Alternate histories

For a lot of people, especially writers and other dreamers, one of the great questions, a question that provokes more thought, debate, and even argument, is “What if?” What if one single part of history was changed? What would be the result? These alternate histories are somewhat popular, as fictional sub-genres go, and they aren’t just limited to the written word. It’s a staple of Star Trek series, for example, to travel into the past or visit the “mirror universe”, either of which involves a specific change that can completely alter the present (their present, mind you, which would be our future).

What-if scenarios are also found in nonfiction works. Look at the history section of your favorite bookstore, digital or physical. You’ll find numerous examples asking things like “What if the D-Day invasion failed?” or (much earlier in the timeline) “What if Alexander had gone west to conquer, instead of east?” Some books focus on a single one of these questions, concocting an elaborate alternative to our known history. Others stuff a number of possibilities in a single work, necessarily giving each of them a less-detailed look.

And altering the course of history is a fun diversion, too. Not only that, but it can make a great story seed. You don’t have to write a novel of historical fiction to use “real” history and change things around a little bit. Plenty of fantasy is little more than a retelling of one part of the Middle Ages, with only the names changed to protect the innocent. Sci-fi also benefits, simply because history, in the broadest strokes, does repeat itself. The actors are different, but the play remains the same.


So, let’s say you do want to construct an alternate timeline. That could easily fill an entire book—there’s an idea—but we’ll stick to the basics in this post. First and foremost, believability is key. Sure, it’s easy to say that the Nazis and Japanese turned the tide in World War II, eventually invading the US and splitting it between them. (World War II, by the way, is a favorite for speculators. I don’t know why.) But there’s more to it than that.

The Butterfly Effect is a well-known idea that can help us think about how changing history can work. As in the case of the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, small differences in the initial conditions can grow into much larger repercussions. And the longer the time since the breakaway point, the bigger the changes will be.

I’m writing this on September 21, and some of the recent headlines include the Emmy Awards, the Greek elections, and the Federal Reserve’s decision to hold interest rates, rather than raising them. Change any bit of any of these, and the world today isn’t going to be much different. Go back a few years, however, and divergences grow more numerous, and they have more impact. Obviously, one of the biggest events of the current generation is the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Get rid of those (as Family Guy did in one of their time-travel episodes), and most of the people alive today would still be here, but the whole world would change around them.

It’s not hard to see how this gets worse as you move the breakaway back in time. Plenty of people—including some that might be reading this—have ancestors that fought in World War II. And plenty of those would be wiped out if a single battle went differently, if a single unit’s fortunes were changed. World War I, the American Civil War (or your local equivalent), and so on, each turning point causes more and more difference in the final outcome. Go back in time to assassinate Genghis Khan before he began his conquests, for instance, and millions of people in the present never would have been born.

Building a history

It’s not just the ways that things would change, or the people that wouldn’t have lived. Those are important parts of an alternate history, but they aren’t the only parts. History is fractal. The deeper you go, the more detail you find. You could spend a lifetime working out the ramifications of a single change, or you could shrug it off and focus on only the highest levels. Either way is acceptable, but they fit different styles.

The rest of this post is going to look at a few different examples of altering history, of changing a single event and watching the ripples in time that it creates. They go in reverse chronological order, and they’re nothing more than the briefest glances. Deeper delving will have to wait for later posts, unless you want to take up the mantle.

Worked example 1: The Nazi nuke

Both ways of looking at alternate timelines, however, require us to follow logical pathways. Let’s look at the tired, old scenario of Germany getting The Bomb in WWII. However it happens, it happens. It’s plausible—the Axis had a lot of scientific talent that defected around that time, including Albert Einstein, Werner von Braun, and Enrico Fermi. It’s not that great a leap to say that the atomic bomb could be pushed up a couple of years.

But what does that do to the world? Well, it obviously gives the Axis an edge in the war; given their leaders’ tendencies, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that such a weapon would have been used, possibly on a large city like London. (In the direst scenario, it’s used on Berlin, to stop the Red Army.) Nuclear weapons would still have the same production problems they had in our 1940s, so we wouldn’t have a Cold War-era “hundreds of nukes ready to launch” situation. At most, we’d have a handful of blasts, most likely on big cities. That would certainly be horrible, but it wouldn’t really affect the outcome of the war that much, only the scale of destruction. The Allies would likely end up with The Bomb, too, whether through parallel development, defections, or espionage. In this case, the Soviets might get it earlier, as well, which might lead to a longer, darker Cold War.

There’s not really a logical path from an earlier, more widespread nuclear weapon to a Nazi invasion of America, though. Russia, yes, although their army would have something to say about that. But invading the US would require a severe increase in manpower and a series of major victories in Europe. (The Japanese, on the other hand, wouldn’t have nearly as much trouble, especially if they could wrap up their problems with China.) The Man in the High Castle is a good story, but we need more than one change to make it happen.

Worked example 2: The South shall rise

Another what-if that’s popular with American authors involves the Civil War. Specifically, what if the South, the Confederacy, had fought the Union to a stalemate, or even won? On the surface, this one doesn’t have as much military impact, although we’d need to tweak the manpower and supply numbers in favor of our new victors. (Maybe France offered their help or something.) Economically and socially, however, there’s a lot of fertile ground for change.

