Of History and Trajectories

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.

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62 responses to “Of History and Trajectories

      • Poul Anderson used the turning-point concept with great effect in his “Time Patrol” series. In the most intriguing of his stories, “Delenda est”, Caesar’s legions are defeated by Scipio so that the Gallic War does not happen and Gaul rises to absorb Latium and Rome and become the dominant culture in Europe.

        • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

          IIRC that “turning point” was caused by two time-travelers who enabled Carthage to win.

          It was cultures descended from Carthage that “ruled the world”.

          • Yes, sorry, it was the other Scipio who won over in that story. Got it mixed up in my memory so many decades after actually reading the story.
            It was a good one nevertheless.

  1. I have to respond to your use of Hitler, and I don’t mean to be critical. Just sharing the train of thought your example kicked off. I read a recent book earlier this year entitled 1924 THE YEAR THAT MADE HITLER. It’s the story of the beer hall putsch, the trial that followed, and how Hitler used his year in prison to refine his ideas and approach. One thing I got from the book was that if Hitler hadn’t become Hitler as we know him today, someone else most likely would have. Given the political conditions in Germany at the time, it was the most likely outcome with all the revolutionary groups trying to organize.

    Hitler’s name has become so synonymous with the evil he did that it’s easy to forget he didn’t exist in a vacuum but rather had a great deal of support and assistance, even early on. There were any number of points in the timeline where things could have gone differently for Hitler, but I’m not sure in the long run how differently things on the whole would have turned out. Someone else would have probably ended up in a similar historical role. Lots of good alternate history potential there.

    • I’d be more likely to believe that if Adolf hadn’t been gassed himself, he might have been more apt to resort to chemical warfare later – and that would have been Quite Nasty Indeed since… organophosphates.

    • BobtheRegisterredFool

      My position is that the driving force was the existence of the Soviet Union.

      Yeah, Hitler was particularly crazy, and for no good reason wasted people he could have used against the communists.

      But between the Holodomor and the Bavarian SSR, the Germans knew they were next on the chopping block. Status quo was unlikely. Could the noble faction have mustered the support and found the aggression to counter communism? Absent that, some flavor of socialism is likely, because of their techniques, and nice people would not have come to power through socialism in that time and place.

      • Kate Paulk

        Quite possibly, yes. Someone smart and ruthless and capable of decent economics? That could have led to an interesting outcome. Not a pretty one, but an interesting one.

        A communist… the next phase would likely have been a communist/free-world war

        • snelson134

          Or simply where he stuck to the 1943 timetable envisioned by the General Staff, where (among other things) the Germans would have had something resembling a navy (with carriers, battleships, and 250 to 300 U boats st the start).

          • Kate Paulk

            Quite. Of course refraining from invading Russia would have helped. Being cagey enough to trick Uncle Joe into attacking first would have helped even more, especially if he’d managed to avoid pissing off the Brits and the French so much they declared war on Germany – he’d be able to make the believable claim that Stalin would just roll over piles of his own dead, then make himself a bridge across the channel of even more corpses. Total propaganda win.

            • Joe in PNG

              Grofaz hit a lucky streak with the Rhineland and Czechoslovakia. And like most bad poker players, he overestimated his skill, and raised on hands he really should have folded- Poland, for instance. And like many bad poker players, he got really lucky on those bad hands, and though he couldn’t lose. Next thing, his luck runs out, he’s covered more than he can afford, and down he goes.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, quite. Someone else would definitely have taken up that role and there would have been a second/continuing war – the question of who it would have been and the end result is a fun one to play with.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        There’s a time travel story in which the conspirators went back in time to kill the great dictator before he could come to power — leaving as his “successor” some Austrian painter and soldier that none of the time travelers had ever heard of.

  2. One thing I played with in doing the alt-history background for the forthcoming three book sub-series is nudging things that were very close. Such as having the Austrians win Sadowa, or having Count Windischgratz’s wife not die in the Prague uprising in 1848. Things stay close to what really did happen in Central Europe, but not exactly. The overall outcome of WWI doesn’t change, for military and logistical reasons, but the diplomatic aftermath is a little different, in a plausible way.

    • Actually, if you have a look at the literature published from 1890 to 1914, you will find that everyone was prepared for WWI to happen. If anything, many authors then predicted the outbreak a decade or so too early! I even have a book at home, written by a forgotten Yugoslavian author, who correctly foresaw in 1935 that WWII would begin with an attack by Germany on Poland..(It is actually an SF story about how this outbreak might be prevented. A huge conspiracy of the scientific community is initiated on that behalf, falsely announcing an upcoming global natural catastrophe in order to spread panick – climategate, anyone?)

      • snelson134

        Absolutely; see this from Kipling in 1896:

        “As it was in ancient Suez or ‘neath wilder, milder skies,
        I “observe with apprehension” how the racial ructions rise;
        And with keener apprehension, if I read the times aright,
        Hear the old Casino order: “Watch your man, but be polite.”

