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Alternate Universe and Secret History

A reader asks, "What's the difference between an alternate universe and a secret history? Which one is The Order of the Air?"

Oh really interesting question! My thoughts:

An alternate universe is a world which has diverged from ours at some point in the past. The Roman Empire never fell. The Austro-Hungarian Empire has dominated Europe with steam powered airships since the mid 19th century. Dinosaurs aren't extinct and are normally used as beasts of burden. Khan Noonien Singh became a world dictator in 1990 following a disastrous nuclear war.

A secret history is our world, only there are some things happening beneath the surface which most people don't know about. There is a secret military program beneath Cheyenne Mountain that sends people to other planets. Aliens have secretly visited Earth. Vampires are real and hiding among us. There is a network of sanctuaries all over the world that hide and protect abnormal creatures from the daylight world. There is a school for mutant children with special powers in Westchester County, NY.

The idea of a secret history is that if you knew, if you were one of the people in on the secret, you'd discover that the wonders are real. In an alternate universe, they're real -- over there. In that alternate United Kingdom there are dinosaurs. In the secret history United Kingdom, there's a pterodactyl at the London Sanctuary, and you could go see it if you could get Declan to let you in!

In an alternate universe future, the USS Enterprise takes people to other planets. In the secret history, the Stargate can take you to Atlantis today if you have the clearance to get General Landry to dial the gate!

The Order of the Air is a secret history, like Stargate. This is our world. When I started on my first Stargate novel, Death Game, I asked my editor about backstory and history. She said, "Assume that everything happened just like it did in the real world unless it's specifically covered in canon." In other words, the California state university system is just like it really is. John Sheppard's war in Afghanistan is just like it really is. The Air Force works just like it really does. In Stargate, you can't say, "India doesn't exist as a nation. It's still part of the British Empire." That would be completely jarring. That would be breaking the rules, departing from secret history to alternate universe. You can say, however, "Baal has a secret plan to assassinate the Prime Minister of India and replace him with a Goa'uld and we have to stop him." Because that is secret. An assassination attempt that failed is secret history. India as a nation not existing is alternate universe.

Which is harder to write? An alternate universe is very challenging because it has to be consistent in every detail. Let's say you have dinosaurs and always have. If you've got a pet pterodactyl, the distance between London and Paris becomes a morning's easy flight. The entire history of Europe has to change! Economically, socially, ethnically, governmentally -- you can't just pop into a 20th century Europe that has always had easy air communication continentally and say, "This is about World War II with dinosaurs with flame throwers slugging it out beneath pterodactyls with bombs." There can't be World War II. The world would be so different that you could never have the same situation. How would you have World War II if you didn't have the industrial revolution because who needs trains and trucks and cars when you have dinosaurs? The biggest problem with an alternate universe is that very often it doesn't make sense if you think about it too hard. The author has to be very, very conscientious in worldbuilding to pull it off, or the changes have to be small and recent.

A secret history is hard because you have to research it as carefully as you would a historical novel. If this is our world, it's going to be read by people who know perfectly well what building is at the corner of P and 14th in Washington DC! It's going to be read by people who live in the cities you describe, who remember the days you fictionalize, and who have had the experiences you're writing about. Sam Carter must wear black pumps with 1" heels with her class As, because that's the uniform regulation and people are reading this book who know that. Charles Xavier can't worry about a plot to destroy the New York Underground because it's called the subway, not the underground or the metro. You have to get it right.

Generally, I write secret histories rather than alternate universes because that's what I prefer. I like the challenge of weaving in fantastic events with the everyday world, whether that's numinous and magical things that happened just beyond the pages of the history book or amazing discoveries behind closed doors.

The Order of the Air is a secret history. This is our world. And this is the story of how they saved it!



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 8th, 2013 03:39 pm (UTC)
To complete your point, a secret history can become an alternate history if the "Masquerade" is broken: if the world at large finds out the secret. If this happens, a consideration in addition to "how does the divergence affect society" is "how does society react to discovering the divergence?"

A lot of course depends on the nature of the secret. If the secret is "There is a hidden Stone Age gorilla civilization under the mountains of Rwanda," this is obviously going to affect things less than if the secret is "Earth is under attack by hostile interstellar aliens" or "All our political leaders are actually Martian dopplegangers."
Mar. 8th, 2013 04:58 pm (UTC)
True! Unfortunately it often crashes the show! If you think you're in SG-1 and suddenly there are discovered to be secret dinosaur civilizations on Earth, people are likely to say, "WTF? This isn't Stargate!" It's a really tricky transition, and a lot of shows crash hard when they try to change from a secret history to an alternate history.
Mar. 8th, 2013 05:38 pm (UTC)
Very interesting post! Where would you classify Sanctuary? On the one hand, it's secret history (with Tesla and Jack the Ripper, not to mention the real-world people she's name-dropped). On the other hand, with all the stuff Abnormals affect in the public eye...

Maybe there's a middle ground where a show can be a secret history but still have wide-ranging effects. Like Sanctuary or Doctor Who. :D
Mar. 8th, 2013 06:26 pm (UTC)
On the subject of dinosaurs not being wiped out 65 million years ago, odds are good that mammals wouldn't have flourished like they have in the Cenozoic. The mass-extinction event freed up a ton of ecological niches that the dinosaurs had either dominated or created since the Triassic. So not only would World War II be vastly different, but mammals likely would not have specialized like they did. Humans probably wouldn't exist in a world that didn't experience the K-T Mass Extinction.

So yes, one little historical change can have incredible cascading effects. I think that writing an alternate history might be harder than a secret history, because it takes a thorough knowledge of those effects to build a believable story.

On a purely technical matter, we still have dinosaurs today. Except now they have feathers instead of sickle-claws. Evolution is a tinkerer!
Mar. 8th, 2013 09:57 pm (UTC)
The complexities of alternate universes are almost always the things that throw me out of them- for example, while I do enjoy the Temeraire books, I often find myself wondering if anything even remotely like the Napoleonic Wars would have happened in a world populated by dragons. You have to commit to a certain amount of suspension of disbelief as a reader which is sometimes just stretched too far!
Mar. 23rd, 2013 04:59 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I've been into alternate histories for quite a while, but I'm going to start looking for more secret histories to read. However, I do get a bit impatient with conspiracy theories sometimes; I'm more interested in reality retcons of somewhat limited, specific incidents than in finding out Everything I Know Is A Lie, because the greater a conspiracy is, the harder it is for me to suspend disbelief that it could be kept secret.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )