Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Road Not Taken

I was informed recently by Those Who Know that alternate history is either "dead" or "rubbish" because there are too many factors in the major events - the prime example being that old standby of Germany winning World War 2.

Now, while I agree that the end-point of a war is something that's far too complex to be treated as a single alternative, I utterly disagree that this condemns all alternate history. Most of history is a kind of juggernaut of inevitable where the pressures of the era would produce if not the same result, then one close enough to make no difference. If Hitler had never been born or had remained a minor artist, someone else would have risen to fill the gap.

There are, however, pinch points where history can, with a bit of a push, head down the other leg of Pratchett's Trousers of Time. This is where alternate history is valid and can produce some very interesting results. Usually the pinch points are individual actions: assassinations successful or failed, edge-of-the-knife decisions, and the like. Sometimes they're circumstances: suppose Catherine of Aragon's sole surviving child had been a boy? English history would have been quite different. Or a more recent example: the Midway sea battle. The weather was appalling, and every account I've read suggests that it was pure good luck that American pilots saw the Japanese aircraft carriers before they'd deployed their planes and soon enough to destroy a hefty chunk of the Japanese naval power of the time. That battle is generally regarded as the turning point of the war in the Pacific - suppose it had ended differently?

Obviously I have a less-than-impartial interest in this, since Naked Reader is publishing my first novel, Impaler - which just happens to be alternate history. The companion novella, Born in Blood, is closer to straight historical novel, and available from Amazon and Smashwords as well as the Naked Reader site.

Both of them deal with one of the relatively few people who formed a historical pinch point: Prince Dracula, aka Vlad the Impaler. To start with, it's rather unusual that someone from a tiny buffer state between two much larger empires should be a central figure in an extraordinarily fraught period of history. Then there's the interesting point that despite Vlad's much-reported faults a change in his favor has the potential to significantly improve the outcomes. Specifically, Vlad recognized that no treaties would stop the Ottoman Empire's expansion - and predicted the fall of Hungary if the Ottomans weren't stopped by the one thing they did recognize: overwhelming force. He was, as it happened, correct.

I describe Impaler with the over-simplified "What if Prince Dracula had won?", when the real event that switched the Trousers of Time around is Vlad surviving the assassination attempt in December, 1476. I'm taking the view that his twelve years as effectively a political prisoner of the Hungarian King served to temper him and he emerged somewhat more in control of what was by all accounts a fearsome temper, as well as realizing that he lacked the resources to completely break the boyar class. That along with the realization that the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II (Mehmed the Conquerer) will not allow him to keep his throne drives the story.

The fun part was in the cascade of events: I dug all over the internet for obscure information about the first few months of 1477 - little things as much as big ones. Where I couldn't find any documents, I chose what seemed to me the most likely possibility given what I could find about what followed. If I get to write sequels, the impact of Vlad's survival will get wider, until ultimately his world and ours are very different indeed.

That's my road not taken. What road would you like to investigate, and why?


danielocasey said...

Dang. Now I gotta go buy the book and read it... *grin* just gotta see where you went with it...

Anyhow, my road not taken is farther back than that, and truly shows my christian heritage... being obsessed with ancient history, scanty tales of misdeeds, dead languages etc, etc.. I'd have to explore one of the many what if's that abound inside my head concerning the "sanitized and acceptable version of Jesus's birth life and death."

Frankly somebody who so flagrantly threw his beliefs in the face of the established system, he had to be some kinda hard-headed guy, stubborn, willing to fight or at least keep getting back up.. hmm.. what if was less passive by nature and actually didn't just "turn the other cheek" what kind of world would we live in where fully half of the western religions were based on a guy who always finished the fight...?

Ok, stretching here, but my creative side is bouncing like a superball this morning.

MataPam said...

From the late 12th century through the 16th, China was a naval power, yet never explored north and east around the Pacific rim.

An early Chinese discovery of North America, and colonization of the West Coast could lead to some intersting encounters as the Europeans colonized and moved in from the Atlanic coast.

Think Lewis and Clark finding a perfecture of the Quing Dynasty.

Or earlier, the Aztecs calling for for help from their trading partners on the other ocean.

Just broad earlier exposure to Eurasian diseases would have made huge changes in the present western hemisphere.