Clearly, the first and most obvious difference would be that, in 1865 Dixie, slavery would still exist. That was, after all, the main reason for the war in the first place. So we can accept that as a given, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would be the case 150 years later. Slavery started out as an economic measure as much as a racial one. Plantations, especially those growing cotton, needed a vast amount of labor. Slaves were seen as the cheapest and simplest way of filling that need. The racial aspects only came later.

Even by the end of the Civil War, however, the Industrial Revolution was coming into full force. Steam engines were already there, and railroads were growing all around. It’s not too far-fetched to see the South investing into machinery, especially if it turns out to be a better, more efficient, less rebellious method of harvesting. It’s natural—for a Yankee, anyway—to think of Southerners as backwards rednecks, but an independent Confederacy could conceivably be quite advanced in this specific area. (There are problems with this line of reasoning, I’ll admit. One of those is that the kind of cotton grown in the South isn’t as amenable to machine harvesting as others. Still, any automation would cut down on the number of slaves needed.)

The states of the Confederacy depended on agriculture, and that wouldn’t change much. Landowners would be reluctant to give up their slaves—Southerners, as I know from personal experience, tend to be conservative—but it’s possible that they could be wooed by the economic factors. The more farming can be automated, the less sense it makes for servile labor. Remember, even though slaves didn’t have to be paid, they did have costs: housing, for example. (Conversely, slavery can still exist if the economic factors don’t add up in favor of automation. We can see the same thing today, with low-wage, illegal immigrant labor, a common “problem” in the South.)

Socially, of course, the ramifications of a Confederate victory would be much more important. It’s very easy to imagine the racism of slavery coming to the fore, even if automation ends the practice itself. That part might not change much from our own history, except in the timing. Persecuted, separated, or disfavored minorities are easy to find in the modern world, and their experiences can be a good guide here. Not just the obvious examples—the Palestinians, the Kurds, and the natives of America and Australia—but those less noteworthy, like the Chechens or even the Ainu. Revolt and rebellion might become common, even to the point of developing autonomous regions.

This might even be more likely, given the way the Confederacy was made. It was intended to be a weak national government with strong member states, more like the EU than the US. That setup, as anyone familiar with modern Europe will attest, almost nurtures the idea of secession. It’s definitely within the realm of possibility that the Confederate states would break up even further, maybe even to the point of individual nations, and a “black” state might splinter off from this. If you look closely, you can see that the US became much more centralized after the Civil War, giving more and more power to the federal government. The Confederates might have to do that, too, which would smack of betrayal.

Worked example 3: Gibbon’s nightmare

One of the other big “change the course of history” events is the fall of the Roman Empire, and that will be our last example today. How we prevent such a collapse isn’t obvious. Stopping the barbarian hordes from sacking Rome really only buys time; the whole system was hopelessly corrupt already. For the sake of argument, let’s say that we found the single turning-point that will stop the whole house of cards from falling. What does this do to history?

Well, put simply, it wrecks it. The Western world of the last fifteen hundred years is a direct result of the Romans and their fall. Now, we can salvage a lot by deciding that the ultimate event merely shifted power away from Rome, into the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire centered on Constantinople. That helps a lot, since the Goths and Vandals and Franks and whatnot mostly respected the authority of the Byzantines, at least in the beginning. Doing it like this might delay the inevitable, but it’s not the fun choice. Instead, let’s see what happens if the Roman Empire as a whole remains intact. Decadent, perhaps, and corrupt at every level, but whole. What happens next?

If we can presume some way of keeping it together over centuries, down to the present day, then we have a years-long project for a team of writers, because almost every aspect of life would be different. The Romans had a slave economy (see above for how that plays out), a republican government, and some pretty advanced technology, especially compared to their immediate successors. We can’t assume that all of this would carry down through the centuries, though. Even the Empire went through its regressive times. The modern world might be 400 years more advanced, but it’s no less likely that development would be retarded by a hundred or more years. The Romans liked war, and war is a great driver of technology, but you eventually run out of people to fight, and a successful empire requires empire-building. And a Pax Romana can lead to stagnation.

But the Dark Ages wouldn’t have happened, not like they really did. The spread of Islam might have been stopped early on, or simply contained in Arabia, but that would have also prevented their own advances in mathematics and other sciences. The Mongol invasions could have been stopped by imperial armies, or they could have been the ruin of Rome on a millennium-long delay. Exploration might not have happened at the same pace, although expeditions to the Orient would be an eventual necessity. (It gets really fun if you posit that China becomes a superpower in the same timeline. You could even have a medieval-era Cold War.)

Today’s world, in this scenario, would be different in every way, especially in the West. Medieval Europe was held together by the Christian Church. Our hypothetical Romans would have that, sure, but also the threat of empire to go with it. Instead of the patchwork of nation-states that marked the Middle Ages, you would have a hegemony. There might be no need for the Crusades, but also no need for the great spiritual works iconic of the Renaissance. And how would political theory grow in an eternal empire? It likely wouldn’t; it’s only when people can see different states with different systems of government that such things come about. If everybody is part of The One Empire, what use is there in imagining another way of doing things?

I could go on, but I won’t. This is a well without a bottom, and it only gets deeper as you fall further. It’s the Abyss, and it can and will stare back at you. One of my current writing projects involves something like an alternate timeline—basically, it’s a planet where Native Americans were allowed to develop without European influence—and it has taken me down roads I’ve never dreamed of traveling. Even after spending hundreds of hours thinking about it, I still don’t feel like I’ve done more than scratch the surface. But that’s worldbuilding for you.

One thought on “Alternate histories”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *