If only… (On Alternate History)

While Dave is moving, here’s another great piece of advice from July 2015!

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.


  1. That’s a whole lotta derp in the Vox article. Waaaaayyyyy too much for a Monday morning. Dumb@55 writing like that requires not copious amounts of coffee, but a fifth or two of whiskey.

  2. I remember learning about some theory of revolutions in high school. Basically, revolutions have phases by which they return to the beginning setup. Too bad, so sad. Then the teacher pointed out that the American Revolution wasn’t really a revolution because it didn’t follow the plan. Grrrrrr!

    I had endless arguments about how a) we came first and others were trying to imitate us so how could you not call us a revolution when everyone back then thought we’d had one and b) we actually ended up in a different place, which was the point of revolutions, so why were we the ones who lost the title. Maybe if people would think of why we changed and everyone else didn’t there would be more successful revolutions. That point really brought out the long knives.

    Years later I read two books at the same time. One was Dava Sobel’s Longitude and the other was Carry On, Mr, Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham (kid’s book, in case anyone doesn’t know). They are both fascinating but the relevant point here is this. In Longitude a sailor is hanged for privately keeping track of where the ship is, and trying to warn the captain that they are about to die. In COMB the captain, “Mr. Bowditch”, teaches the cabin boy to do occultations, along with other crew members. It is his personal way to navigate the Pacific (chronometers are expensive) and his whole crew learns. Since the war of 1812 was supposedly fought in part because of the differing treatment of sailors this is a useful comparison.

    1. Well, I’ve said that the American Revolution wasn’t a true Revolution because the Founding Fathers didn’t want to overthrow the British government.

      They wanted to continue the Self-Rule that they already had via the Colonial (State) governments and they were fighting the attempts of the British government to rule them from London.

      Their major problem after the victory was finding a way for the Thirteen Independent States to work together NOT create new governments for the States.

      1. And that, of course, was after victory. With the war going on, they managed to muddle through.

    2. Well, there *is* an argument that the American Revolution was actually a counterrevolution against an English Parliament that was trying to change how things worked.

      1. Bernard Bailyn, _The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution_. And then other, later writers.

        I don’t agree with everything Sean Young has written about the Revolution, but he does write well, and his points about who opposed the Revolution and why are interesting.

    3. Crane Brinton’s Anatomy of Revolution.

      I read it in my mid teens, and thought he made a case for two modes of revolution.

      1. The point I tried to make is that within twenty years of the Revolution we were incredibly different from the English on the question of how to treat a crew at sea — and this difference did have to do with the idea of equality. Whatever the cause, we had a real change in direction. The argument being made was that the French, Russians, and Chinese merely exchanged one tyrant and ruling class for another.

        There’s some serious ground here for alternative history ….

    4. The American Revolution is much better described by its other name, the American War of Independence. It was a war of secession, not a revolution.

      Of course, after that little rumpus in the middle of the 19th century, no one was going to call it that.

      1. Well, Lafayette thought it was a revolution. He went home and tried to start one that turned around and almost consumed him. But first he sent George Washington the key to the Bastille.

      2. It produced more refugees than the French Revolution did. It did a fair number on American society.

    5. “Carry On, Mr, Bowditch” is one of my all-time favorite books, even though it’s not science fiction. I like to read it other year or so, and highly recommend it. It’s a great read!

  3. The American in me, especially today, wants to look at Mr. “Empire was better for minorities” and ask why he’s not speaking Spanish. Or Russian. Because IF the crown had actually managed to keep people from crossing the Proclamation Line, it’s quite possible that the Spanish and Russians would have divided up a lot of the very wealthy part of North America. Or that the colonies would have grown strong enough to kick the British out of North America, leaving it to the Spanish and the Russians. Think what that would have done to a lot of the technological developments that came from the US in the 1800s-1900s…

    1. Soviet treatment of Africans in their African colonial operations and Spanish treatment of Indians in their American colonial operations is by far to be preferred to the modern American oppression of African Americans, Indians, Asians, Indians, Muslims, and socialists.

