Two writers on worldbuilding, fantasy, and whatever else comes to mind.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Thoughts on Alternate History, part I: introduction

Admiral Kimmel woke in a sweat. As he blinked, the buzz of the propellers of two hundred airplanes faded from his ears. A dream. That's all it had been. A dream. It was Sunday morning, a new day in Honolulu. But still-- "Lieutenant," he called. "Send the order: put the fleet on highest alert. And call General Short. His planes need to be ready for action, at once."  So began the Raid on Pearl Harbor, and the first American naval victory over Japan in the Pacific War of 1941-1944.

For the last several years, I've lurked (and occasionally posted) on the Alternate History Forum, one of the internet's premier sites for discussion of what could have, should have, would have happened, if Husband E. Kimmel really had alerted the Pacific Fleet on the morning of December 7, 1941, if Wellington had died of malaria after the Battle of Assaye, if Mustafa Kemal, the future Atatürk, had been hit by a stray shell at Gallipoli--if, well, you name it, and someone's probably thought of it, at least if it has to do with a famous general or politician dying before his time.

I enjoy the discussions and stories, but I'm never quite sure what constitutes "proper" alternate history. What I am more sure of is that the genre, at least as usually practiced, has very little indeed to do with the writing of history as a scholarly discipline. Historians work from sources to make arguments about what happened in the past and why, but the why is, except in the most trivial cases, usually tenuous and speculative: it may be possible to describe the events of the past, but uncovering the deeper causes of those events (what Thucydides, by my reading, promised to do in his Histories) is not easy.

To name only a few classic examples from the study of the ancient world: Why did Rome become the pre-eminent power of the Mediterranean? Why did Rome become an autocracy in the first century B.C. (as we reckon it), and not before? Why did it never return to a political order in which power was distributed more widely? Why did the Roman Empire become Christian? Why did the Western half of the Empire collapse in the fifth century, and the East did not?

It is easy enough to talk about economic pressures or cultural changes or political competition or environmental stresses (or the favour of the gods, or the will of God, or any other idea that seems, to the people of any age, grand and expansive enough to give meaning and direction to human history). It is harder to prove that any particular cause actually underlay the particular realities that we observe in our ancient evidence, and much harder yet to name any particular set or chain of events as the cause for the "big" questions that we want to answer. We can say how history happened, maybe, but never clearly enough why it did, and no one is ever told, as Aslan says, what would have happened.

Alternate history writing does not, it seems to me, always face up squarely to the intractability of historical causation. One of the most extreme cases is presented by Harry Turtledove, a Byzantine historian by education and the most notable living writer of alternate history, who could imagine an alternate British North America whose history had diverged from our own in the 18th century, yet still featured a recognisable John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (the latter two as a used-car salesman and a Governor-General, if I'm not mistaken).

Though delightful, the conceit is a manifest impossibility. Through careful study of declassified military plans, it may be possible to say what would likely have happened over the next few hours or days, had Husband E. Kimmel woken up scared on that fateful December 7, but we can hardly say what our world would look like now, or even tell a plausible story of what it might look like, if our story is to be anything but an imaginative work of fiction. Without knowing how and why each and every event actually happened, we cannot say how a different Pearl Harbor would have affected the whole vast web of events that we call "history." Still less if the change happened centuries before our time.

I think most practitioners of the genre know this, but I don't believe I've ever seen a discussion of how the recognition of the limitations of our knowledge should shape the writing of alternate history in order to make it the best fiction, as fiction, that it can be. In the next post or two, I'll offer a few thoughts, focusing first on what I call "hard" or logically rigorous alternate history and then on "soft" or more free-wheeling narratives, before touching finally on the whole array of more or less fantastic scenarios that constitute their own subgenre within alternate history.

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