Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Harry Turtledove
by Darrell Schweitzer
Harry Turtledove is the great master of the Alternate History story, which is now
as firmly associated with him as robot stories were with Isaac Asimov. He
published his first two novels under the pseudonym of Eric Iverson in 1979, but
probably came to many readers' attention for the first time with the Basil Argyros
series published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, which later became
the book Agent of Byzantium (1987), although he began to publish very prolifically
immediately thereafter. He has won the Hugo award for the novella "Down in the
Bottomlands" (1994). He has won the Sidewise Award twice for alternate history,
for How Few Remain (1998) and Ruled Britannia (2003). He was even named an
honorary Kentucky Colonel at Rivercon in Louisville KY in 1998. At this writing,
his most recently published book is The Man With the Iron Heart.
SCHWEITZER: How did you turn out to be a fiction writer and not a historian?
Which came first, the desire to write fiction or the degree in Byzantine history?
TURTLEDOVE: The desire to write fiction came first. I have the degree because
I was an sf reader. I found a copy of Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall in a
secondhand bookstore when I was 14 or 15, and got hooked trying to find out how
much of the story was real (most of it) and how much he was making up (very
little, it turned out). After flunking out of Caltech at the end of my freshman year,
I ended up earning the Byzantine history degree at UCLA . . . and my dissertation
ran a year later than it might have, because I was working on the first novel that
sold at the same time, and also on the piece that became my first short-fiction sale
(to David Hartwell's Cosmos, which expired before the story saw print, though I
did get a check).
SCHWEITZER: So, did your fellow graduates regard you as the guy who broke
free and got to do something more fun? Or did they figure you had made a
frivolous use of your education?
TURTLEDOVE: I'm still friends with a couple of the people with whom I went
to grad school. Another guy bailed out of the program after getting his master's to
try to make it as an opera singer. He didn't, but he met his wife while performing
in a musical, so he figures it was worthwhile -- he ended up in the computer
world. My buddies are bemused, but they're pleased I found a way to make a
living at least partly related to what I studied.
And what goes around comes around. I was speaking about how I researched my
straight historical novel, Justinian (with the H.N. Turteltaub byline -- old H.N.
looks a lot like me, poor sap), at a Byzantine studies conference at UCLA around
the turn of the century, and after I got done this grad student came up to me. He
said he got interested in Byzantine history through my alternate history, Agent of
Byzantium. So, just as de Camp warped my life all those years before, I messed up
this fellow's. Writers can be dangerous people.
SCHWEITZER: How do professional historians regard alternate history fiction?
TURTLEDOVE: Well, what historians call "counterfactuals" are popular these
days. The real historians have realized that looking at what might have been can
help illuminate what really happened and why it happened. I don't mean to sound
disrespectful -- mm, maybe I do, a little -- but to me "counterfactuals" are like
alternate history without characterization.
SCHWEITZER: You wrote as Eric Iverson for a while. Why was that?
TURTLEDOVE: Back at the end of the 1970s, I sold my first sword-and-sorcery
novel to Belmont-Tower Books, and the editor there renamed me: she said no one
would believe Turtledove, which is my real name. I kept the pen-name for a while,
as I was also publishing some academic nonfiction, and I thought having one name
for each might be useful. Then I sold the four books of The Videssos Cycle to
Lester del Rey. He said that if I wanted to be Iverson, he wouldn't buy them -- he
claimed people would remember Turtledove much better. Since I had exactly no
leverage, I yielded. It's worked out all right, but I may be the only writer in
captivity to have his pen-name and his own name imposed on him.
SCHWEITZER: Did you always assume that you'd write fiction based on history,
or did that just work out that way? For example, I thought as a teenager that I
would be a proper science fiction writer and write about spaceships and time-travel
and the like, and that is not what has happened at all. The desire to write was there
before I really found my subject matter. Was it that way with you?
TURTLEDOVE: When I was 14 or 15, my sf was full of spaceships and
post-atomic-war futures. I've done regular sf professionally, too, in a couple of
novels and quite a bit of short fiction (I've got a 22nd-century novelette under
submission right now). But the first novel I finished -- I must've been 16 -- was
an (unpublishable) alternate history, and the larger part of what I've done since has
dealt with history one way or another ever since.
