Sunday, April 1, 2012

A to Z: Alternate History

A reminder, April is A-Z month.
The theme I'm going with is things that influence or inspire me. Or I may go with the converse: things that distress me or that I full-tilt loathe. Check here for the explanation of it all.

Alternate History is where History is hijacked by Imagination.

It is also one of my favorite genres.  Reason being, I'm a bit of a history nut.
I also am never quite satisfied with the way things are.  Why can't it be another way? What if something could be better?  What if something could have been worse?  What would have happened IF.
And that IF leads straight to the door of Alternate History.

And really, how can you resist opening that door to take a peek?

Unless you believe history unfolds as predetermined fate, which I strongly reject, the process of history is the most important aspect of history.  The heart of history is Why, not What.

All of history is a chain of events, and those events are created by people making choices.  They have had forces influence them, and while some choices may be all but given, others are not.  Certainly many choices by many people may have no serious impact compared with the other choices they might have made.
Then again, some choices certainly do.  The effects of these choices then go on to present further choices and weigh influences on others, and the cycle continues.  The key to alternate history is to find one such interesting moment and find reason how it might have been different and see what unfolds from there.

Such moments are the Pivot Points.

These Pivot Points occupy a lot of my thoughts.  I find myself often having dreams set in alternate history settings.  This isn't uncommon, I almost never dream about the regular day to day world- often it isn't even our planet.  For a moment in time to be a good pivot point, it has to have far reaching consequences that spread out from a narrow focus.  Usually this means the decisions of a powerful group or individual, or a set of casual occurrences that prevent or aid an event from happening as we know it.  
If things would likely unfold the way we know it regardless, then it isn't a Pivot Point.  

* The Spanish Armada defeat the British fleet, land safely up the Thames and capture London.   
If they'd invaded a week earlier in fine weather, or any number of such small events could have had a huge impact: Spain forces Elizabeth to marry and takes over the British throne, reverting the country back to Catholicism, instituting the Inquisition, etc. 
That is a pivot point. 

* Julius Caesar is wary of the Ides of March and avoids assassination.  So? The Romans continue on and do what? Form an Empire? Make Julius Caesar Imperator for life? Just like his nephew Octavian will do if he dies? Changes Caesar's life, but probably not much more.  No Pivot Point here. 

Alternate history that doesn't involve a pivot point doesn't tend to be very good.  The outlandish 'what if's' such as aliens invading Napoleonic Europe, or Dinosaurs living alongside Mankind, or Elves instead of dinosaurs, etc etc.  This becomes science fiction or fantasy more than it does Alternate History.  Nothing wrong with it, but it's different because the focus is different. 

Some of my favorite possibilities:

* Charles Martel loses the Battle of Tours, 732. 
* Augustine never converts from Manichaeism. 
* Romans accept the land reforms of the Gracchi and break up the latifundias
* Romans develop the steam engine.
* China doesn't stop explorations and Cheng Ho continues and arrives in Europe before the Europeans explored much further than the Azores. 
* And of course many scenarios in WWII.

For the Gamers:
Alternate History makes for some great gaming campaigns and scenarios.  
Any historical gaming is practically Alternate History really, since if the outcome of your battle isn't predetermined then you are toying with rewriting history. 

An Alternate History can make a great theme for creating a unique army!

Weird World War II, Steampunk, Airships, VSF, all are variants of Alternate History.  The popular 'Very British Civil War' is another good example of Alternate History settings, and one that looks appealing to me.

To Read: 
Some of my favorite Alternate History books:

What Might Have Been. short story collections edited by G. Benford.
The Man in the High Castle.  Philip K. Dick
anything by Harry Turtledove.
What If? -military history essays edited by R. Crowley

And someday I hope to add to that list with some of my own.  
I have a large collection of story ideas and notes.

So tell me, what are your favorite Pivot Points and What If questions? 

