In one of the more epic examples of topic derailment in existence, last week I saw a Facebook thread that started by someone quoting one of Sarah’s comments about “microagression”and “invisible privilege” (accusations of either are signs that the person waving them around is flapping hands about while looking for scraps of straw to bolster a thoroughly lost argument) turn into a lengthy back-and-forth involving alternate history scenarios that could have altered the end result of World War Two.
Now, I’m the first to admit that alternate history can be a hell of a lot of fun in the “road not taken” sense, but it does rather matter that the “road” in question actually exist and not be the result of too much herbal supplements or an insufficiency of prescribed medication. There are some things that simply can’t work except as a kind of bizarre, magical-thinking wish-fulfillment fantasy, and one of the most vocal voices on this thread was pushing his own personal magical-thinking wish-fulfillment fantasy so hard the wheel on that barrow was smoking.
So, I figured it would be a good idea to start a little list (which I can guarandamntee won’t stay a little list) of scenarios one should not use in alternate history, complete with the Kate-version of why it’s a bad idea. Starting – of course – with this person’s pet white elephant.
You should not consider any “Different ending for World War Two” scenario that requires Japan sit out the war. Seriously. If you talk to historians, you’ll find that instead of the dates given in most of the schools folks here went to (1939 – 1945, for those who had seriously crappy schools), a lot of them date the start of the war at 1937, when Japan invaded China. There is not one sane scenario where Japan would have stayed out – and the kind of intervention required to force the Japanese Empire to focus on domestic affairs rather than its need to acquire more arable land, oil fields, and the like is on the kind of scale that would turn the whole world post-apocalyptic (the scale of volcanic eruption and/or earthquake needed to damage Japan’s infrastructure to the extent that they’d be incapable of waging war is one that would chuck so much ash into the upper atmosphere that most of the Northern Hemisphere would be starving – because there weren’t any nations in the world capable of dealing with a volcanic winter so severe that no crops could be grown for at least a year (yes, this has happened. More than once. Just not in very recent history)).
Similarly, any scenario in which Canada out-powers the USA is cause only for hysterical laughter. Certainly if you remove the USA’s numerical advantage things even out a lot, but let’s face it, the USA not only has an order of magnitude more people, it also has a shitload more arable land. These things matter when it comes to world power (Yes the British Empire was something of an anomaly, with a tiny land base – but the naval mastery and a streak of ruthless several miles wide allowed the Brits to take and keep a lot of land for a long time. Their pioneering methods of doing practically everything – for a long time they were the innovators of the world – and a streak of meritocracy meant they did things better than most of their rivals, and managed to make most of their colonies a better place to be than they’d been prior to British rule. Yes, even for the “poor exploited” native people. Compare British colonial rule to… oh, Belgian, and you’ll get the idea . The thing is the colonies gave Britain the landmass and population advantage they needed to dominate). A nation with a population smaller than its rival’s military is not ever going to come close to said rival in terms of world power and influence. People from said nation only seem petty and envious when they try to snark at their much bigger neighbor with the huge geographical and population advantage. (Yes, I know. I’m frigging Australian. I know Australia is not going to be a superpower at any stage in the near future. Canada is in damn near the same boat only with ice and a lot fewer things that kill you.)
The alternate history with Britain’s King Edward VIII married to Wallis Simpson is just as laughable. The attitudes of the time guaranteed that the only way he could stay on the throne was to not marry her. Period. Even now, 80-some years later, there’s a damn good chance Prince Charles will be pressured to abdicate in William’s favor – if Lizzy doesn’t outlive him (and given the way the women in that family seem to hang on forever this is quite likely). If he’d had kids with wifey #2, they would not be in the line of succession.
Russia not having the October Revolution is another one that doesn’t fly. The exact timing of said revolution might shift some, but the Czar’s inability to read the national mood and his rather severe lack of ept aren’t going to change, and those guarantee that the increasingly pissed off and repressed population will explode somewhere around when they did. And you’d have to find a way to eliminate a whole passel of Communist bigwigs before you could prevent Lenin’s ultimate supremacy or Stalin’s reign. For the purposes of alternate history, conveniently timed explosions don’t cut it.
Yes, this includes Hitler remaining a mediocre emo artist. That was never going to happen, although honestly, I wouldn’t object to removing any of the incredible bloody coincidences that stopped all of the attempts to assassinate him. Seriously, in one of them a frigging table leg was the difference between Hitler living and Hitler dying. I’d almost think he was someone’s Mary Sue, if he wasn’t such an obnoxious and plain nasty… oh wait. Nevermind. If I was more religious, the phrase “luck of the devil” might be apt. (On a side note, I saw a rather clever SF piece once where time travelers manipulate events so the German Empire comes out on top in World War One. In the 1930s they’re in a Paris cafe congratulating themselves on preventing the rise of Hitler when a French firebrand by the name of De Gaulle starts of a chain of events paralleling the rise of the Nazis. Which, in those circumstances, De Gaulle totally would do).
It also includes scenarios where the USA did not drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (except for the one where the researchers took a few too many wrong turns and didn’t develop the technology in time for the USA to use it. You can have that one). Why? Because the conservative estimates were for at least a million Allied dead in a land invasion. They’re still giving out the Purple Hearts they had made in anticipation of having to invade Japan despite the nuclear weapons – stop and think about just how many deaths that implies. Japanese deaths would have been much, much higher: not only were Japanese propagandists preparing people to fight to the death, the schools were teaching the children how to perform suicide attacks on invading soldiers. And after Okinawa, the American command knew damn well they’d face the same – if not worse – on Japanese heartland.
So… If you’re going to write alternate history it pays to be historically literate and to know what would – and what absolutely would not – be a good point of divergence. Otherwise your “brilliance” could end up being mocked here.