Implications

As I sit down to write this, it is the very early hours of Pearl Harbor Day. A day that can never be forgotten, a black mark on the calendar like few others in American history. As I was sitting in the dark at my desk contemplating what to write, digging my bare toes into the warmth of the sheepskin rug, and firing off a snarky comment to a friend’s message from overnight, I debated with myself what to write about. It’s the little things. It’s the implications of ‘what if…?’ that allure those of us who write fiction. I’m not a historian, a mere dabbler, but I do know a little bit about what happened in China in the late 1930s. I was contemplating that, and the Holodomor, and other massive genocidal events, comparative to the Holocaust that was in full swing at the time of Pearl Harbor. The difference? Record-keeping. We have minutely detailed records, photos, even video, that came out of Germany after the war. In the places where no one was writing anything down? We can only speculate. Speculations, on the other hand, can be backed up with forensic evidences, so we have a pretty darn good idea of what could have become of us if Pearl Harbor had been a pivot-point in the other direction.

This is what writing fiction can capture. The implications of events that went one way in our timeline, but in fiction we can explore the other directions it could have gone in. My son recently insisted I take him to see the movie Midway (ok, it wasn’t much of an argument) and that was another critical pivot point in the war. I am not a historian, but James Young is, and his review is excellent before digging deeper into the history – also, James writes alternate history of a whole ‘nother level and you should check that out if you want some nifty military action and fine speculations. Or, in the case of the book I read last night, the speculation can build on history and speculate on it’s influence into the future long past when most people assume it will be relevant. I’d picked up a vintage hardback of Agatha Christie – look, most of my reading is in ebook, but Christie is in the paws of the publishers who just dig their talons in deeper and push the prices to ridiculous levels, so when I find paper for a dollar, I pick it up – and whilst soaking in the bath, I read it. It was not one of her popular detectives, it was the lesser known Tommy and Tuppence, pushed back to their espionage roots when they bought a house that had been involved in a scandal during the Great War… it was Christie at her opaque best. She made leaps and implications and expected the reader to follow along all right while she was doing it. I enjoyed it, even while I occasionally had to go back a page and re-read to make sure I’d caught something. Nothing is stated, nothing is sure, but by the end you understand what happened, and why.

In the Postern Of Fate we also get a glimpse of what Christie herself must have been worrying over. The main drama seems to stem back to the days of 1914, but Tommy and Tuppence also allude to their own adventures in the 1940s as they were in service to the King, and then the problem seems to be that someone in the here and now of Christie’s time (book is copyright 1973) will still kill to get secrets that have been buried for nearly seventy years, because they might be useful in destabilizing the Europe of the present (at Christie’s time of writing, anyway). So the mystery is also, if you read into the implications of her plot, a bit of commentary on the state of affairs in England at that revolutionary time. It’s very interesting, and when you realize this was Christie’s final book published before her death, that also illuminates some things. She was worried about her country, and what would become of it.

I might never venture to write pure alternate history. I enjoy reading good examples of it, but it’s not an easy genre to write in. What is a bit easier to do is to speculate about the what would have happened if… and the how would people react to that? Human nature is what it is, and I sincerely doubt that it would change even with the winds of history twisting all the way around. That makes it easier to anchor a story in pure speculation. We can know that motivations will stay the same: food, love, sex, money, all the highest and lowest characteristics of the soul remain.

27 comments

  1. Apropos of atrocities, the Rape of Nanking is a thing. I’m also a bit of a Japanophile, Japanese was at one time a language I studied, and I can tell you my Chinese friends do not forgive the Japanese for the untold cruelties inflicted upon China.

    BTW: I tend to think of SF as today’s history of tomorrow.

    1. The seriousness of China’s efforts in Asia can be gauged by the way that some countries that Japan invaded during WWII are willing to talk with Japan about resisting China.

      1. That’s true. South Korea is talking to Japan. When you recall what the Japanese did there, not just in WWII but before that as well, the fact that they’re talking at all is really something.

        I’m pretty sure if Canada had to put up with something like that from (random example) Mexico, we’d nuke ’em from orbit. Build rockets and nukes from scratch if necessary and blast them right past the stone age and into a self-lit glass parking lot.

        But there they are, Korea and Japan doing joint naval maneuvers and etc.