This has been an A-Z Challenge post. 
For the month of April there will be an update for each letter within the theme of: Things that influence and inspire me, or the converse: things which I find distressing or make me want to rail at the world.
Some of these will pertain to the miniatures hobby, but many will venture off to atypical territory for the duration of the challenge, then it will be back to normal with mostly minis and an occasional blithering.
You can find out more about the A-Z challenge my clicking the logo at the top left of the page. 


commissarmoody said...

Were is the Map on the for the alternative WW1 from?

Michael Awdry said...

A great first post, can't wait for the rest of the alphabet! Plenty to think about for the rest of today!

Laughing Ferret said...

Commissar: is a fun site: many threads with lots of interesting things. Link for this one:

This one is of North America at the time of the 'American Empire" series by Harry Turtledove.

Chris said...

This was an excellent article very well thought out, also I love the work Harry Turtledove, most of his stuff is very good.

Pete said...

Good article, that! Though I disagree with you about Caesar. He was planning on launching a campaign against Parthia, but his assassination prevented that. Whether one thinks he'd have repeated his time-wasting in Britain, reiterated Crassus' mistakes or mangled the Parthians somehow, that would have made quite a difference. Assuming he dies a little later, you could see Horace, since he was in the Civil War, end up dead, and there goes a big chunk of Roman literature, with a lot of knock-on effects for later writers.

Anne said...

Ambitious post for the first day (I began my sentence with the letter A). There area a multitude of forces brought to bear in order to create a Pivot Point. Altering one of those events would require a degree of wileyness I don't posses (I just make up a word).

Which event would I alter so that the British wouldn't hold six of my counties to this day? Because I've live with the reality of this history I know there is never really a Pivot Point. It looks like there is in post hoc analysis, but there isn't. That said, if I could change that single outcome in history, I'd do it in a heartbeat.

This was a great post and much food for thought and a fun topic to play with. Thank you.

S. L. Hennessy said...

I LOVE alternative history. There's this podcast I love called Things You Never Heard in History awesome. Great post. Happy A-Z blogging!

Laughing Ferret said...

Thanks Chris!

Pete: Interesting. I'm not quite convinced on Caesar's death, but it is interesting to consider. I think it's one of those situations where it is a small change that might add up to subtle changes, but not a big pivot. If he'd been able to conquer Parthia, then sure, but I don't think he could have. Still, gives me more details to consider on that!

Anne: Thanks! Your choice makes a lot of sense. I'm not a fan of imperialism so I can sympathize. I've got both Irish & English in me, but more Irish and my anti-imperialist bent puts me on the Irish side of the issue.

You bring up an interesting point- I don't think all aspects of history have pivot points: some things are as they are from an aggregate that comes from previous aggregates. There are so many factors that lead to the British taking parts of Ireland and refusing to let it go that there may be no pivot point there. But some things could be. What if Hitler had been accepted into Art School? He may not have followed a path that lead him to take over Germany.. sure the economic forces that existed might have still lead to a militarization but it might not have had the antisemitism at it's base, Einstein never comes to America, Germany gets the atomic bomb... What if Nixon had decided his knee injury was too bad for him to do the TV debate, and it had stuck to radio as previous debates had been (by radio Nixon was said to have won the debate) if this caused Nixon to win the election, as president he might then have used force in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the US & USSR go to war.

I don't think all history has pivot points, nor are all events pivot points, but I think there are some out there- fun to think about at any rate, trying to find them and decide if they are and what would change if they were different.

S.L.H: Thanks! And thanks for the podcast tip, I'll check that one out.

Wendy H said...

I thought your post was very interesting. What IF things were different? What if for example (in the U.S.) that one critical vote did not grant the vote as a right to women? What if he had voted against it? That is the example I think of since it is important to my life. And I am not by any means much of an expert on history, although it does interest me.

I am also participating in the A to Z Blog Challenge.

Have a great week!

Catherine Stine said...

