Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Alternative History and Why Mary Loves It

The beginning!

I'm a huge history nerd. It's in my blood as everyone in my family is a history nerd. I swear, everyone has specialty. If you ask me about some inane history topic, I guarantee you, all I have to do is consult the Cordner Rolodex and find the relative who most likely knows the answer to the question. My mother? Tutor-Era England and Turn of the 19th century New England. My brother? Colonial Era New England and Native American History. Myself? Ah, well I'm kind of a Jack-of-all-Trades history-wise. I like a little of everything and not really a master of one topic. I guess it is Middle East because it ties into my job (Although I am getting so burned out on the Middle East you have no idea).

It is no surprise as a youngster, I read a lot of historical fiction and non-fiction but mostly fiction. I read a ton of Mark Twain. American Girl Books (I was a Molly Girl because glasses, heh. But Felicity was a close second). And there was one author I liked in particular called Ann Rinaldi. She wrote a lot about early-America and her protagonists were always females. Her female leads often witness some major event in history and have some sort of involvement in it.

My favorite book was The Fifth of March which focused on the servant of John Adams named Rachel Marsh as she befriends a British Soldier who is involved in the Boston Massacre. She convinces Adams to defend the British Soldiers in court. And there is also a love story and stuff. But what I liked about it was not just an interesting female protagonist but also the niche bit of history it involved. Everyone who studied American History knows about the Boston Massacre but what you probably didn't know was John Adams defended the British Soldiers in court -- and got most of them off on minor charges. Or how it was a relatively small skirmish that was propagandized by the yanks to such a large degree.

It was partly because of this book for a long time I considered writing historical fiction. I'm always drawn to these small historical anecdotes that I always end up daydreaming about the small details that history did not record. Like last week, one of my co-workers talked about how he wished there was an actual Afro-Samurai and we found out there was. Or another aspect that I find incredibly interesting was that Arab traders traded with the Vikings. In fact some of our more reliable accounts of the Vikings came from the Arab traders. What an interesting story that must be!

I think this tendency of mine to day dream about this kind of stuff is why I feel drawn to Alternative History. I am always thinking of "What if". Like what if Princip hadn't assassinated the Archduke? What if the Chinese ended up colonizing the west coast of the United States before Spain got there (there was an Emperor who created a vast navy who wanted to expand outward but died before he could and his predecessor was an isolationist)? What if King Philip succeeded in wiping out the Massachusetts Bay Colony? I wonder about these things and how these small ripples in time could change the current.

I mean, I think there would have been a war eventually without Princip's help but it may have played out slightly differently.

This lost looking man was the flashpoint

But I doubt the British would attempt to resettle Massachusetts Bay Colony if King Philip succeeded which means Massachusetts would have a drastically different ethnic make-up than it does today and there would be no "City on the Hill" which really was the beginning of American Exceptionalism. Or maybe American Exceptionalism would be more "Virginian".

But anyways, the reason why I started to talk about this is because I have gotten on an Alternative History kick and I blame Amazon Prime. Well, Amazon Prime and my co-worker. My co-worker mentioned a Philip K. Dick book called Man in the High Castle. He brought it up because I mentioned an alternative history youtube channel. And earlier we were talking about how much World War II is SO overdone. He mentioned the book and it sounded interesting. And then as I was browsing through Amazon Prime, I saw the title of the book on a new TV series. I watched one episode and I was furious there weren't anymore. I was sold with its haunting opening.

And the map. I love maps!
Man in the High Castle takes place in an alternative timeline in which the allies lost WWII. The United States is then split up between Germany and Japan. The book is about a series of anecdotes about lives in such a world. You follow different characters as they try to find where they fit in an occupied country. You have an underground resistance. You have people who are just trying to live their lives. One such person, for instance, makes a living making knock-off antiques of pre-war America and sells them to Japanese tourists and colonists. There is also news that Hitler is about to die and Goebbels and Himmler are vying for power. Both want to attack Japan, which understandably makes Japan nervous (and the Pacific States as well) The book there is no real plot so my co-worker says (I need to read this book).

The TV show in its pilot promises an actual plot. Yes, you are following different characters from different walks of life in this new world. You have the guy who works for the resistance in the east. In the west you have this woman who has settled pretty much for living under the Japanese, even taking up Aikido and other Japanese cultural interests until her sister -- who was involved in the resistance -- places a package in her arms before dying, thus making her an unwitting accomplice forcing her to flee.

And they meet and drink orange soda

You also have the promised intrigue between Japanese and German spies finding out what the Third Reich is planning next. There is so much good in this pilot. I am thirsty for more. Amazon has ordered a season of it and I hope it continues to be this good.

After watching this pilot, I also recalled one of my other favorite Alternative History story-lines. This one is based on a manga which was made into a movie and a jdrama called Ooku: The Hidden Chambers.

I really like the art style of the manga
Ooku: The Hidden Chambers follows an alternate historical timeline in which during the Japanese Feudal Era, a devastating disease targeted only males killing off most of the male population. Since Japan at the time was a male dominated society, the manga closely follows the upheaval that followed. Women had to step up into the roles previously held by men, including Shogun. And healthy men were reduced to breeding stocks (that is a rough term to use because it implies they were slaves when they weren't but just they didn't hold the major roles they once had).

In the movie, Shibasaki Kou flawlessly plays the Shogun

The manga is four volumes with four different storylines following mainly men who become courtesans for the Shogun. Each of them are unique in their own way and they mirror the concerns of feminist issues today. For instance, there is a story about a monk who took a vow of chastity. He is taken into the chamber and told that since he is young and virile that it is selfish of him to take such a vow. So they put him in a room over night with a group of women encouraging him to sleep with them or else. He spends the night playing games with them instead. The adviser comes in in the morning and sees this and kills one of the girls and said another will die tomorrow if he does not renounce his vow. The monk sees he has no choice and gives up becoming a monk the next day.

What interested me about this storyline was the fact that there are so many stories about virgins and how often they become martyrs in some religions for not giving up their vows. Virginity is sacred when all you're expected to do is reproduce because that is the only power you have.

Ooku also kind of shows how arbitrary gender really is. When women are in charge, they don't stop fighting. Men are reduced to peacocks pretty much. There is one scene in which single women who do not have the money to buy a husband, go to the redlight district and shop for male hookers to hopefully get a baby to help on the farm. Then you have some good-hearted ones who spread their seed for free. Men and women just switch places.

Anyways, I just wanted to mention my love of Alternative History storylines. And Amazon better get me more of Man in the High Castle soon or I may cry.

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