Otherwhens: A Theory of Alternate History


A Theory of Alternate History

J. S. Burke 

©2001, J. S. Burke 

"The causes of events are ever more interesting than the events themselves." --Cicero

According to one interpretation of quantum indeterminacy, each possible outcome of an event is more than merely possible--it actually happens, somewhere, in one of the countless worlds of a multiverse. Somewhere, Al Gore took the Presidential oath of office on January 20th, 2001; and somewhere else, you died in a car crash yesterday. World-to-world interference has seemingly been confirmed experimentally at the micro-level, but physicists disagree over the implications of this, most importantly over whether or not we could visit or personally interact with so-called alternate worlds[1]. But no matter--SF readers have known the caverns and corridors of these strange places, and their corresponding alternate histories, for years. Where history in SF is concerned, tales of divergent pasts are probably the most popular and well-known stories of all; and, in the right hands, they can be some of the most powerful. Brooding on what might have been helps us see ourselves in perspective and tickles a deep need in us to explore our existence as actors and reactors beyond the narrow tunnel of what is actual or real; and, most importantly, it reminds us that we both shape the world with our choices and are in turn shaped by that world--imagine you're Nikita Khrushchev and what your life would be like if you hadn't backed down in the autumn of 1962.

An alternate history is, succinctly, a writer positing that some known event or events in the past occurred differently than they really did for us, therefore altering subsequent causally related events. The end result is a present-day setting for a story that's often radically changed from what we know (or knew, for alternate history stories set in the past, or think we'll know, for those set in the future).

Suspension of Disbelief

For a reader, suspension of disbelief is the first hurdle when he's embarking on a tour of an alternate history. If you, as the writer, tell him that the Germans and Japanese won World War II, he'll be skeptical at first--after all, they didn't, and there are good reasons why they lost. The key to getting the reader to suspend disbelief lies in that last sentence: good reasons. Reasons make the difference between a plausible alternate history and an absurd one. If you go back and look, e.g., you'll find that one big reason why the Allies won was America's megalithic industrial capacity--the Axis powers couldn't compete with it in the long run. Over the course of the conflict, U.S. factories churned out an astounding 75,000 tanks, 300,000 planes, 6500 naval ships and over 2 million heavy machine-guns--while Hitler and Tojo considered themselves lucky that their soldiers had sufficient ammunition and their mechanized units had gasoline. The solution? An obvious one is to somehow cripple American industry, to level the battlefield; and this is a distinct possibility: in 1944 and 1945, the Japanese launched around 9000 balloon-bombs at the U.S.'s west coast . . . and one of them nearly caused disaster at Los Alamos, where the first atomic weapons were under development. Eliminate nearly, and you could have a Chernobyl-style wreck in the New Mexico desert; consider what this might have done to the country--physically, economically and socially--and you're on your way to toppling the American war effort.

Points of Divergence

The above scenario--that a Japanese balloon-bomb could have helped the Axis powers win World War II--contains two points of divergence. A point of divergence is the place where real recorded history leaves off and an alternate history begins. The most obvious, and biggest, is the Axis victory; but going back an order of causation, there's another--that a balloon-bomb wrecked the U.S.'s war-effort, which in turn helped cause the Axis to triumph. Theoretically, the orders of causation in an historical chain stretch back in time to infinity--therefore, to show an alteration in one event, it's necessary to posit differences in other previous events or states that caused the event you're wanting to present as changed. What this means, boiled down, is that what you call your major point of divergence (e.g., Germany and Japan won) is rather arbitrary; for, traveling back in your timeline, you'll inevitably find other points of divergence that don't agree with real history because those divergent points are causally necessary for your major point to be. In the most fundamental sense, you can never create an alternate history that's different from ours in only one or two respects; given that the past causes the present (a safe historical assumption)[2], the divergent causal chain that led to the Axis victory stretches back as far as time does.

In practice, however, it's generally necessary to go back only two or three orders of causation from your major point of divergence; this is often sufficient to convince the reader to suspend his disbelief. In the above example, bringing in the Japanese balloon-bombs is step one; saying that a balloon-bomb hit Los Alamos because a storm nudged it on-target completes the justification for your alternate history. You could push back further, and talk about the causal origins of the storm, but what's the point? You've satisfied the reader that you're not an idiot, and it's time to move on to other matters.

