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So Many Books... - Alternates (of Days and Histories)

Apr. 18th, 2011

09:33 pm - Alternates (of Days and Histories)

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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.

Current Music: Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me - Iron & Wine

Comments:

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From:sartorias
Date:April 18th, 2011 09:16 pm (UTC)
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I enjoyed the Explosionist, even if I had to not think about the history's underpinnings rather consciously. So many AU's seem to stem awkwardly from a single point, yet mirror other events closely. Too closely.

Re 1916 . . . I thought the same was said about the '98 and Sir Edward, and yet again about what's-his-horrible-face that Charles I sent over.

Have to admit, I haven't been able to read Putney, whose Regencies seem like stereotypical xeroxes of Heyer.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:April 19th, 2011 08:21 am (UTC)
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I totally agree about the AUs that fix on a pivotal point and then don't follow through with enough changes. That's one reason I was annoyed to see Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Einstein and so on, still appearing as famous men with just a switcheroo in their areas of genius. Or Bell becoming half-Russian but the inventor of the telephone.

There are many, many failed uprisings in Irish history - often failures because somebody betrayed them beforehand - I was trying to be as fair as I could to the idea that someone could think 120-some years after the fact that one defeat was the cause of everything happening today, and so the Easter Rising was the last failed uprising that could be said to have led eventually to independence (if a partial one).

I wouldn't really recommend Dark Mirror just for reading - the romance is really feeble for one thing. But it was a nice book at the right moment for the section we're working on ATM!
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From:sartorias
Date:April 19th, 2011 01:23 pm (UTC)
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Yes. Re Oscar Wilde and so forth being geniuses in other ways, I wondered when I read that if I would have found that fun as a kid reader--famous names I might have heard of. I could see myself at thirteen thinking I was So Very Clever to figure them out, but as an adult reader, I thought pretty much as you did.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:April 19th, 2011 04:17 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I can (and did) imagine that response, though I'm not sure whether it would have been fun, necessarily. Another possibility is that there's a degree of worry about whether kids will recognise that it *is* alternate history, and that may be a pragmatic covering of a real possibility, but it's still not as appealing as the author who trusts readers to be bright. As this isn't a piece of fluff kind of book, especially!
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From:semyaza
Date:April 19th, 2011 03:10 am (UTC)
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It sounds like an alternate universe rather than an alternate history. But isn't this sort of thing a relict of the Great Man theory? Or perhaps not Great Men so much as Great Events. On the other hand, I've been thinking recently that it would be fun to write an alternate history where Goebbels emigrates to India and founds an ashram, Himmler settles down as a poultry farmer, and Hitler becomes a successful graphic designer.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:April 19th, 2011 08:27 am (UTC)
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Well, I think the author's note comment makes it an alternate history, but it's just not consistently one. But is your view that an AH is strictly a novel in which one major event went differently from the outcome in our world, and an AU might have all kinds of similarities or differences from our history but has something like magic that changes the basic structure of the world? And yes, it seems both Great Men and Great Events (with a lobotomized pretty and efficient helper behind each Great Man), in a bit of a mash-up.

I would read your alternate history! The amount of fun for the reader might depend on when they all toddled off to do this stuff. :P
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From:abject_reptile
Date:April 19th, 2011 09:11 am (UTC)
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They'd toddle off to do this right after the First World War. I quite like the idea of something not happening because a group of people never met.

An alternate history should be true to the laws of the world in which it takes place -- thus, no working spiritualism -- but also, what follows from the event that didn't happen should follow logically. How does Napoleon winning the Battle of Waterloo lead to James Joyce becoming a composer? That passage strikes me as a gratuitous flourish.

Of course, one would be allowed to do anything at all if it were a question of multiverses created by a pivotal event. But is that what she intends?

Perhaps I have trouble with alternative histories because I don't believe that events turn on a single point in time or that a different outcome would necessarily make for a vastly different world. But that digresses too much from your post.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:April 19th, 2011 04:30 pm (UTC)
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Oh, digressing isn't a problem - and it's not anyway! I'm interested in your take on alternate histories (when it is relevant to this section of our book and when it isn't, both!).

I've been mulling this over quite a bit, and it occurred to me last night that some of a general tendency to think that events will turn on a single point in time and interest in playing the 'What if?' game with this type of AH might relate to how we tend to look back on our personal lives and wonder how things would have gone if we hadn't make some choice at some particular point. I don't spend much time indulging in this - admittedly pointless! - exercise, but sometimes I find myself doing it. (As for example, when the congresswoman was shot in Tuscon my instinctive response was 'Damn! I could have been shopping at that exact spot with MY kids - before remembering that if I actually were still living in Tucson, my kids would in all likelihood be far, far away in university.) And sometimes it isn't even pointless, if it's done in a way which allows you to figure out how to respond differently to avoid repeating unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Anyway, I agree completely about an alternate history needing to be logically feasible. And definitely those two problems you've mentioned are what get me here.

