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.
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.