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I was really not awake for this panel and so took almost no notes; this is extremely sketchy as a result, but better than nothing.

Phenderson Clark, Greer Gilman, Victoria Janssen (leader), Kate Nepveu, Naomi Novik
Guest of Honor Naomi Novik's Temeraire books take a slow and clever approach to a common issue with alt-historical fantasy: if magic has always existed, why have historical events gone essentially the same way that they did in our magicless world? Her focus on the familiar territory of Western Europe during the Napoleonic Wars gradually broadens to include other regions that look very different. This panel will examine this and other techniques for integrating magic into history, including using the appearance or reappearance of magic as a timeline divergence point, limiting magic or paranormal entities to a particular region of the world, portraying paranormal communities or magic-users as hidden and secretive, and entirely reinventing history from the Neanderthals on up.

My main thing going into the panel was that the technique depends on what kind of story the writer wants to tell. Temeraire and JS&MN start close to history because they want to reveal, over the course of the story, the divergences. Sorceror to the Crown starts with more divergence up front so it can elaborate on from there, and also because it's telling a smaller-scale story and so doesn't have as much room. The Dragon Waiting wants to be a puzzle-box of a story (among other things), letting the reader work out the divergence point (I am told that it is actually in the afterword, but I haven't reread in ages) as part of assembling a mosaic from its various components. Tim Powers has of course made an entire career out of doing secret histories, and that's the point of those books, enjoying the magic that could have explained actual history. Kate Elliott's Cold (Noun) series is a lot closer to a ground-up rewrite, which gives it the resonances of the identifiable influences more explicitly that being a secondary-world fantasy. All those choices are just the price of admission to those particular stories, and it's up to any given reader whether they want to pay it.

Enough about me. As I recall, Naomi said that Temeraire started from the hatching scene on the boat and from there she back-filled the reasons for the relative closeness of British history. She said, yes, it doesn't actually make that much sense, but I wanted to tell that story, not the story where dragons ate all the humans thousands of years ago. She personally likes doing what she called technical worldbuilding--in contrast to J.K. Rowling's emotional worldbuilding, where wizarding society is constructed around emotional resonances and make no logistical sense (which is where fanfic comes in).

Phenderson said "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" (which sounds very interesting!) also started with an image, possibly of a djinn coming through a window? A medieval Muslim manuscript was eventually the key to figuring out the way into the story.

Later, an audience member said that the panel title was pretty accurate, since for giant chunks of human history, most humans did believe, and many still do, in things that get called "magic" in the fantasy genre, which I thought was a super-good point. We tied this back to the medieval Muslim manuscript that Phenderson found inspiration in, and the prior panel on magic and science.

Both Phenderson and Naomi emphasized thinking about the effects of magic on power structures and having a deep understanding of the history in order to extrapolate out the effects. (I did my ObRec of the game 80 Days.) I mentioned that the technique in the description of "limiting magic or paranormal entities to a particular region of the world" is fraught with pitfalls so proceed with caution.

Another audience member mentioned two novels that weren't published as genre but were very relevant to magical alt-history illuminating power structures: The Underground Railroad and The Golem and the Jinni.

Annnd that's all I can remember. Feel free to comment, either if you were there or if you want to continue the conversation!

August 2017

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