The Consequences of Divergence

The alternate history story takes place in a present-day setting that is the result of a set of past events that diverge from recorded history. In a previous article, I suggested some techniques for developing such a setting for future histories; the same advice applies here:

There are roughly two ways of approaching the construction of a history: (1) Begin with a "present-day" setting and work backwards to the events that caused the setting; or (2) Build a history first, then allow it to lead causally to a "present-day" setting. Both are equally useful, and they're not mutually exclusive. E.g., you can start with a setting, then work back to establish its causal events; then throw in a few random happenings, follow where they lead, then adjust your initial setting to suit.

Also in that article, I suggested that the actual past be used as inspiration for fictional history. Here are some examples of how that might work for alternate histories:

(1) Major point of divergence (borrowed from Damon M. Lord's work-in-progress): the infamous Morgenthau Plan is instituted in post-World-War-II Germany instead of the Marshall Plan. Result: lorded over indefinitely by the Allied powers, Germany winds up as an agricultural nation torn asunder into separate states, with the people longing for reunification. In real history, Germany was split into East and West, and, later, those revolutionaries dedicated to reunion used the churches as a cover for their activities. The Morgenthau revolutionaries would probably likewise find religion a convenient blanket.

(2) Major point of divergence: Japan wins in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Result: the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere stretches from Manchuria to the Solomon Islands for decades. To determine how the Japanese victors might run their conquered territories, look to their chief war-aim: to secure natural resources and markets for their products. Ever since Japan industrialized in the late 19th century, it had lusted for plentiful and cheap resources that would help sustain its growth and technology; more than likely, Japan would have mined and worked its poorer provinces into the ground (as it actually did Manchuria) and flooded the markets of their richer colonies with Japanese-made goods.

(3) Major point of divergence: the U.S. never ratifies the Constitution. Result: the Confederation soon breaks apart into completely independent countries, never to be united. A roughly similar scenario happened with the legendary Simón Bolívar in South America: in 1824, after he defeated the last of the Spanish viceroys in the battles of Junín and Ayacucho, South America was ripe for a confederation, which, in time, may have evolved into a federal union like the U.S. But the great Spanish-American alliance that Bolívar dreamed of wasn't to be: he called a congress that met at Panama City in 1826, but few of the nations he'd helped liberate attended; and, worse, there was irreconcilable argument among the debaters present and none of the agreements that the congress promulgated were ever ratified. Because of this failure, and various other problems, South America remained nationally divided. A closer look into Bolívar's military and political exploits would provide much fodder for an alternate history of a fractured North America.

(4) Major point of divergence: Douglas MacArthur is elected President of the U.S. in 1952 instead of Eisenhower. Result: the Korean War is accelerated and China is a-bombed and invaded, just as MacArthur had demanded be done before Truman fired him; but the Chinese peasantry, in love with Communist Mao, fight a guerrilla war against the occupying Americans. An obvious real parallel here is the Vietnam War: increase the U.S.'s military commitment and casualties tenfold or more, and spread the conflict over the whole Chinese mainland instead of a tiny peninsula, and you'd have a good idea of how it might turn out.

(5) Major point of divergence: the atomic bomb, whose foundation principle was known in 1905, is developed by German scientists in 1915. Result: the Central Powers win World War I after nuking London and Paris. In our world, those nations in possession of the a-bomb in the late 1940s--the U.S. and the Soviet Union--were assured superpower military status; this most likely would have been the case for the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. As well, given that those countries were monarchies, it's probable that democracy would have waned in Europe, with people like Kaiser Wilhelm and Franz Josef calling the international shots. The re-establishment of the French crown and the British Commons bowing to George V, anyone?

(6) Major point of divergence: Charlemagne establishes lasting imperial institutions after he's crowned emperor in 800. Result: Europe doesn't break up ultimately into nation-states after Charlemagne's death. Imperial China is a good example of this scenario: the empire remained united for centuries and constantly fought to push back invaders along its borders. If Charlemagne's plan to unite Europe had succeeded, the continent would likely have ended up as a huge, lazy empire uninterested in exploration or wide-scale advancement, similar to China. (Most significantly, this means Western science as we know it doesn't flourish. Why not? Because it takes a certain kind of society to develop a general lust for science and technology, and Europe in our world was the perfect area for it. The major reason was competition: the middle-sized European states were in constant rivalry and each had enough resources to compete. Remove the division and rivalry, and you remove the impetus for advancement.)