      • No argument here. I’ve read a goodly amount of German literature and such about the desirability of a short war to clear the air (Franco-Prussian War 2.0) and to forever prevent Russia and France from attacking Germany together. On the other hand, war was forecast in 1908, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1913, and why should the Franz Ferdinand assassination have triggered something in 1914? (To paraphrase a memoir I found. The Hungarian author was taken father aback that war actually broke out then. He assumed that Russia would attack Austria first and start things.)

  3. “we give our protagonists a resolution that’s both fitting and not obvious from page five, we’re doing pretty damn well”

    The perfect solution: For a long time I had myself no idea what to do with the protagonist’s scheming antagonist/ally in the end, and this insecurity shines through in her actions. Then, all of a sudden, my wife suggested an outcome that matched the personality of this character perfectly, I saw that at once, but it would not have occurred to me in a hundred years (only a woman can think as crooked as that!). And that’s how we ended the book.

  4. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Sort of “on topic”.

    Where would Napoleon end up if the French Revolution never happened?

    Also, Turtledove had an alternate history where Germany won the Great War and later on we met this German Corporal who obviously was Hitler. (Obviously a minor character. :evil:)

    “Great Leaders” may be important but what they can actually do depends on events that happened before they entered the scene.

    • One story involving the French Revolution never happening saw him become Colonel of Artillery in Toulon, and staying that way.

      Minor nitpick on the Turtledove–we actually meet Hitler during the Great War, when he’s Heinz Guderian’s orderly while the latter is observing one of the viewpoint characters fighting in the Canadian Rockies. Guderian finds him to be an obnoxious little twerp.

    • The most bizarre alternate Hitler is Spinrad’s The Iron Dream were AH moves to the US and becomes a pulp-stf hack. Most of the book is taken up with his most famous novel. I found the novel unreadable, but I though the preface was fascinating.

      • Terry Sanders

        And the epilogue, where Spinrad dissects the symbolism, etc.–then mentions in passing that Europe is pretty much under the sway of an utterly unopposed Stalin.

        He ends by casually wishing you *could* have united post-WW1 Europe with something as simple as a charismatic leader, some shout-yourself-hoarse rallies, and a bunch of flashy uniforms. It would beat what they were looking forward to now…

        • There was a story in Analog maybe 15 or 20 years ago about a basketball game. (Some player got the Michael Jordan genes). There was an alternate history backdrop of Hitler having prevailed in Europe, and all the American teenagers were being edgy and wearing swastikas and other Nazi paraphernalia. I took the story to be riffing on how lots of people in our own timeline thought that the USSR was “cool,” and would regularly sport the hammer and sickle.

  5. Tim McDonald

    Piper explored these ideas in his Paratime and Lord Kalvan series and books. As I recall, there were major timelines where splits had occurred, but causing splits inside those timelines was very difficult to impossible, as they built up a sort of momentum.

    • Terry Sanders

      A later development. If you look at the first one, he described lots of micro-divergences. Apparently he took a second look at the idea, saw some, or all, the nasties Larry Niven described in “All the Myriad Ways” and retconned the momentum thing.

  6. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Or even if we’ll manage to scrape by without another round of worldwide war.

    I think you’ve heard my sentiments that such war is becoming more certain. I think we are almost to the point of being able to say that we know.

  7. BobtheRegisterredFool

    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.

    There are grounds to think that the deception and subversion attacks of the soviets have sufficiently shaped the last twenty five years enough that the next world war can be counted as part of that.

    • Kate Paulk

      Yes, there are. The blood-soaked mess of the 20th century is still haunting us and will for quite some time.

  8. Matters started well before 1914 with the Balkan wars. Amusing alternative – early Ottoman reform movement so attacks on the Ottomans before the war do poorly.

    Alternative: Franz Joseph II dies sooner than he did, or has to abdicate for health reasons. His son — assassinate our time line — gains power and puts his historic plans into effect, to the great outrage of the Serbs and the Hungarians.

    • Any situation where the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary is able to get its house into something resembling order would likely have major impacts. IMHO, the perceived weakness of both encouraged a lot of ambitious moves by Russia, Italy, and France than would have been the case otherwise.

      • Kate Paulk

        Oh, now either of those could have some fun outcomes.

        Personally I think Austria-Hungary had a better chance than the Ottomans: they’d been stagnant for a long time, without any real leadership happening.

        • Agreed. If (as seemed to happen about every other generation, sometimes more often) a really good outsider or “black-sheep” Habsburg had popped up who had the charisma and determination to organize things into a Commonwealth of sorts, with the Habsburgs still seen as the central point and mediator (as a number of recent historians are pointing out), it could have checked the elite nationalists, kept the peasants and workers a lot happier, and eased the transition from old-school empire into a multi-ethnic, mono-political state. In aggregate, the raging nationalists weren’t really all that numerous before 1914, just very vocal and in positions to make themselves heard.

          • The number of scenarios and points of divergence seem plentiful. Crown Prince Rudolph doesn’t commit suicide, and matures. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth have more boys, and one of them turns out suitably. Franz Joseph is assassinated long before his natural death date. Slightly different outcomes from the 1848-1849 period. Militarily, if Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf died early and his successor in office improved security so the Germans would actually coordinate, that might make a difference. You can probably think of far more scenarioes than I, but there are undeniably lots of them.