What if Pandora had left that box open for hope to escape as well?
What if Christ had said, "Me, a martyr, no way, I'm out of here!" and he'd escaped to Nepal or something?
What if all of the supposed Salem Witches got together and lynched all of the superstitious Christian torturers and turned this country into a state of white magicians?
What if...
Yeah, a favorite game of mine too.
I'm over from the A to Z challenge (I'm number 672-at Idea City). Come by for a visit!

Joy said...

How about what if Mohammad had become a Christian? That would have had global implications.

I'm a big Star Trek fan and they put out a set of anthologies call "myriad universes" where they did what ifs in the Star Trek universe which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I'm doing A to Z as well this month.

Lead Legion said...

Two favorite pivot points for me.

Robert the Bruce never crowns himself King of Scotland after the Death of William Wallace. The Decleration of Arbroath (which in many ways inspired the many Scotsmen who contributed to the American Decleration of Independence) is never written.

How would the Declaration of Independace looked without the Declarartion of Arbroath? Would there even have been one?

The Stuart Kings of Scotland would never have been existed. Hence, no King James Bible. Would Britain's cultural revolution have occured in the same way? What would the world have looked like without Scotland's little known overseas Empire? Or without the Stewart Kings and their descendants to promote exploration of the high seas and to rail against the slave trade?

That's what I love about pivot points and Alternate History. Just one little change like that throws up so many possibilities.

Lead Legion said...

The other Pivot point was this:

What if the Mongols conquered Europe, rather than being turned back (eventually) by the Russians?

Truthfully, I have no idea how this would have turned out, which is why I'm not listing any questions about it. But if someone could furnish some suggestions, I'd be all ears.

Alfrik said...

Point of change, The Prophets army had lost their first battle to take their first city and he had been slain. No Moslem religon takes off to sweep the Med.

Anne said...

The Hitler and Nixon example are good ones. But Nixon was hell bent on becoming President and I think that unless he had actually died, he would have run later and would have won. But I could be wrong. Hitler, I think that would have been possible, unless he was hand picked by someone or some group of like minded powerful people to lead Germany (I'm playing conspiracy theory here). He would have left art school and the outcome would have been the same.

This is fun!!

Laughing Ferret said...

Wendy: Thanks for the input! It was certainly possible. Thinking about how long women weren't considered equal or competent by men, it could easily have hit another pendulum swing and been pulled back to victorian cultural values before the changes had cemented. There are still groups of women today actually who argue to have the vote taken away from women. hard to fathom, but they're real.

Hi Cathrine, some fun possibles there. I have to go off the premise that Pandora's myth is only a myth, but that is another fun topic I love- the power of the stories: change the myth and you change human consciousness.. and that gets real interesting. If there is enough truth to the story of Jesus as we know it for him to have had such a choice, then for one I think that would have been a good thing for him to do, but I don' think it'd have changed history- his story was written after the fact and they'd just have changed it to fit the martyr archetype they desired.. another good reason for him to split for safety ;) Fun idea about the colonies setting up pagan institutionalized religion. It would have also had to take a step back from power under a separation of church and state, but would that mean today, there would be conservative witches, demanding a return to the 'religion of the founders' meaning the older pagan religions? Would certainly change modern America.

Laughing Ferret said...

I wish I could have made the comments function the way others have it- I can't make it work for being able to reply directly under other comments. Stupid Blogger (or maybe just stupid me).

Joy: that's interesting. I suppose he could have. He might not have wanted to- fearing losing control to religious authorities in the Byzantine Empire, but if he hadn't thought he could sell people on a new religion, he might have decided Christianity would work to unite his people. I wonder how much it would have changed things. It probably would have become a different brand of Christianity, seeing how he did want to be independent of other countries and build an empire for himself. Whatever version of Christianity he created would have been labeled a heresy by the others (no shortage of that at the time) so net difference might have been pretty close to what unfolded. However, within the Middle East, there wouldn't have been the Sunni/Shiite split: there might have still been a split, but probably along existing christian differences or perhaps only political lines, and the kind of deep unresolved division that exists today in the Muslim world might not have ever happened. Yeah, interesting moment.

