A while back, I was on an alternate history panel that posed the question of whether there’s a momentum to history or whether there are places where someone’s decision or a matter of chance can change the outcome. I think this was a Ravencon panel earlier this year, but the year’s been sufficiently… interesting I’m not going to guarantee this.
My first instinct when I read that question was to answer “yes”. Events – which get recorded as history – do have momentum. It’s not a specific direction or what some would call progress, but the cumulative outcome of untold numbers of individual decisions, each made by someone who thought it was the best choice they had at the time. Many of those decisions aren’t even conscious – driving is largely an activity of habit, which is why if you’re not paying attention you can find yourself headed to work on a weekend.
To really understand how this works, you need to have a good understanding of how people work – and that many of them make their choices by methods alien to you but perfectly sensible to them. There are rules of thumb that can be followed: if there’s no strife or hardship we as a species tend to sit back and get lazy. Without intense competition – usually expressed in the form of war against the neighbors – there’s a tendency to stagnate.
Naturally, this makes war a favored plot device.
As a pantser I tend not to use it because a properly handled war takes some serious strategic and logistic nous – and to really do a fictional war justice, there needs to be at least two different styles of strategy (corresponding, more or less, to the preferred styles of the lead generals on each side). After all, different cultures will have different priorities, which means they’ll choose different targets and different offensive and defensive tactics.
All of which explains why most mil-SF leaves me not so much cold as lost. I’m not the sort who can geek over that sort of thing.
That doesn’t stop me looking at an alternate history in which some minor twist of events leads Hitler to avoid the mustard gas injury he suffered in the First World War, and as a result not become completely barking mad over the next twenty five years.
No, I haven’t started writing it. I don’t want to start: something like this is going to be thoroughly unpleasant and ugly, and besides, while the scenario is interesting, I don’t really have a character to work with.
Although an alternate history where the Bavarian Army checks Hitler’s citizenship and ships him to Austria instead of letting him enlist might be interesting in its own way… Of such small things are huge changes made, but not necessarily where we can see them or with consequences we can guess at by any means short of hindsight.
That the end of the First World War would lead to another war within a generation or so was screamingly obvious. It was also obvious from the mid 1800s that the mess of treaties and mutual defense obligations across Europe and the European colonial holdings would cause a war sooner or later, especially with so many of the powers of the day happily engaging in all manner of brinkmanship and gunboat diplomacy. That’s the momentum of events at work.
What nobody could predict was what would set this powder keg of rivalry and unstable regimes tumbling into chaos.
Of course, we know what did set it off today, and we could legitimately claim everything from 1914 through 1990 as the Great World War – because what happened between 1918 and the start of Imperial Japanese expansion or the more conventional 1939 invasion of Poland was far from peaceful, and the staring match between the USA and USSR with its not-quite-regular “oh shit we’re all gonna get nuked” moments wasn’t exactly a time of peace either.
But then, we don’t yet know whether the time from 1990 until a few years from now, or maybe tomorrow, will be known as a quieter period between the next explosion of hostilities. Or even if we’ll manage to scrape by without another round of worldwide war. All of which makes history and the question of what might have happened such fertile story-fodder.
Because, once the ball lands on the one daisy in the field of grass, it’s easy to say that this was phenomenally unlikely, but that ball had to land somewhere, and the daisy was one of many equally likely (or unlikely) locations when the golfer teed off. As the ball arced through the air, the pool of possible locations shrank, until the daisy got splatted.
If we writers can make our fiction feel like this is going on in the background at the same time as we give our protagonists a resolution that’s both fitting and not obvious from page five, we’re doing pretty damn well. Pratchett did this beautifully. I hope one day I’ll figure it out.