The Big Idea: Anne Lyle

Alternate histories are popular, and they’re fun to write. But for the author of such works, there is the occupational hazard of reimagining the world in a way it’s been reimagined before — discovering that you’re not the trailblazer you thought you might be. When Anne Lyle sought to have Europeans discover the New World in her novel The Alchemist of Souls, she knew she was traveling a route others had gone down before. How did she diverge from their beaten path? I’ll let her tell you.

ANNE LYLE:

What if European explorers hadn’t succeeded in conquering the New World? What if they, not the Native Americans, were the ones facing an enemy they didn’t understand, an enemy they were ill-equipped to fight? That, in a nutshell, is the Big Idea behind The Alchemist of Souls, the first volume in my fantasy trilogy “Night’s Masque.” The roots lie farther back, however.

I’ve been reading fantasy for over three decades, and science fiction even longer than that. I’ve read a good many of the classics and a lot of their imitators, and inevitably seen fresh ideas turn into tired clichés. When I turned to writing my own fiction, one that particularly exercised my mind was the ubiquity of the gunpowder-less medieval world. I understand the reason behind its popularity – swords and castles are cool! – but I didn’t feel inspired to follow that well-trodden path. The historical eras that most interest me are the ones between the high Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution: the Wars of the Roses, the English Renaissance, the Age of Reason. Eras when the development of science and technology started to accelerate and clash with old superstitions; eras, perhaps, on the boundary between fantasy and science fiction.

As most fans will acknowledge, fantasy and science fiction aren’t so much two separate genres as two ends of a spectrum, which is why they get grouped together on the shelves of most bookstores. Everyone has their favourite subgenre, but at the same time we are united by our love of the otherworldly. I’m probably pretty typical of a genre fan, in that I am a scientist at heart (I have a degree in zoology) but I also love history and languages and all the stuff that tends to feature prominently in fantasy. So it was perhaps inevitable that my fantasy fiction would be inspired by a work of popular science: Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond.

Diamond’s thesis is simple and attractive: the historical dominance of Eurasian cultures over Native American ones comes down to geographical accident. The former are based on a continent with a pronounced east-west axis, the latter on one oriented north-south. But so what? Why would geography have such a profound effect on technology? Diamond points out that Eurasian civilisations cluster along the temperate zone, which means that crops native to one region can be traded with a distant neighbour and still thrive. In the Americas, by contrast, a crop from tropical central America is likely to fail in cooler northern climes, and vice versa. This makes it difficult for cultures to expand into neighbouring territories and exchange ideas, leading to insularity and stagnation. Thus an accident of geography enabled greater technological progress and more urbanisation in Europe relative to the New World. The Native Americans never stood a chance.

But what if they had? What if the conquistadors had been unable to make headway for some reason? What would happen to Europe then?

I considered taking a traditional science-fictional approach; find some way to boost technological advancement in the Americas (perhaps through the intervention of aliens?) so that they could fight off Cortés et al. But I saw two problems with that:

1) It would involve major changes to Native American cultures, something that as an English writer I was not terribly comfortable with. It felt disrespectful to use cultures that had been oppressed and wiped out by my kin as world-building fodder for my fiction.

2) It still involved taking a Western approach to the problem: solving the confrontation through technology and fire power. What interested me about the historical situation was not so much that Europeans were able to wipe out the natives with muskets and smallpox, than that their culture and mindset was so different from that of the natives as to make their strategies difficult to counter.

My solution was thus to create a buffer between the Europeans and the Native Americans, one that could halt the initial incursions and eventually turn the tables on the would-be conquerors. That buffer is the skraylings.

The skraylings are a sentient species that evolved in parallel with humans, but whereas we arose in Africa, the skraylings are native to the Americas. They were never as numerous as humans, and their numbers dropped even lower during the megafauna extinctions of around 14000 BCE, and so when humans began arriving in North America in large numbers via the Bering Straits, the skraylings retreated east and south. As the humans spread and settled most of the continent, the two species were forced to interact – mostly, but not always, peaceably. In the tenth century CE, the skraylings encountered Viking explorers and copied their ships, using them to extend their nomadic wanderings and increasingly trade with human civilisations along the eastern seaboard of North America and down into South America.

Through interacting with other cultures, the skraylings have become more technologically advanced than their neighbours, albeit not in the same way as Europe. Their strengths lie in chemistry and pharmacology, so they are much more advanced than the Europeans in some areas and way behind in others. Most significantly, their exploitation and exploration of native pharmaceuticals has awoken mental powers beyond the comprehension of sixteenth-century Christians.

Hence by the time Columbus, Cabot and other European explorers rediscover the New World, the eastern coast of the Americas is effectively under the protection of the skraylings. Being evolved from a branch of the order Carnivora rather than primates, they are – like cats and dogs – immune to many of our diseases, whilst their “witchcraft” has sent the superstitious Europeans fleeing home in terror for their souls. But what happens when such creatures decide to follow the explorers back across the Atlantic? That was the story I decided to follow in Night’s Masque. I hope you’ll join me.