SCHWEITZER: A friend of mine stubbornly refuses to read alternate histories at
all. His objection is that the change made by the author (so-and-so didn't win the
battle, somebody died prematurely, or whatever) is arbitrary, and this leads to a
whole series of equally arbitrary changes, particularly involving famous people. He
then cannot escape the sense of the story being transparently made up, and cannot
get involved in it emotionally. How would you answer this?
TURTLEDOVE: Fiction is not about the created world. Let me say that again:
no fiction is about the created world. Fiction is about the world the author lives in,
and reflects the concerns of the author and his or her culture. What's fun and
interesting about alternate history is that it lets us look at our world in a funhouse
mirror we can't get any other way. And I'm sorry for your friend, because she or
he is missing some marvelous books, from The Man in the High Castle to the
recent and splendid The Yiddish Policeman's Union. If your friend can look at this
world the same way after reading those, I'd be very surprised.
SCHWEITZER: By "created world" I assume you mean the objectively real
world. You're saying that all fiction is a matter of an author's individual
perspective then? I wonder about some pulp superhacks who did their best to
suppress all individuality and write absolutely what the market wanted. (H.
Bedford Jones or Arthur J. Burks, for example.) Of course they didn't write about
the objectively real world either, but instead used agreed-upon formulas to pretend
to describe it. It is a fine philosophical point. If no fiction actually describes the
objective world, but instead it is a matter of the author's personal "headspace" (to
use an archaic, '60s term), then possibly the difference between compelling fiction
and dull, routine fiction is only a matter of the author's passion and sincerity. Yes?
No? Have I gone off the deep end here?
TURTLEDOVE: By "real world" I mean the objectively real world. By "created
world" I mean the one the author writes about. To my way of thinking, all
fiction-writing is in created worlds, but all writing is about the real world. The
difference between dull fiction and interesting fiction is a matter of how well it's
done. One can certainly be passionate and inept at the same time; indeed, that's
depressingly common. Anna Russell's comment in aid of opera was, "You can do
anything -- as long as you sing it." Same goes with fiction -- you've gotta sing it,
or all you have is a boat that won't float.
SCHWEITZER: I think my difficult friend IS missing some great fiction, but I
can see part of his point. I have certainly read alternate histories which lost my
interest quickly because they seemed to be about a clever schematic diagram and
forgot the human drama. So, how do you get an alternate history story to work? Or,
I suppose, what are the unique qualities which made it a different kind of drama?
You could write a straight war story about courage, heroism, loss, treachery,
political stupidity etc. etc. and just use a real, historical war as the background. The
emotions and the personal experiences of most of the characters will be all there?
So, when does the story demand that you depart from the consensus historical
background and take an alternative course?
TURTLEDOVE: Most of the tricks that apply to a-h stories apply to any stories.
You've got to have reasonably good writing, characters the reader can care about,
and an interesting plot. The particular attraction of a-h, as I've said before, is that
it lets you look at real-world people and events and their consequences and
influences in a way you can't do with other kinds of fiction. You can either make
the world that you want, and then reason backwards to see how it might have
arisen or change something and see what might have come from that. (Notice I say
"might," not "would": the most you can aspire to is plausibility, not certainty.
People have been known to miss this point.) I usually prefer the second method,
but the first can also work -- see Steve Barnes' Zulu Blood and sequels.
SCHWEITZER: I suppose the distinction is between story and idea. How do you
develop a counterfactual idea (which could be expressed in an essay) into a
TURTLEDOVE: The same way you turn any idea into a story. You find
characters and plot to make the reader care about what's happening. If you can't
find those, the idea sits in your file for years and doesn't become anything. I had a
Post-It with a note about a world where Ptolemaic astronomy and Aristotelean
physics were true. It never became more than a note, because I couldn't see how to
flesh it out. And I sure won't now, because Richard Garfinkle wrote Celestial
Matters and did it for me. He found a way to make the idea work, and more power
SCHWEITZER: You've also, intriguingly, done a series of what might be called
alternate natural history stories. I am thinking of A World of Difference with its
depiction of an early America in habited by homo erectus or the one in the recent
Space & Time ["Moso," in issue 104], which seems to be set in a more or less
contemporary (or recent) Africa, save that there are sabertooth tigers. I'm not quite
sure what one can call these. Are you inventing a new genre?
