Generals, Alternate Generals II and Alternate Generals III. Would you accept submissions of alternative stories by Brazilian and Portuguese authors on alternative Brazilian and Portuguese generals?

HT - If there is an ALTERNATE GENERALS IV (right now, there isn't), I would be glad to accept such submissions - in English. Those who make them, though, have the same problem I would if I were writing in Portuguese: telling an interesting story in a language not their own. Some people can do that; Nabokov and Conrad come to mind. But it's not easy.

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