But on the whole in my reading, I'd much rather the Connie Willis response, where everything is a hugely interrelated sum of multiple tiny actions! I think. I'm definitely on to read your AH now I know WWII didn't happen first! (Just lost a contact lens somewhere in my eye and can't see to proofread this, so please forgive typos!)
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From:semyaza
Date:April 19th, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC)
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Perhaps it's part of our need to make sense of the world -- a really big version of the anecdotal fallacy. Or perhaps it's because, in what was formerly known as Christendom :D, the flow of history was interrupted by a single defining moment around which our calendar era circles. But Connie Willis is closer to the truth of things. I love alternate histories even though my response to 'what would have happened if...' is usually 'nothing much at all'. I'm open to changing my mind on the subject though.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:April 20th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
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Oh yes - I like that thought about history and Christianity!

It's certainly a lot easier to read alternate histories and then poo-poo the set of consequences the author has depicted than to have to try to write one's own.

I don't know about the 'usually nothing much at all'. As in, I seriously don't know, rather than I'm disagreeing. I audited a course on US foreign policy when I was studying in Cornell and the lecturer (a well respected historian) set out a rather heart-breaking chain of what he depicted as leaders having learned the wrong lesson from history. I can't remember it clearly now, but I think one of them was having been incredibly harsh on Germany after WWI and that not having gone too well, so then appeasing Hitler, allowing him time to build strength and respect and then learning not to appease, and so trying to -- I don't know - assassinate Castro or something. That's not right, so don't think it's a stupid theory based on my misremembering! I've definitely read accounts from intelligent people which say that possibly if the Allies (what came to be the Allies, anyway) had come down hard at the first sign of Hitler's tentative expansionist moves, the war might have been averted. Not that this proves anything about alternate history one way or another, of course, but it's a thought that may be added to the "what if?' pot. Or not. :P
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From:semyaza
Date:April 21st, 2011 03:58 am (UTC)
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I don't generally find myself poo-pooing them. I just need to be convinced that X might have happened not that it would have happened. I do prefer alternate universes though.

I have less trouble with 'the war might have been averted if...' than 'if Germany/Japan had won...' I don't believe the war with Germany could have been averted or if it had been averted that it should have been averted. It's hard to watch Triumph of the Will and not ask how anyone could have doubted Hitler's intentions (or that he had to be stopped). I agree that leaders (Americans perhaps most of all since they have the greatest power at the moment) don't learn the right lessons from history - or even care about it, for the most part. US foreign policy has been woefully misguided for decades and they've reaped the whirlwind. What seems 'the national interest' in the short term often isn't in the long term. But we have no leaders with real vision.

Anyway -- where was I? Arguments like 'we had to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki because if we hadn't...' don't cut the mustard. We put the worst possible spin on what might have happened in order to justify our actions, and because that kind of argument makes me suspicious, my inclination is to say 'nothing much at all'. The post-War period was an appalling mess for much of the world's population. Could it have been worse?
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From:asakiyume
Date:April 19th, 2011 10:40 pm (UTC)
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I seem to recall hearing somewhere in the jumble of popular talk on history that some believe that when you have enough build-up to precipitate a certain sort of key event, then it will happen, one way or another. In other words, something like the American Civil War would happen, even absent, say, John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry, and World War I would happen even without the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, because the event would, instead, spring from some other combination of events. But others--I guess people who believe in the butterfly effect--would say that even a little jiggle to the system can cause a big change.

Too bad we can't run a double-blind test to find out :D

I like your term "concurfactual"--and the notion of fantasy and magic surrounding the stones in the wall of history.
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From:lady_schrapnell
Date:April 20th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
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Yes - those two theories are pretty impossible to test! I've got just enough scientist left in me to find that frustrating, I guess. I wonder how much a feeling that we can identify significant pivotal points of history might be contributed to by reading. Reading fiction, I mean. Those moments of dramatic irony when the vital letter lies on the doormat and the person who needs to know the information it contains doesn't stop to look at it... Or the reverse, of course - with something tiny coming to be seen afterwards as having led to a favourable outcome. My mother often talks about summer school in Harvard and how she *nearly* signed up for a seminar on Henry James instead of Anglo-Irish lit (taught by my father), but then -- oops, I can't remember what the tiny butterfly was in that case. (Shame on me! I've certainly heard their story enough.)
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