Alternates (of Days and Histories) - So Many Books...
Apr. 18th, 2011
09:33 pm - Alternates (of Days and Histories)
Well, last week was a bit of a write-off, and this weekend was brought down by a crashing headache yesterday. But today I was all set to accomplish everything. Yes, everything! Only then I got a text from Younger Daughter asking me to keep her updated on the DART (Dublin train ) situation, which I had only been dimly aware of because I'd just heard the tinny sounds of an announcement when out in the back garden. The website said that the service was suspended between Dun Laoghaire and here (or possibly between Dun Laoghaire and the city centre) because of a 'security alert', and Y.D. replied with one word text 'Bomb!' Everything's running again now, but trying to find out more than the fact that a suspicious object had been found on the tracks and the army's bomb disposal unit called in took up a good chunk of time and mental energy. (There should be more news to come, as they're now saying it was believed to have been a 'viable' device.)
Then, Doug, the dog in the userpic, had some kind of emotional crisis, precipitated by -- whatever. It was seriously sad though - for over an hour he was a panting, unable-to-settle, trying to climb into my hair, onto my neck, and generally all over me mess. He was so upset I couldn't get any computer work done, so instead I sat with him on the sofa trying to (re)read The Explosionist with sticky flags for the History Project.
Haven't finished the reread, but have got enough to have reminded myself of some things that are really puzzling me, and so wanted to throw out a few thoughts - or vague approximation of same - about alternate histories.
The Explosionist gives every indication of being a straight 'what-if' alternate history. The author's note at the back describes the world as having 'split off from our own when Napoleon beat Wellington at the battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815'. Fair enough, and so is the consequent 'Hanseatic League' of northern European states, which includes Scotland, but not England, which fell to Europe during the Great War (roughly the same as our World War I, but lasted longer). But if the Battle of Waterloo is the point at which this world split off from ours, surely only *we* would be aware of this - or is that a false assumption? I've been thinking about this since reading how the protag feels nobody could be uninterested in modern European history, because 'Every one of the abuses and atrocities that filled the daily papers could be traced back to the fatal day in 1815 when Napoleon defeated Wellington and slaughtered the British forces at Waterloo.' Hmmm. I mean, it reads like a very awkward infodump rather than the real thoughts of a schoolgirl in this world. But I've been trying to get beyond that, and I have remembered way back in my own school history days, and being taught that the executions of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Risings had -- essentially -- changed the course of history. There wasn't the amount of popular support for the rising one might have expected, but after the slow drip of executions, including the shooting of James Connolly, too injured to stand, opinion changed quite significantly. (Of course, Yeats said all this in poetry, in "Easter, 1916".)
Still, if one were to look at the events of today in the North, one would rather say that they're consequences of the whole history of British 'involvement' in Ireland, and never that everything can be traced back to the day on which, say, Connolly was shot. There are other problems even aside from this one quote anyway - for example, the telephone was invented by Aleksandr Tolstoy Bell, 'son of an eminent Scottish educator of the deaf and his glamorous Russian wife'. Or the protag's saying she likes talking about 'the theology of Count Tolstoy, the novels of Richard Wagner, the verse of Albert Einstein, or the operas of James Joyce'. I don't need to expand on how this has gone wrong, even if it's intended in a jokey manner. More significantly - far more significantly, I think - is the fact that despite the author's note, and all the exposition that's gone on, it's on page 238 that we suddenly find out (again through a school lesson) that the American War of Secession would have been won by the Northerners and the United States of America would still exist as a single entity if Delaware, with its munitions factories, hadn't joined the Southern cause.
Of course, another thing that's different about this world is that spiritualism - while still filled with charlatans - is true, in the sense that it's scientifically possible to communicate with the dead in a variety of ways. I actually quite enjoyed the excitement about new technology in the book, but it's still a difference in worlds that seems relatively unconsidered in the author's 'What if?' exploration. A similar thing struck me on reading the second Enola Holmes book: The Case of the Left-Handed Lady - while working on the whole Holmesian mindset and world, in this one 'mesmerism' - pooh-poohed by Enola as trickery - is shown to be completely effective in at least one case. As in a person totally under the control of another, and forced into slavery that is almost unbreakable. Again, I just don't quite see how this fits in with the world that's been established for the book, which is decidedly not a supernatural one, although it is unrealistic in the sense of being high adventure.
On the other hand, the time travel I mentioned a while ago, Dark Mirror, by M.J. Putney, presents, not an alternate history, but one in which an unlikely occurrence of 'real' history, with significant consequences, is given a supernatural cause. The unlikely occurrence in this case is the very much calmer-than-normal weather for the time of year, which allowed so many to be rescued in the evacuation of Dunkirk. It's not said to be enough to win the war, but rescuing so many of the Allied forces is, obviously, seen as having potentially had a pivotal role in the outcome of the war. What's rather pleasing, I think, is that it's not some good history fairy who brings the teens from the 1800s into their future to save the day, but a teen from the 1940s who has some magical ability himself and has met the heroine when she accidentally time travelled.
If The Explosionist is a counterfactual alternate history (or is supposed to be one), and something like Sorcery and Cecelia plays on the existence of magic's not changing history, I wonder what the word would be for what Dark Mirror is? A concurrfactual sounds like something a cat would hack up. Maybe it's really more like grouting between tiles. Or a dry-stone wall. The history is the wall which stands without mortar, but filling in the bits with a bit of fantasy time-travel doesn't shift the stones as it would in a counterfactual. I don't think this description will be taken up by critics somehow, but I like it nonetheless.