TURTLEDOVE: I've done more of that kind of story than the ones you name. I
also wrote "Down in the Bottomlands," the novella about the world where the
Mediterranean never refilled after drying up 5,000,000 years ago; A World of
Difference, about a different planet in the fourth orbit; and the current Atlantis
books, where much of eastern North America rifted away from the rest of the
continent 85,000,000 years ago, producing an enormous island in the Atlantic
uninhabited by man till Europeans found it in the mid-fifteenth century. The
novellas "Audubon in Atlantis" and "The Scarlet Band" are set in that world, as are
Opening Atlantis (out last year), The United States of Atlantis (due out in
December) and Liberating Atlantis (almost done).
Did I invent this kind of world? Nah. Harry Harrison's Eden books and the
Garfinkle I mentioned above use the trope, and they're far from the only ones.
Physical changes can be as interesting as political ones.
SCHWEITZER: Nevertheless, you seem to be drawn to a different form of SF
than most writers: not "what might be" but "what might have been." You've made
yourself the master of this in the same way Asimov made himself master of the
robot story, but we inevitably wonder: does the possible future not hold equal
charms for you?
TURTLEDOVE: I dunno; if I get a future idea that seems interesting, I'll write it.
But since I'm a trained historian who wants to write sf, what I'm doing now seems
the way to go as often as not. There's only so much any one person can do in his
or her lifetime. Right this minute, I'm having fun doing what I'm doing.
SCHWEITZER: I note you've written about what I'd call the Big Three in
American alternate history subjects: the Civil War, World War II, and the
Roman/Byzantine Empire. (For British writers, the preoccupation seems to be the
Pavane or The Alteration scenario: a Catholic Britain.) Do you do this with a sense
that you're going to have to top all previous writings on the subject?
TURTLEDOVE: I hope I'm not that immodest. You do the best you can; that's
all you can do. (By the way, in Ruled Britannia, I've had a whack at the Brits'
SCHWEITZER: So what gave you the impulse to toss an alien invasion into
World War II, which created the Worldwar series?
TURTLEDOVE: I got the idea for that one back in the 1970s. Didn't write it then
because I was convinced -- accurately, I think -- I didn't know enough and wasn't
anywhere nearly good enough to bring it off. The thinking was something along
these lines. . . . An industrialized planet probably isn't as easy to conquer from
space as most people make it out to be. What's the most interesting industrialized
planet? Why, Earth. When? How about when World War II was at its most even
point in late spring 1942, before the Japanese wreck themselves at Midway and the
Germans at Stalingrad? That seemed to work, even though it was in a horribly
challenging period: within living memory but not within mine. So, after I finished
Guns of the South, I thought, if I can't bring it off now, I'll probably never be able
to. I gave it my best shot, and most people seem to enjoy the story.
SCHWEITZER:A lot of alternate history seems to be about war, doesn't it? I
suppose this is a natural tendency because most of the dramatic hinge-points in
history seem to have a war involved. But of course there are other possibilities too.
If you were asked to write a story for an anthology Alternate History Not About
War, what would you write about?
TURTLEDOVE: I have no idea what I'd write about. I'd probably change either
geography or religion. War is a good subject for a-h, though, partly because it
offers plausible scenarios for how things might have gone differently, and partly
because the two things that best illuminate character under stress are love and the
threat of getting killed in the next few seconds.
SCHWEITZER: I note your latest book, The Man With the Iron Heart, is based
on the premise the Heinrich Heydrich, the infamous Nazi "Hangman," was not
assassinated, but lived to lead Nazi terrorist resistance after the defeat of Germany.
This leads to a matter I am sure you have pondered at considerable length, both as
a historian and as a writer of alternate history. What do you think of the "Great
Man" theory of history? How much of history turns on the presence or absence of a
single person motivated and talented enough to bring about change, and how much
is a confluence of circumstances? Heydrich would be a particularly sinister
example. You posit that his individual survival would have made a huge
TURTLEDOVE: Depending on story purposes, I can be persuaded to stand
almost anywhere on the line between the overwhelming influence of the one Great
Man and his impotence struggling against vast socioeconomic forces. In the real
world, I think the latter tend to win more often than not . . . but this would be a
different-looking place if, say, the assassination attempt on Philip of Macedon had
failed, curtailing Alexander the Great's career. There are times when one man can
make a difference, and there are men who will find a way to make a difference.
Maybe not so many, but some, I think.
SCHWEITZER: Have you read Stephen Vincent Benet's "The Curfew Tolls"?