        • snelson134

          Given that the Ottomans were laboring under the handicap of Islam….

      • Ben Yalow

        A generally unexplored spot for an alternate history with the Ottoman empires is if Troubridge does engage Goeben with his armored cruiser squadron after the British officially enter the war against Germany. While his ships, individually, are no match for a battlecruiser — he does have four armored cruisers, which means there’s a reasonable chance that Goeben doesn’t escape to Constantinople. And, without that, there’s a reasonable chance the Ottoman Empire sits it out. So the Dardanelles route to Russia stays open (which may well keep Russia in the war), and the Middle East stays undivided.

        Lots of room there for lots of changes. And it’s not any of the overused turning points.

        • snelson134

          I suspect that the Admiralty (especially Churchill’s) reaction to Troubridge’s decision and it’s results was a factor in the Royal Navy’s decision to engage Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Plate. Pretty much the same scenario.

  9. mrsizer

    Precognition and prophecy have the same problem but in reverse. I really liked the Dune treatment – it’s the only thing that got me through God Emperor. The Valedmar universe has “foresight” to deal with.

    I want to explore that some time.

  10. TRX

    > that ball had to land somewhere,

    WWII is one of my hobbies. But you don’t have to read all that much before things start looking… odd.

    Some history books are weird because of Ultra and other information that the early historians either didn’t have access to or weren’t allowed to use. But just the open stuff, even acknowledging “the truth only has to be true”… waaaay too many rabbits got pulled out of hats, too many incomprehensible major decisions, too many WTF? moments.

    Someone could make a strong case for aliens or time travelers intervening in WWII…

    • Kate Paulk

      Sometimes the Author gets a bit heavy handed with his deus ex machinas, yes.

    • Luke

      I feel the same way about the ACW. People don’t seem to understand how many lucky breaks the Union benefited from.

      And despite only having a general grasp, the American Revolutionary War was very touch-and-go.
      But George Washington keeping the Continental Army from rising up against the Continental Congress is as textbook an example of the right man, in the right place, at the right pivotal moment successfully changing the course of history as there is.

      • Everybody has scads of lucky breaks during the ACW.
        Good night, if I wrote a novel where, right before the secession happens, the Secretary of War was shipping as much materiel as he could to the seceding portions of the country, it would be laughed out of the house for being too unrealistic.

  11. Joe in PNG

    My favorite chain of historical “What If’s”:
    Fredrick III gets the surgery he needed, and lives a few more years. Bismark is able to get the Reassurance treaty with Russia renewed. Likewise, Chamberlain’s advances are not rebuffed, and England allies with Germany instead of France.
    What happens next? Good question.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, yes. Any of those could have had interesting knock-on effects.

    • That England would ally with Germany seemed evident to authors like Griffith who assumed that for “The Angel of the Revolution”.

      My favorite What-Ifs: What if Caesarion had lived to grow up and rival Augustus? What if the Roman Senate had accepted Aurelian’s proposal to add Christ to the Roman pantheon? And what if Antoine de Lavoisier had not been sent to the guillotine?

      • Bjorn Hasseler

        I like, what if Brutus thought far enough ahead to have an archer in place and killed Antony during the funeral oration.

  12. BobtheRegisterredFool

    Oh. Just remembered. Many threads ago, I think one with steampunk art, maybe relating to Hugos.

    If Charlotte of Wales does not die in childbirth, decent chance of no Leopold and no Victoria.

  13. Something I haven’t seen explored – What if the Jewish civil war of circa 70 AD didn’t happen? No destruction if Jerusalem, no diaspora, no Jewish moneylenders funding the incessant, piddly wars across Europe. A strong Jewish state with a robust religion to oppose the rise to power of the Mohammedans during a time of Christian internal strife.

    Or, alternately, what if the Jewish people accepted Christ’s divinity en masse, and, tired of the blatant hypocrisy and corruption, rose up against the power of the Sadducees and Pharisees? Granted, this would probably have a similar immediate outcome to the historical civil war, but with very different long-term consequences. A lack of money lenders, but a surfeit if early Christians, with a large possibility of the early church leaders deciding that only Jews could become Christians, and retaining the laws of Moses.

    • (Waggles hand) Someone had to do the banking. You’d probably end up with some other group being shoved into that particular job.
      Like Gypsies.

    • A lack of money-lenders, *LOL*.
      For a change, I would like to read an alternate-history novel that has not the fate of a warlord at its turning point but that of a scientist. I mentioned Lavoisier escaping the guillotine above; or what if the Library of Alexandria had not burned down? What if Aristotle had not rejected the Atomistic theory? What if Giordano Bruno had avoided the pyre?

      • Then you might like Dave Freer’s Cuttlefish universe.

        • I have checked it on Goodreads. Is that more than standard steampunk?

          • I haven’t read a lot of steampunk so am no expert on what’s standard. I mentioned it because it fit the criteria for a scientist being the lynchpin for an alternate history. There’s a great discussion at the back of the book about the history of the divergence.

            I really enjoyed both books in that universe. My favorite Freer book is Changeling’s Island, but these come in a close second.