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The Alchemist of Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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25 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Anne Lyle

  1. Diamond points out that Eurasian civilisations cluster along the temperate zone, which means that crops native to one region can be traded with a distant neighbour and still thrive. In the Americas, by contrast, a crop from tropical central America is likely to fail in cooler northern climes, and vice versa.

    Does Diamond discuss how the Three Sisters fit into this glorious model?

    Squash seems to have been domesticated in Mesoamerica. Ditto for maize. Common beans were cultivated in the Andes, as were lima beans. Tepary beans seem to come from what is now Mexico, runner beans from the mountains of Central America and I have no idea about polyanthus beans.

    I’m not seeing a barrier to crop spread there, judging by where the crops ended up. Maybe the spread was slowed some but maize only took five centuries to spread through the Americas so maybe not.

  2. I thought that the Archaeology, the Linguistics, and the DNA analysis suggest strongly that there were three distinct waves of prehistoric immigration to North America, and also differences between the paths over the land bridge along the coast or not? I guess I’ll need to buy these novels to see…

    In the million or so words I’ve written of Alternate History, the deeper question is always: can one visit a world so close to our own that you encounter an alternate version of yourself? Can one visit a world so far from our own that the laws of Astronomy, Chemistry, Mathematics, or Physics are different (such as Magic being possible under alternative Quantum Mechanics) without life itself being impossible?

    Such question seem not to trouble the modern master of the genre, Harry Turtledove, nor the lesser lights such as professor Newt Gingrich (3 novels). Maybe it’s juts because of my Math/Physics professorships.

    In any case, what matters most in a novel (as always seen in those of Mr. Scalzi) is characters, and story, with background being a close third in any genre.

  3. The concept for this sounds awesome. I just went and picked it up for my kindle so I can start reading it tonight.

  4. Diamond points out that Eurasian civilisations cluster along the temperate zone

    I had no idea Rome, Greece, Egypt, Persia, Babylonia, and the Indus Valley civilization, to name just a few, were in the temperate zones! Golly!

  5. @James Davis Nicoll, 1:12: It’s been a while since I read Guns, Germs and Steel, but Diamond does discuss corn, in particular, and as I recall one of the key barriers, in addition to the North/South axis, that slowed the spread of corn cultivation was that unlike the Eurasian staple grain crops like wheat or barley, the ancestral corn plants actually weren’t particularly productive (or nutritious, in comparison to wheat and pulses and so on), so many more generations of agriculture were needed for these crops to become both a widely grown staple crop.

    I’m looking forward to reading this now, it sounds like a great premise!

  6. I have admittedly simplified Diamond’s arguments, for the sake of a short enough article to suit a blog. If you want to know more, you’ll need to read his book! In any case, it was just a jumping-off point, a hook on which to hang the setting I wanted to create.

    Also, the precise details of how and when humans migrated into the Americas doesn’t really affect the outcome, if skraylings evolved simultaneously with humans, i.e. around 2 million years ago. I’m afraid Jonathan is going to be disappointed if he buys the novel expecting a treatise on palaeontology – the human characters in the book think the world was created by God a few thousand years ago, and the skraylings are silent on the topic :)

  7. Collective consciousness FTW! A group of friends and I were recently discussing how we needed more sci-fi/fantasy to take place in the Americas, and it does seem to be a setting that is slowly trending! Kudos to Ms. Lyle for such a unique take on the idea. Despite Jeremy G.’s assertion, I didn’t see it listed for Kindle. Interesting enough Big Idea, tho, I just might break the household moratorium on buying more physical books.

  8. Also, my books aren’t set in the Americas. For that, you should check out my fellow Angry Robot author Aliette de Bodard’s fantasy mystery series Obsidian and Blood, set in the Aztec Empire.

  9. My mistake, Anne. I saw “Europeans discover the New World” and my residual Americo-centric exceptionalism kicked in. Now I need to buy your series AND Aliette de Bodard’s series.

  10. An alternate history? Based on (part of) Jared Diamond’s brilliant idea? I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into the fantasy end of the spectrum one Big Idea at a time!

    It still involved taking a Western approach to the problem: solving the confrontation through technology and fire power.

    Science and technology are a sapient approach. We are a tool using species, and not all tools are guns and steel…some are medicine (germs). Westerners’ claim to “Western Science” is based largely on the economic flowering of the Industrial Revolution; but its temporal primacy is a fiction and even its own provenance is a mutt.

    Modern Western “pizza effect” appropriations of Westerner-invented new age “prophecies” notwithstanding, the Mayans were advanced astronomers.

    The Enlightenment was built on philosophy and mathematics largely preserved and developed by Islamic scholars who did not merely carry the torch of the ancient Greeks, but used it to light many new ones while Europeans were sitting on their feudal arrears (pun, not term misuse).