This strikes me as a superb meditation on this theme. (It shows Napoleon, born a
generation too soon, frustrated because he never got to do very much, and now at
retirement age right as the French Revolution breaks out.)
TURTLEDOVE: Haven't run into that one. A similar meditation from within our
own field is H. Beam Piper's "And He Walked Around the Horses." I wonder if
Piper had seen the Benet story you describe.
SCHWEITZER: Well I'm not a big believer in "chaos theory" as applied to
human events, but I think that if I were asked to write an alternate history not about
war, I'd try to find some subtle but genuine change like the sort of thing they
brought out on the TV show Connections. Isn't part of the fun of alternate history
evoking a reaction of "What?" followed by "Why, of course."
TURTLEDOVE: Everything is "Why, of course" -- in retrospect. The question
is, does it happen cause it's railroad time, as Charles Fort said, or because
somebody's foxier than all his neighbors? And the answer, from here, is, I dunno.
Both, I suspect. Sometimes the timing is crucial, as when the Spaniards hit the
Incas in the midst of the latter's dynastic strife. Of course, one of the things that
occasioned the strife was the advent of smallpox, brought from places where the
Spaniards had been before. As you say, there is a web, even if the ways the strands
connect can be hard to trace.
SCHWEITZER:As for Great Men, my own guess is that in the real world it's a
combination of both. There has to be a great man and the correct timing. The
revolutions of 1848 were just right to produce another Napoleon, , a Lenin, or a
Hitler, but didn't. The point of the Benet story (which is in his standard Selected
Works and also in Thirteen O'Clock) is that if the times are not right, the Great
Man comes to naught, even though he may have a feeling he ought to have been a
TURTLEDOVE: "And He Walked Around the Horses" is of similar import. I do
wonder if Piper saw the Benet and did a different take on it.
SCHWEITZER: But to pick a couple examples from history: what if Mohammed
had been killed by a stray arrow during one of his early battles? Now the rise of
Islam could be attributed to a massive and deep groundswell of Semitic rejection of
Hellenism, but if there had been no Prophet to focus this, would it have gotten
anywhere? Or if Constantine the Great had been hit by an arrow at the Milvian
Bridge. What he was doing seems to have been the product of his own personal
vision (in more than one sense) and his own personal decisions. No other Roman
emperor or pretender was so inclined. No Persian king was so inclined, though
there were also Christians in Persia. So if Constantine had not survived, would
Christianity have established itself as more than a minority sect?
TURTLEDOVE: Well, as you probably know (always the excuse for an
expository lump), I've done a series of stories collected as Agent of Byzantium, in
which Muhammad converted to Christianity on a trading run up into Syria and
Islam never happened. The book came out about the same time as Rushdie's The
Satanic Verses, but I escaped a fatwa, for which I'm duly grateful. What you may
not know is that I palmed a card. There was another prophet, Musaylimah, active
in southeastern Arabia around Muhammad's time and also preaching a
monotheistic faith -- not Islam, but a monotheistic faith. Had Muhammad not
been around, who knows? If it was railroad time, the broad outlines of political
history might not took too different after all. If it wasn't, they would. But we can't
do the experiment and see. In the real world, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, suppressed
Musaylimah and his faith right after Muhammad's death.
I don't know what Christianity's fate in an Islamless Iran would have been.
Zoroastrianism was well organized, and Christianity was suspect, on the grounds
that its followers often favored the Roman Empire. I suspect it would have
remained in the minority and been persecuted, as the Manichees were farther west.
SCHWEITZER: Of course here we are back to war and religion, the two great
engines for change in history.
But, moving right along, Are you the sort of writer who makes elaborate outlines
and takes a lot Of notes? What are your writing methods like?
TURTLEDOVE: No, I like telling myself the story, too. I usually know where
I'm going, but not how I'm going to get there. I do first drafts in longhand, which
seems to make my style tighter. It's a habit I picked up while still working on a
typewriter -- I'm old enough to go back that far. Typewriters, for those who don't
recall, are anything but user-friendly. I started working through hard parts in
longhand, then transcribing. After a while, I thought, This is trying to tell me
something. So I've done it ever since.
SCHWEITZER: And: what are you working on now and what do you have
coming up in the near future?
TURTLEDOVE: The United States of Atlantis will be out this December, and
Give Me Back My Legions!, a straight historical about the battle that kept the
Romans from annexing Germany. It'll be just in time for the 2000th anniversary
of the battle.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks, Harry.