I'm not as familiar with the Star trek alternates, but I've read some alternate 'histories' of super-heroes, that are great, like superman landing in the soviet union as a baby instead of america, or Batman in an America that never stopped being a puritan colony of England.

Laughing Ferret said...

Lead: You're more versed on the Scottish history than I am from the sound of it, but that is sounding plausible. I suspect there still would have been an Independence movement, even if it hadn't been rooted in as fertile conceptual ground. But it could have changed it's tone or level of success.

I did read a story once where Genghis Khan converted to Islam and used that organizational power to strengthen his reign, and conquered the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. In much the same way the organizational power of converting to Catholicism worked to strengthen the power of Clovis and the Merovingian dynasty.

Laughing Ferret said...

Excellent pivot point find Alfrik. Yeah, one stray arrow ending Mohammed when trying to take Medina, and that would have ended Islam right there. No conquest, no dynasty, nothing to hold on to- the people go right back to their lives as before and mecca would have remained Polytheist.

Anne: Nixon did, or did you mean Kennedy. Either way, but if Nixon had been at the helm during the missile crisis it might have ended very differently. Regarding Hitler: do you think? I'm not so sure. I think if he had experienced happiness and success earlier in life he might not have had such an axe to grind. People that are happy are content, and don't pursue power like that. Look at China... big democracy movement awhile back... what happened? China loosens up some economic restrictions, just enough contentment to make people not try to take over the government. If Hitler had been a fulfilled artist he might not have decided to pursue genocide and world domination. If the allies hadn't been so foolish as to insist on the crippling reparations after WWI, Hitler's rants might have fallen on deaf ears. I think it could have been avoided. Glad you find it fun, I know I do!

Paul of the Man Cave said...

I too am an alternate history junkie. The Age of Steam is another great pivot point, popular of course for the genre of Victorian Science Fiction. And so many great gaming applications as you say!

Carrie-Anne said...

I have an alternative history saga on hiatus, told over I think 90 years, from the journals of 5 different young women living in different generations. The assassination of the Tsar and his family is discovered and prevented at the last minute, the Russian Civil War ends with the Whites victorious, the Romanovs return to St. Petersburg, and the leading Bolsheviks are executed or thrown in jail.

Nicholas dies relatively young, in the Twenties, and Aleksey takes the throne. Over the course of the book, he becomes Russia's most enlightened, beloved ruler ever, and even successfully rehabilitates some of the head Bolsheviks languishing in jail, so much so some of them become members of his cabinet. The paranoid, dangerous Stalin meanwhile gets counseling from Sigmund Freud, whom the young, popular Tsar brings in from Austria. WWII and the Shoah still happen, but on a much, much, much smaller scale.

Laughing Ferret said...

Paul: I'm with you there for sure, I love VSF :)

Carrie-Anne: Sounds like a great set up, I'd read that!

Alfrik said...

The Danes after conquering the brithish isles, scandinavia and danemark move early into Normandy and expand into France and Germany. Raiding continues on an organized basis into spain and north africa. Christanity comes later due to the continual war pushing their frontiers and a basic form of tolerance to other religions. Combined sea landings and land pushes could put most of western europe into a Scandanavian League or some such.

Alfrik said...

Then again if the Danes had consolidated their conquests and pushed into Europe they would have absorbed the Saxon population pressure into expansion forces for the rest of Europe.

Laughing Ferret said...

Alfrik: Fun set up.. well, they'd have to move into Normandy fast, before the Normans continue developing their powerbase. If done early enough, perhaps the Normans might have shrugged off Christianity, broke away from their feudal ties with the French king, and a unified Dane-Norman power could have changed western Europe even more. Hmm.

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