      The welfare of the untouchables in India, America’s street druggies, France’s unemployed, Brazil’s Bolsonaro voters, and Japan’s urban population would be much improved in absence of the industrial revolution, the chemical revolution, Norman Borlaug, the Manhattan project, and the military standard for Systems Engineering Management.

    2. The British crown actually managing to stop people from crossing the Proclamation Line is a pipe dream. At best.

      Also as a side note, I suspect that a world where the AWI never happens probably involves the slave trade not being abolished for another decade, at least, and a civil war that starts in the 1840s when the American South and the Caribbean colonies decide to leave and France and Spain intervene on their behalf. Yeah, that’s going to be a better world.

      1. “But if you stopped your grants, what would be the consequence? The people would occupy without grants. They have already so occupied in many places. You cannot station garrisons in every part of these deserts. If you drive the people from one place, they will carry on their annual tillage, and remove with their flocks and herds to another. Many of the people in the back settlements are already little attached to particular situations. Already they have topped the Appalachian Mountains. From thence they behold before them an immense plain, one vast, rich, level meadow; a square of five hundred miles. Over this they would wander without a possibility of restraint; they would change their manners with the habits of their life; would soon forget a government by which they were disowned; would become hordes of English Tartars; and, pouring down upon your unfortified frontiers a fierce and irresistible cavalry, become masters of your governors and your counsellors, your collectors and comptrollers, and of all the slaves that adhered to them. Such would, and in no long time must be, the effect of attempting to forbid as a crime and to suppress as an evil the command and blessing of providence, INCREASE AND MULTIPLY. Such would be the happy result of the endeavor to keep as a lair of wild beasts that earth which God, by an express charter, has given to the children of men” Edmund Burke

  4. Inevitable historical forces is a combination of cherrypicking and mysticism.

    Great Man theory seems to be valid in situations very close to certain kinds of equilibrium.

    1. In the end, someone has to make the speech, take the shot, charge the barricade, etc. Circumstances may make the attempt more or less likely to succeed, and provide a smaller or greater pool of potential actors, but in the end, it hinges on people.

      1. Yup. It is people. Fundamental unit is the person.

        Greatness, ‘state’, ‘history’, ‘society’, etc. are abstractions we use when processing a vast amount of data. That immense quantity of data is still but a teaspoon in an ocean of information that is now lost. The fundamental decision making was and is individual for individual reasons.

        But the human mind does not have the capacity to capture the full dynamics of even a single human mind. Attempting to understand history tends to involve fitting a reduced order model via abstractions. In some circumstances an abstraction may seem valid, because the conflicting modes of the collection-of-humans-as-dynamical-system are not energized. Probably no set of abstractions is valid for every circumstance. Once you decide that an abstraction is the real decision maker, you set yourself up for trouble with situations where a lot of people can benefit from going contrary to the abstraction.

        1. I look at it this way: imagine WW2 without Winston Churchill. Or Nazi Germany with a sane and intelligent leader. In the right situation, one person can make a huge difference – and we usually don’t know what the right situation is until long after it’s passed.

  5. Wait, are they saying now that imperialism is good?

    My head hurts.

      1. Nod.

        They imagine that world would be where the Proper People Rule and that they’d be counted as among the Proper People. 😈

        1. An interesting read is “Presidential Lottery” by James Michener, better known for all his books about places from “South Pacific”, “Hawaii”, to “Alaska”. This book is about the election of 1968, the electoral college, and his concern about Wallace winning enough electoral votes to prevent anyone getting a majority in the electoral college.

          One interesting detail is his conversation with the chairman of the democrat party in Pennsylvania, while Michener served as a 1968 elector. They discussed how if Wallace had held the balance of power, the chairman had planned to work with Republican leaders to offer to give whoever had won the popular vote the win, by getting electors to vote for the one with the most popular votes. There was concern about Wallace making a “deal” to elect someone who agreed to his demands. Talk about “proper people” making a deal.

          One other note. If the election had gone to congress, the democrats had a majority in the Senate. Muskie likely would have been vice president. No one had 26 states in the house. It might have taken a while to elect a president.

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