        MEANWHILE, Warner Brothers US is doing this:

        https://phantomsoapbox.blogspot.com/2019/12/cowardice-dc-deletes-batman-poster-to.html

        I think I just decided the bad guys in my latest WIP are going to be North Korean tools run by the Chicoms. Middle East is too wanky, they couldn’t organize a two man rush on a three hole shit house.

  2. Like James Young, I came to alternate history from the dark [academic] side. One of the things that I’ve found fascinating is to look at the tiny little things that could have really shifted events sideways. If one Austro-Hungarian artillery battery had held out for five more minutes (maybe even three) at the battle of Sadowa, the Prussians quite likely would have lost, and the Austro-Hungarians might even have captured both Wilhelm I and von Moltke. That would have precluded the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, and the creation of the German Empire and unification of Germany. WWI? Still possible because of Russian Pan-Slavism among other things, and the Serbs would still have hated the Austrians (and a lot of other people.)

    On the other paw, reading about what the Imperial Russians did to Galicia (now Ukraine and Poland) in the early days of WWI . . . The Holodomor and the Soviet Gulags are far less of a surprise. There was a good reason for Germany and Austria-Hungary to protest about Russia not abiding by the understood rules of treatment of civilians.

    1. WWI? Still possible because of Russian Pan-Slavism among other things, and the Serbs would still have hated the Austrians (and a lot of other people.)

      Probably “some damn thing in the Balkans” would have happened, but it’s harder to see it becoming a “world” war. Without Germany as a common threat, I don’t see a close alliance between Russia and France, which in turn means that Western Europe is unlikely to get involved in a Russo-Austrian conflict over Serbia.

      Another interesting one I’ve thought of is, what if Tsar Nicholas didn’t have time to think about the implications of abdicating in favor or Alexis and didn’t change his mind to make Michael the Tsar instead? Would the provisional government have kept Alexis as a figurehead, and would that in turn have given them enough legitimacy to forestall the October revolution? There weren’t very many people on Lenin’s side, and he won mostly because no one was on the government’s side either. Would Alexis’s presence be enough to rally the troops to fight for “Tsar and country”? And if so, how different is the 20th century?

      1. And Lenin also won because (as we now know) the Germans were pumping money and other resources to the Bolsheviks in order to keep them going between April and October/November. Take that support away, and things in Russia might have gone differently.

      2. some damn thing in the Balkans did happen. Twice. The First (1912-1913) and Second (1913) Balkan Wars directly contributed to the outbreak of the Great War. Without the breakup of the Balkan League, Russia wouldn’t have felt it HAD to back the Serbians vis a vis the AH Empire. Also, the Balkan Wars put paid to the Ottoman Empire, it was a dead man walking going into WW1. (Note: As scores of zombie movies have made clear though, even dead men walking can still be dangerous.)

        It was a massive hairball. The upside is, for the writer of alternative history, there are SO many credible vectors for launching the stories.

    2. Get your hands on a version of the Marquis de Custine’s book about his trip to Russia. I’ve only read it in editted versions, but it explains so much about the USSR.

  3. Postern of Fate was one Christie book I could never get into. I don’t remember all that much about the plot, but I remember that I found it meandering and disjointed, and when I got to the end, my reaction was, “And what was the point?” Maybe I need to give it another try…

    1. No, it’s all of those things. I found it hard to follow – hence the opaque. But in between the lines it’s sweet as can be about a love story between two elderly people. Tuppence riding a child’s toy as a grandmother reminded me of my grandma.

  4. My short story “Grandmaster’s Gambit” posits as backstory a War That Came Early scenario, where the conflict starts some time in 1913, when the younger Moltke hadn’t watered down the Schlieffen Plan so much.

    1. Drat. I included the embed code Amazon gave me to put one of those cool preview boxes in, but it wouldn’t come up. I’m going to try it in Safari and see if it’s Firefox weirdness and not WordPress weirdness.

  5. I’ve only written one serious Alternate History story, “The Summer Of Love” from my collection Duel Visions. In it I posit a time traveller going back to late 19th Century Germany and killing Adolf Hitler, then returning to his starting point (1968) and finding that he’s made things worse.

    The alternate timeline that I posit is that after the Great War Germany becomes communist and allies with the Soviet Union and annexes all of Europe, with the USA joining a Soviet controlled League of Nations to form what amounts to a global communist state.

    I wrote it specifically to counter the “Communists were good because they fought against Hitler” malarky, but once I started digging into the history I realized that the world was very close to going that way in the 1930s and while I am no apologist for Nazis, Hitler breaking the Molotov pact and invading Poland was not the worst thing that could have happened.

