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.