    Beginning in earnest with the Qin unification after the Warring States Period, ancient Huaxia (modern China) developed tools – including agricultural, military and printing technology – in many nontrivial ways superior to those of “Western” civilization.

    Although its inextricably embraided relationship with Confucianism and other Eastern philosophies/cosmogonies makes it less empirically rigorous than Western medicine since the discovery of germ theory, traditional Chinese medicine has accumulated millennia of scientific advances in physical conditioning, acupuncture, herbology and nutrition.

    The misconception that Western civilizations are the only parents of technological ways continues even today to reflect and reinforce the falsehood that other cultures aren’t integral contributors to the advancement of science and technology.

    What interested me about the historical situation was not so much that Europeans were able to wipe out the natives with muskets and smallpox, than that their culture and mindset was so different from that of the natives as to make their strategies difficult to counter.

    I’ve often wondered how differently things would have turned out if the Incans, Aztecs and other Native American empires had fully understood the nature of the threat sailing their way. Perhaps they still would not have stood a chance, but I’m less than totally convinced that’s a foregone conclusion. The political situation between Spain and the other European empires of the time was extremely volatile. If a few expeditions had been efficiently eradicated, I think it would have at least significantly delayed the third – or possibly fourth, but I was only aware of two prehistoric human migrations to North America, one over the Pacific and one across the Bering Strait – human colonization of the American continents.

    Being evolved from a branch of the order Carnivora rather than primates, they are – like cats and dogs – immune to many of our diseases

    That’s sheer kaleidoscopic genius that is. I like the way you think.

    That was the story I decided to follow in Night’s Masque. I hope you’ll join me.

    Oh yes. This sounds awesome. Expectations are high.

  11. “The misconception that Western civilizations are the only parents of technological ways continues even today to reflect and reinforce the falsehood that other cultures aren’t integral contributors to the advancement of science and technology.”

    I’m well aware of the contributions of Eastern civilisations to technology – that’s part of the point of Diamond’s book. I was talking more about the European mindset that anywhere they discovered belonged to them by God-given right, and the fact that they took conquest by genocide for granted. Various human cultures around the world have acted similarly, but never on such a scale.

  12. I’m well aware of the contributions of Eastern civilisations to technology – that’s part of the point of Diamond’s book.

    My comment sounded more remonstrative than I’d intended. I have a reflexive tendency to sound off whenever I see something I think might conceivably be misinterpreted to convey the notion that science and technology are exclusively Western trappings – a notion I’ve only ever encountered among other Westerners. But point taken, anyone who appreciates Diamond’s magnum opus would be aware of that.

    I was talking more about the European mindset that anywhere they discovered belonged to them by God-given right, and the fact that they took conquest by genocide for granted. Various human cultures around the world have acted similarly, but never on such a scale.

    I’ve noticed that mindset seems to have been strongest among monotheistic cultures. Correlation is not causation and, in any event, I don’t think monotheism automatically compels its adherents to genocidal politics, but I think it’s interesting that the spiritual heirs of Zoroaster have an especially “wipe-out-the-competition“ penchant for conquest compared to the more assimilation-minded imperialism of predominately polytheistic, pantheistic and animistic cultures (even pre-Christian Western polytheists).

    Do the skraylings (kickass name, incidentally) have a metaphysical cosmology?

    Writing an alt history novel using the central thesis of Guns, Germs, and Steel as the fulcrum really is an inspired idea. It’s so clever I wish I’d thought of it. And like Diamond’s own insight, it seems so obvious in hindsight, authors will be kicking themselves for years for not seeing it :-)

  13. Um, I’m from Newfoundland, an island on the East Coast of Canada. The Vikings had a short-lived settlement here before Columbus, and they fought with local natives that they called Skraelings. So making those natives into sentient dog-people is a little bit insulting, in my eyes.
    Read more about the real history here:

    http://www.heritage.nf.ca/exploration/norse.html

    They have a fantastic museum/interpretation centre at Lanse Aux Meadows, if anyone wants to visit.

  14. Sorry, no offence meant, Tara. I know about the Lanse Aux Meadows settlement, I just borrowed the Viking name – my fictional skraylings work to keep the Europeans and the real Native Americans apart, for the sake of the latter’s safety.

    i was aware when writing it that any kind of fictionalisation of American history could offend someone, and I’ve tried to sidestep as many issues as I could. Clearly I missed an angle, for which my apologies.

  15. I’d love to visit! Perhaps if the first trilogy is popular, i might set a book or two over there, but I don’t like to write about places I’ve never been to. Well, I’ve done a chapter or so here and there in the second book, but only of European places similar to ones I’ve been to. I wouldn’t want to do that for a distant continent or a whole novel!

  16. I just finished this book, and I have one serious complaint.
    The ending: It had one.

    Other than the fact that I don’t have more of it left to look forward to, I thought it was terrific. It’s very well-paced, with a great premise, and really engaging characters. If you think you might be interested, you’re almost certainly right. Get yourself a copy. (And be prepared to be less productive than usual for a couple of days!)

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