If only… (On Alternate History)
Maybe Alternate History’s appeal comes down to the fact that every human, ever, says ‘If only I had…’ That, perhaps and the fact that most of us (we’re all victors of a sort, in the battle if not the war, because we’re still alive) are constantly indulging in the victor’s privilege of re-writing our own history. In truth, history is never really pretty. On the individual level, on the state level, on the world level, there’s always something we’d like to have another go at – even the bits we didn’t actually do too badly, and would probably make a horse’s butt next time.
Yes, OK. I’m a cynical bastard. One who probably (for the sake of the modern world’s tender sensibilities) shouldn’t be let loose on a keyboard without a minder, with a club*. But something has to explain the desire to imaginatively revisit something we can’t change. It is popular though. Sprague de Camp’s ‘Lest Darkness Fall’ remains one of my favorites.
Now there are two ways of looking at history, and how changes might affect it. The one takes the line that individuals are irrelevant. History’s course is pre-ordained, directional, and certain. If you time-travelled back and killed Gavrilo Princip or Fritz Haber… some other cog would have stepped into the breech in the machine and killed Franz Ferdinand or started the war for some other pretext, and invented a way of producing the nitrates that kept the Axis powers able to fight WW1.
The other extreme of course is the butterfly wing. One flap less and no doubt the entire world and possibly the universe are changed and doomed. The smallest change affects everything. Curiously some people manage to hold both positions at once. According to such as these history is certain and assured, they are on the right side of it… no matter what happens (in other words no individual or event or invention is going to change the course they approve of) and on the other hand the death of a protected minnow will spell extinction for all life (despite the evidence that despite myriad extinctions and disasters life seems to be resilient, adaptive, and well, not fragile. Individuals are fragile. Life might be different, however).
I’ve always suspected that reality – could we slip down the trunk of the tree of time and change onto one of those branches of other probability, that that branch would slowly diverge – but that the divergence would depend on what changed and how relevant that was. That was the basis of Cuttlefish – Where my change was to the relationship between Clara Immerwahr and Fritz Haber, the man who really fathered the chemical revolution (as relevant as the industrial one, just less obvious) and to whom we owe high-pressure chemistry (which is basically most of it, these days), to say nothing of the nitrate fertilizers that made Malthus so wrong.
We’re writers, and exploring these alternate worlds is fascinating… but fraught. Firstly, the basic rules of what not to get wrong – guns, horses, and sailboats… grows suddenly and exponentially. History buffs seem to love alternate history… so long as you get the relevant details right. And…, um, they will disagree with you endlessly and passionately about ‘what would have happened’. Yes, really. It’s fiction. It crosses the multiple multiplicative possibilities (at least it does if you’re on my side of the divide, believing individuals, inventions, events change history). You’ll still get the odd fellow giving your book one star because it doesn’t concur with what he or she thought would happen.
Mind you… some versions of alternate History really are amazingly dim. Take this one (Okay, there is some bias here. I’m actually one of those who thinks hereditary aristocracy, without rigorous and continuous winnowing, is like breeding dogs by always picking the first born as best of the litter. I favor liberty and merit.) To save you from adding to Vox’s clicks… in summary, the author thinks there is nothing to celebrate about the 4th of July. It should be time of wailing and misery. American Independence from Britain was an un-leavened disaster for women and the weakest minorities, black slaves and American Indians. The extra liberty gained by the minority white men was not worth the suffering they inflicted on the majority: ‘who cares if white men had to suffer through what everyone else did for a while longer, especially if them doing so meant slaves gained decades of free life?’ And the US’s system of government isn’t a patch on constitutional monarchy, and the UK parliamentary system is just far better for passing important legislation like the Carbon Tax.
He’s “reasonably confident a world in which the revolution never happened would be better than the one we live in now,” with America perhaps gaining independence a century or so later, along with Canada.
One has to be curious… why not gaining independence at the same time as Uganda? Or Pakistan? Is he racist? I mean, he shows the Canadian opposition leader at the Gay Pride march in Canada – obviously a result of the advantages of having stayed an Imperial British possession for that long. Just think how America… or Canada, could have done if they’d stayed as long as Pakistan. Plainly staying longer in the British Empire made these places bastions of liberalism in which all the bakers have to be gay, women are in all the positions of authority, and minorities from all over the world are so safe that they migrate there (which of course the enlightened authorities help them to do.), to say nothing of the wondrous economic situation this has gifted these jewel-countries, with their cornucopia of wealth and food production providing for the poor in America.
This is a wonderful example of wishful thinking of the ‘cog in the machine’ alternate history. History would have been the same, just better for everyone except white men, and that would make no difference…
Let’s leave aside the fact that he plainly knows little about Imperial Britain, let alone the colonial interests of the other European powers. (Perhaps he’d have preferred the American Indians to have had the Belgians? I’m sure he’s a fan of the EU and therefore Brussels must be a winner. Look at the wonders they performed in the Congo.) or the questionable assumption that the wealth and liberty of men has no effect on women – or indeed any other part of society. (Women are better treated in Mali than they are in the US, aren’t they?) or the ramifications that an independent and democratic US had on world politics, or maybe history at all, and just focus on the funniest bit of this very bad piece of alternate history. Think about it…
The author may of course be inbred** and pure British stock – most truly an Englishman in the US for 12 generations, and associating only with the same, but otherwise it amounts to ‘I, and almost all the people I know, should never have been born. The world would be a better place.’ This is self-evident simply because almost all Americans aren’t purely descended from people who were around in America around 1770 – not even the ‘minorities and women’*** he is so concerned about. The migration of all those filthy foreigners wasn’t something the British would have been very keen on. And without new lands to migrate to, or dreams of gold, land, escape from imperialism, or freedom from religious persecution to draw them, why would they have come? (Migration, as I can tell you from experience, is not something that drives most folk to leave from bad… to the same. Or worse.)
With this degree of self-hatred, perhaps he needs to be on a suicide watch. Oh… but isn’t he a white male? In his own terms of reference, it wouldn’t matter.
But somehow dumbo and camp-followers never think THEY would be affected.(“NO. It’s not me and my friends I’m talking about. It’s you that shouldn’t have been born. WE are the chosen ones.”)
I’m always amused by proof that idiots aren’t only enlisted men being misled by the Emperor Mong (yes, I have followed his infallible wisdom too). But for heaven’s sake, unless you’re writing alternate history for brain-dead puppy-kickers and their ilk (and this appears to be a fairly small constituency, likely to shrink if times get tougher), try to think things through. Try to be plausible as well as entertaining. To think through consequences and probabilities. It’ll give your story a far wider appeal.
On the other hand maybe you can do quite well out of people reading you to point and laugh or roll their eyes. That’s my schitck :-), after all.
*Not the kind that I wouldn’t join if they’d have me, but the kind with a rusty six-inch nail through the end.
** Work it out. It’s been damn near 250 years, and in that time the pool of people with ONLY British ancestors has been steadily bred out. It’s increasingly implausible, without inbreeding for many generations. Let’s be real, even if you know every ‘ancestor’, back to pre-1783, chances are that say great Granny’s daddy wasn’t the man Great great was married to. It happens.
***We have it on good authority from all the self-declared important figures in sf who posit on that fount of knowledge, file 770, the puppies are dead (again), the Tor boycott failed (for the 7th time)… and in everything from the sinking of the HMS Birkenhead, to the end of the world (as a result of Global warming, because we didn’t pass the Carbon tax, on 1997/2005/2014/2020/2025….) or the heat death of the universe, women and minorities are ALWAYS worst affected. We are assured it will still be the Sad Puppies fault, or at least that George Martin would blame us.