Not exactly a pinch point, but interesting to speculate upon.

Amanda Green said...

Kate's Born in Blood is also available for the nook at Here's the link --

Hey, what can I say? I'm a proud friend and editor ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Forgot to add, there is no DRM on any of the editions -- ie, kindle, nook, smashwords -- so you can convert using programs like calibre if you want.

Anonymous said...

I've always enjoyed alternate history written on a much more personal level. I love stories that show what would've happened if you caught that bus, or if that person had lived, or if you'd taken the other job.

For me, a defining moment is the death of our first daughter at birth. She would be 20 now. People say if she had lived that Erica, our second daughter, would have an older sister. No, Sheila would have a younger sibling, probably one very different from Erica. Had Sheila lived, we likely wouldn't have conceived Erica at that very moment which I believe has a lot to do with who she is as a person. A child would've been conceived at another time and place and may not even be a daughter. We'd probably be different parents also, no matter how small the effect that we consciously felt.

As disturbing as I found the movie, "The Butterfly Effect," I believe it was totally accurate in that you can never anticipate the effects of even one small change in the course of people's lives. And to comment on the original source for the phrase, there's just no telling what sweeping, grand things one small event is responsible for. Fascinating.


Anonymous said...

I should also mention that I think it's a good thing that we can't go back and change time. On my example above, would I give up Erica in order to have Sheila even if that had meant that I would have two children, even if that second child wasn't Erica? Tempting, yes, but no I wouldn't and I'm grateful that these sorts of decisions aren't mine to make. We live with the hands we are dealt.

And I would imagine the same goes for the larger events. Had Hitler been killed before he had been able to cause so much trouble, who's to say, as Kate pointed out, that it wouldn't have happened anyway with someone else? Time is such a sticky wicket and that's what makes it so much trouble to write alternative history. I've tried, but then I usually give up trying figure out all of the possible effects that it would have on the people and events in the story. My brain just can't handle all of that. It is something that I'd like to conquer at some point in my writing career though, an alternative story. Maybe one day.

Kate said...


That's a fascinating prospect... I'd love to see where you took something like that, especially since there aren't that many non-Jewish/non-Christian sources for that time period.

Kate said...


Actually, there are several pinch points to those scenarios. One of them is China's decision to turn away from exploration. I suspect there would be a number of similar points at various stages of the Aztec Empire's growth. You could certainly build some interesting stories from any of those.

Kate said...



Kate said...


The personal explorations can be much more intense than the historical ones, for pretty obvious reasons.

The way I handle the historical is to start small. Pretty much the whole of Impaler comes back to "What would Vlad do?" followed by how assorted figures from history would respond to his actions (Given that most of them betrayed and/or abused him, not terribly well - which will make any sequels I get to write quite interesting). When Impaler ends, not many of the power brokers of the era have heard what Vlad is up to, so the rest of the world is still on business as usual.

You can take the same approach from any historical pinch point, keeping the focus on your small group and looking at what those who interact with them would do.

Chris McMahon said...

Hey - I like alternate history & your world sound like a lot of fun, Kate.

Kate said...

Chris M,

Thanks! It's certainly an interesting one to explore.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, you know... It is quite possible that someone like Hitler would have risen. He might not have gone after the particular ethnic group that constituted much of the skilled class in Germany. And... everything would have been different.

What particular point would I have gone after?

How about Henry VIII going back to Catherine when Anne Boleyn failed to produce a boy? Mary would be the heir, and Elizabeth either married off or shunted into a convent. I took the later one in my short story (Free collection, on my site under blue plate special.) History MIGHT have been close to what it is (Catherine was dead when he married Jane Seymour) save for the religious thing.
I confess my forays into parallel history are either grandiose: what if magic worked? or utterly personal: what if Shakespeare met the elves? What if Marlowe were a vampire? What if... :-P

Dave Freer said...

Hmm. you either believe history is conservative or divergeant. I suspect both hold true for different cases. (ie Generally a conflict between Britain and Germany was inevitable. It just didn't have to start in Serbia or go the way it did.)

I've always been curious about the idea that pinch points in the topology of space-time might not be wars or individuals... but things. Take the Spanish 'flu. While it was inevitable that a more virulent influenza was going to happen... One dead microbe could have sent the world in a whole different direction. Or writers - publication is such a borderline decision... and yet books -even ordinary novels - can change things enormously. Take Shute and his impact on Australia, or for a more easily measurable one Gerry Durrell and Corfu. 1 million tourists a year to a tiny island. Or things that did exist but were lost... Greek fire. If the Carthigeans had had that... would Rome have survived?

MataPam said...

I like time travel stories. And Parallel universes.

But I've always had my doubts that we could cause a split of the universe. Does the Universe really care if the biological scum on a single planet are puzzled by a paradox?

And, of course, if there are many multiple universes, and one splits off, surely another two must merge, to conserve mass and energy. I've noticed some sudden changes that have made me wonder . . .

What happens when you merge with some universe, some Earth with a difference so large _everyone_ notices?

Francis Turner said...

One point that I think would be interesting is the end of the (first) sino-japanese war in 1895. Japan pretty much whipped China and Korea in that war (with unofficial British support) and proved to the greater powers that it was a force to be reckoned with. So 3 of the great powers - Russia, Germany and France - intervened in the peace process and forced Japan to give back quite a lot of the gains it had got (this is called - with immense originality - the triple intervention). At the time the British Empire decided to go with the flow and let the other 3 great powers do their thing,as did the US, but if a couple of other events changed slightly so that HMG was a bit more focused on the far East they might have decided that this just wasn't cricket and insisted on Japan retaining what it had got out of the war. Likewiswe the US might have decided to ally with Japan and the UK.

There are all sorts of cascading changes from this including the likelihood that the 'entente cordiale' between Britain and France never gets signed and that therefore when WWI breaks out the British don't get involved - or possibly do get involved but on the German side. In Japan the triple intervention can be seen as leading directly to increased militirization and eventually to the truly unpleasant Japan of the 1930s/40s because the Japanese took from that humiliation that the only way they could get a seat at the table was total destruction of the enemy. This was of course what they got in 1905 in the Russo-Japanese war which was basically a rerun of the Sino-Japanese one only with a slightly more competent opponent. But the increase in military spending buggered up the Japanese economy and the 2nd invasion of Korea was far harsher than the first one. As was the 2nd invasion of China a couple of decades later.

MataPam said...

Would Japan be more or less belligerant? Perhaps less vicious and vindicitve.

If we'd backed them up against the Triple Intervention, would they have continued to consider us a friend, and assuming WWI was minimally changed, would we have gotten as involved in WWII as we did, without Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war to set off our active participation in the European theatre.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Ever notice that whenever Those Who Know declare something "dead" it usually turns out that, not only is it not dead, but it ends up going stronger than ever?

Francis Turner said...


My hypothesis is that the Japanese become less nationalistic and possibly even show, by their example, to the British and US ruling classes that the "lesser breeds" are not quite as lesser as believed.

THis means, potentially that the US & Japan (and the British Empire via Australia/NZ/Hong Kong/Singapore) chuck out all the other Powers from the Pacific and form some kind of longer term alliance. It is worth noting that the British & Japanese Navies had extremely close ties up to the early 1920s - and cooperated in the development of aircraft carriers and doctrine for them. If that happens then Japan has no need to invade China and instead probably takes Siberia from Russia since I would assume that no matter what happens the Russians will try to fight and will lose. And they may well do it earlier. If Japan gets siberia (and a friednly US/UK) then it's got sufficient natural resources and no need to worry about oil so it can become the third Naval Power to counterbalance all those Eurasian Land Powers.

Mike said...

Odd thought, but if alternate history is dead or rubbish, then clearly our present choices are also unneeded? So we don't really need to worry about making decisions, since it is all already set in the course of time, and our "free will" is just an illusion caused by our limited vision and understanding? I mean, that seems inherent in taking that stance about alternative history, one also completely discards any notion of current choices and decisions being meaningful. Which makes everything pretty useless.

I don't know, it seems like a pretty bankrupt approach to life to me. I prefer to believe that our choices are significant, which also means that alternate history can throw light on what might happen if we picked (or had picked) one of those other choices.

MataPam said...

What's that quote? "Those who fail to study history are doomed to repeat it?"

I think part of studying history is analyzing it. Seeing causes.

And roads not taken.

In AH we wrap it up pretty and make it entertaining, but I think it is still a thought provoking exercise.