  6. Trying one more time to get the Amazon link for “Grandmaster’ Gambit to show up all nice and pretty. If it won’t, go to Starship Cat Press (click on my name) and it’s on the front page.

  7. That speculation gets interesting, but also requires suspension of logistics and reality. Three entire combat fleets, a fleet support train, two merchant fleets, and a full amphibious fleet were already on the ways or under construction contract. The world’s major supply of 100 octane gasoline came from Texas or the eastern U.S. Third generation carrier aircraft were either in prototype or final design. As an alternate history topic, it would be the story of the four-channel Nicaragua Canal, built within a year.

    More interesting are two speculative points. Hitler was not required to declare war on the United States by the Tripartite Pact. Japan could have received the complete focus of a military giant which was still coming back to full production. The other point was raised by Dr. Gannon in ” Operatio Drumbeat.” If Hitler had released in Dec 41/Jan 42 even half of the 50 submarines retained against a nonexistent British invasion of Norway, the Battle of the Atlantic may have ended by February. Six U- boats almost cut the food and supply line. Thirty would have stopped or slowed the line to a fatal crawl, sinking hills faster than thet could be launched and crewed in mid-winter. Britain would need to use for peace, from lack of oil and food. What happens on the home islands? What happens with the Commonwealth nations and India?

    1. I seem to recall that the British had a plan to evacuate the King and government to Canada if it looked like the British Isles would be conquered, so that the war could continue from the colonies. My memory may be faulty, however (or I may be remembering an alternate history story).

  8. some damn thing in the Balkans did happen. Twice. The First (1912-1913) and Second (1913) Balkan Wars directly contributed to the outbreak of the Great War. Without the breakup of the Balkan League, Russia wouldn’t have felt it HAD to back the Serbians vis a vis the AH Empire. Also, the Balkan Wars put paid to the Ottoman Empire, it was a dead man walking going into WW1. (Note: As scores of zombie movies have made clear though, even dead men walking can still be dangerous.)

    It was a massive hairball. The upside is, for the writer of alternative history, there are SO many credible vectors for launching the stories.

  9. Thanks Cedar for the kind words. I agree with others–you are a historian, even somewhat reluctantly. 😀

    I’m not sure I’d say I necessary came into alternate history from the Dark Side, TxRed. More a case of taking 18 levels in Sith Lord REALLY helped what was already nascent thought processes. 😀

    Personally, I would love to have seen Iris Chang’s book on the Bataan Death March and how it may have affected some countries interactions with one another. But alas, all we have is Rape of Nanking, and Lord knows that caused a lot of raised eyebrows.

    1. Eh – I don’t call myself historian because I dabble in it enthusiastically but don’t apply myself scholarly to it. I’d like to, but there’s not enough time in the day to do all the projects that catch my eye.

  10. Parshall’s web page, at http://www.combinedfleet.com/economic.htm ,makes a pretty solid argument that while Midway’s victory significantly aided in the US victory in the Pacific, a loss would still not have resulted in a US loss, but merely delayed the inevitable win (Parshall is one of the historians mentioned in the review of the Midway film).

    His conclusions included showing that, on the assumption that Midway had been totally reversed (all the US carriers, and none of the Japanese one, were sunk), that:

    “In other words, even if it had lost catastrophically at the Battle of Midway, the United States Navy still would have broken even with Japan in carriers and naval air power by about September 1943. Nine months later, by the middle of 1944, the U.S. Navy would have enjoyed a nearly two-to-one superiority in carrier aircraft capacity!”

    (He looks at the building programs for each country and when each carrier would have gone into service.)

  11. I like alt-history until it reconverges. I liked Harry Turtledove’s “aliens invade in the middle of WWII” series, but the sequels were just silly. After throwing the world into turmoil 20 years earlier, JFK and MLK Jr still existed in more-or-less the same form? I think not. All evidence points to the butterfly effect increasing over time, not being cancelled out by “the currents of history.”

    1. Evidence is zilch.

      I grant you plausibility is, too.

      One thing I don’t like about points of divergence is that so much depends on the characters of people whose character we have no way to know about. . . .

      Henry VIII’s son by Catherine of Aragon lives — what effect would that have? Or Arthur lived long enough to get her pregnant? Both would turn on the child’s character.

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