Big dangers when constructing a timeline or determining a present-day setting are these: (1) positing a present that's just like ours except for one or two differences, or (2) positing a past from the major point of divergence to the present that's basically like ours with only minor variations. These are absurd because a single event touches many others; and, moreover, your major point of divergence is likely to involve a significant global event, which means its causal reach extends beyond the norm. Errors like these tend to follow from an author who's unsure of his historical knowledge, the lack of which makes him timid and want to hew to real history as much as possible, for fear of getting something wrong. But take heart: there are no right or wrong alternate pasts--only likely and unlikely, justified and unjustified. Pay attention to historical processes and regularities, but don't throw a Korean War in after your Axis victory just because you don't know how else to fill up the early 1950s in your timeline.

The Alternate History Narrative

Finally, we come to the alternate history story itself. What exactly do you want the story to be about?

There's an adage that all fiction is about people, and this is true in the sense that fiction is experienced through characters and that we read it to take part in other lives vicariously; but alternate history presents us with another dimension of "aboutness"--does your story illuminate merely

a piece of an altered past in isolation or that altered past as a whole? To understand, consider your alternate world and history as a character unto itself, a sort of uber-persona. With that in mind, realize that a story can do one of two things with a character: use him momentarily, or use him up. We can witness a single slice of the character's life and be left with the feeling that there are more adventures to come, or we can see the Ultimate Event of his life, where he's either destroyed or once and for all resolves his central existential concerns. Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos series is an example of the former--there's always one more romp around the corner in the next book; 1984 is the latter--on the final page, with Winston under Big Brother's thumb once again, Winston's quest that drives the book is at an end: he's been utterly defeated, and there's nothing more to tell about him.

Though not a perfect analogy, what an alternate history story is about can be thought of in these terms. You can write a slice-of-life tale set in your alternate world, focusing on just a limited penumbra of the setting and people therein, while giving only a nod to the larger past. If you zero in on emotionally powerful elements, this kind of story is especially effective at evoking a sharp "Wow, I'm sure glad we avoided that!" or "Damn, why couldn't that have happened?" reaction in the reader. The second approach, and my favorite, is the story that uses up its alternate history--the narrative presents the final resolution of the causal chain and thematic concerns of the divergent past that it's built upon. The Morgenthau revolutionaries reunite the German states at last and wrestle free of the Allies; the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere is defeated by a stronger, more benevolent power; the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires go to war with the new industrial giant of America to determine the future of democracy on Europe--when these tales are over, you feel the closure: it's the end of an era. History will roll on afterwards, of course, but a new chapter must be opened with fresh themes and fresh problems.

Some Examples of Good Alternate Histories

Here is my own short list of the greats in alternate history; some are classics, others are fairly new.

If you plan on writing in the sub-genre, it would be a good idea to be familiar with these books and their authors. In particular, I enjoy Harry Turtledove; he's the top living alternate history writer and stands among the best of all time.

The Year Before Yesterday by Brian Aldiss

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Roads Not Taken: Tales of Alternate History
edited by Gardner Dozois and Stanley Schmidt

The Two Georges by Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Procurator by Kirk Mitchell

Worldwar: In the Balance by Harry Turtledove

How Few Remain by Harry Turtledove

[1] It's possible to draw a distinction between two different senses of the term "alternate world." First is that associated with a history whose causal rules are identical to the known world's and whose events are merely changed from what we know; the second sense assumes that the laws of the universe are fundamentally different from ours--e.g., supernatural magic works, dragons exist, etc. I'm concentrating on the former sense of "alternate" here. (Return)

[2] In formal terms, history is deterministic but unpredictable, like weather systems. I.e., all historical events are caused by previous events, but you cannot, given a set of perfect and complete facts about the present point in time, predict what will be the case in 10, 20 or a 100 years. Some historians claim this is merely because the "laws of history" (analogous to the laws of physics) aren't known; if only we knew them, they say, we could apply them to present day data and foretell the future accurately. I have serious reservations about this thesis, in particular how the so-called "laws of history" could ever be discovered. (Return)