Two weeks ago I stepped through a time slip. For the briefest of moments, I got to experience what my life would have been like if I had continued my studies in history instead of going into the law. It was (to use a fairly common word on this site) amazing.
What am I talking about? I am talking about the Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives Conference held at the end of last month at the University of Liverpool. When I saw last year that they were looking for papers I decided to take a shot and see if I still remembered anything from undergrad. Expanding on my “A Brief Timeline of the Alternate History Fandom” article that I posted on this site last September, I submitted my paper, which I titled “Warping History: An Overview of Fans and Creators of Alternate History in the Internet Age” to the conference organizers for consideration. I was as surprised as anyone to learn that it had been accepted (it was reported that half the papers submitted had been rejected) and with support of the multiverse’s best Dad, I realized that I was going to Britain to present my paper in front of the top minds in alternate history, which included Karen Hellekson, Adam Roberts and Stephen Baxter.
After one of the longest plane rides in my life, my Dad and I found ourselves in London. With less than 24 hours before our train to Liverpool left the station, we raced across the city to see as much as we could before jet lag induced exhaustion set in. What can I say about London that has not already been said? It was a busy, cosmopolitan city with a surprisingly courteous and helpful population, but way too many buses. We got to see the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, take pictures at Trafalgar Square, listen to the bells ring at Big Ben and tour Churchill’s War Room. We even stayed awake long enough to taste the British national dish: chicken tikka masala. O, and there were plenty of pints to be had. In fact for most of the day we were both running only on beer and Serbian stubbornness.
The next day we had a traditional English breakfast (the beans were good, but I decided against the tomato) and headed out of Euston Station for Liverpool. As someone who has takes the train to commute to work here in the States, I was amazed how fast British trains run compared to the snails back home. Oddly enough the British countryside reminded me of Wisconsin, but after a while I took to reading The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson rather than stare out the windows. We made it to Liverpool with just enough time to drop off our bags at the hotel, grab a late lunch and head over to the pre-Conference social event at the local Waterstones book store.
The actual event featured Roberts and Baxter, who I think were supposed to talk about their new books, but ended up with them just poking fun at each other the entire time. I think the audience found the whole exchange immensely entertaining and I even managed to work up enough courage to ask for an autograph from Baxter. Afterwards, I met up with Kehaar of Geek Syndicate’s Dissecting Worlds podcast for a pint. Kehaar and I “met” when I was guest on his podcast in 2012 during their series on alternate history and we had stayed in contact through social media ever since. It was nice to have a friend in another country and we had an enjoyable evening drinking beer, comparing our homelands and discussing how friendship was no longer confined to the same time zone. After Kehaar went home my Dad and I weren’t ready to call it a night yet so we went back to the hotel bar to get a drink only to be ushered out as quickly as possible by several large men in suits so the Liverpool football club could use the facility. We, of course, didn’t leave until we were served a drink first. Why risk an international incident? America! That’s why.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast, I made my way to the conference while my Dad left to explore Liverpool. Suddenly, after more than a half year of work, I had finally made it to the Sideways in Time Conference. Day one I listened to topics ranging from feminism in time travel and alternate history, anti-Catholicism in speculative fiction, the war fantasies of Japan, the new alternate history works from Ukraine and even a whole paper dedicated to The Years of Rice and Salt. Hellekson’s keynote speech on alternate history in television gave me a lot of new works to track down on YouTube and Netflix, while Baxter’s coverage of alternate geographical and cosmological histories showed me how many more books I still needed to read (seriously, at one point my notes just became a list of all the books I never heard of, but really wanted to check out).
Of course, day two was the big day. It was in the morning on the last day of the conference that I would be giving my presentation. I don’t remember much of my trip from the end of day one to the moment of my presentation. Nerves kicked in and I spent much of the evening rewriting my presentation and the morning feeling like I was going to throw up. When day two began and my turn came, that all went out the window. I am not the best public speaker, but I like to think I did fairly well. People had a lot of questions for me during the Q&A afterwards and even Baxter approached me during a break to comment on my paper, which was a highlight of the trip for me. If you would like to see how my presentation went, check it out on my YouTube channel.
The end of the conference meant the inevitable return to real life. We did have enough time in London when we returned to visit the British Library and see the Magna Carta, but after that I sort of sank into a small depression. I had never been in a room of so many alternate historians since the last time I saw the Sidewise Awards presented at Chicon 7. While I was happy to be home, a part of me still clung to my experiences across the pond. My time in Britain was like a journey into a parallel universe and a part of that alternate timeline stayed with me after I came back to reality.
Special thanks to Chuckie (Charul) Patel and Glyn Morgan for organizing the event. I found the Sideways in Time Conference to be a wonderful experience and I hope it returns again in the future.