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what if? why not?!
change your mind and change the world
by russ carr (@DocOrlando70)
11.22.04
pop culture

From the Nov. 3, 2004 New York Times:

BOSTON (AP) -- As Tuesday’s long night stretched into Wednesday’s early morning, supporters of the Kerry campaign gathered to watch election returns traded champagne flutes for coffee cups.
But at about 6 a.m. Wednesday morning, styrofoam gave way to crystal in a heartbeat, just as the former Senator Kerry greeted the sleepy faithful as president-elect Kerry.
“This seems to be the year for miracles here in Boston,” shouted a weary but grinning Kerry. “And all I can say is: The curse is lifted -- because you never stopped believing...”

You’re right; that story never appeared. No amount of wishing will change that, and believe me, I know many of you are still wishing even now, well after the fact, that you’ll wake up and all the newspapers will read differently.

Well, that ain’t gonna happen. Not in this reality, at least.

But in some other reality, it did. In countless realities, even. These are the realms of alternate history.

Also called “alternative” or “speculative” history, alternate history (AH) is the offspring of two seemingly dichotomous geek niches: physics and history.

I won’t bore you with the physics; let me try and nutshell it for you, instead. Any time you make a choice, whether it’s voluntary (chips vs. fries) or -- seemingly -- involuntary (breathe or die). You make that choice, and life goes on. But what about the alternative choice you didn’t pick? You come to a fork in the road and go to the left; but that doesn’t mean the path to the right ceases to exist, it just means it exists without you on it. Weird little physics-influenced theories suggest that in the instant of choosing, you create two different realities: one where you choose “A” and one where you choose “B.” This happens so many times a day, the number approaches infinity. I don’t know the prefix for how many -illions it would be. If you really want to delve into this, you’re a huge geek, and you should Google “Schrodinger’s Cat.”

From the November 6, 1945 Washington Post:

WASHINGTON, DC (UPI) -- His face ashen and with tears streaming down his cheeks, General Leslie Groves admitted before a special hearing of the House Armed Services Committee that the horrific destruction in the nation’s southwestern states was the result of a military experiment gone awry.
“We did not know,” Graves stammered, “We did not know how large the blast would be. But we did not know...we did not expect this. We only wanted to shorten the war. We wanted to save lives.”
Scientists are still hesitant to approach the eastern most fringes of the affected area, which stretches in a roughly oval swath from southern California to western Texas, and as far north as Colorado. No communication has been received from within the affected area since July 17, the day after the so-called “Trinity” test. An airborne reconaissance team reported a “vast crater, hundreds of miles in diameter, centered on the test site”...

The history geeks saw a good thing with this theory, as history is woefully finite and therefore prone to being exhausted by the truly insatiable historian. History is rather black and white; you know what happened, and that’s the extent of it. Immutable, unless you’re a rude dictator with a penchant for rewriting textbooks to provide yourself with better credibility.

With an nigh-infinite number of ways that “our” timeline could have been changed in the past, history geeks now have an almanac of cosmic proportions to play with. Anything, at any time, could have changed. Somewhere, there are earths where Rome never fell. Where the dinosaurs still roam. Where the Chinese invented the airplane in 1305. And yes, you rabble of the Katerwauling Kerry Korps... there are earths where your candidate won the election...sometimes even with 100 percent of the vote!

Now the only thing this twisted little marriage of science and history needs to find its voice is someone who actually knows how to tell a story. Scientists, by and large, are lousy storytellers, as they’re only concerned with relating the facts. Historians are somewhat better, but are notoriously verbose and detail-oriented. And that’s probably why AH has never really taken off; the disenfranchised writer geeks don’t play with anyone.

That’s not to say they haven’t tried. Master spy novelist Len Deighton wrote the first AH book I can recall reading, a mystery called SS/GB, set in a Nazi-occupied England. And the well-established Philip Roth has just published The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President in 1940 and turns America into a fascist state. But most AH is being churned out by semi-talented science fiction writers. The most prolific of these is Harry Turtledove, who takes marvelous, exciting premises and turns them into hackneyed, ponderous volumes.

From the June 22, 1963 International Herald-Tribune:

ROME (Reuters) -- With reverent anticipation, pilgrims to Vatican City waited the appearance of their new pontiff onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square this morning.
But as soon as Pope Benedict XVI finally emerged, the crowd erupted in one voice, chanting in the new pope’s native tongue, “Heilige vater! Heilige führer!” And the man who hours before was simply Cardinal Adolf Hitler of Salzburg, beamed and waved at the adoring multitudes.

But while you’re probably not going to find the New York Times Bestseller list full of AH novels any time soon, there’s plenty of speculation to be found online. And what these histories may lack in literary merit, they more than make up for with the fantastic nature -- and often thorough research -- of their content. A good jumping off point would be one of the more general AH sites, such as AlternateHistory.com or Changing the Times. Some sites are given over to a particular time period, or in the case of the extremely large AH site, Shattered World, one history in specific. Shattered World is so extensive --detailing a Second World War in which the Soviet Union, not Germany, attacks Poland first -- that it has spawned its own fan fiction.

Now I realize you’ve been taking it all month from all of us geeks here at Intrepid, as we’ve been pushing our geek ideas of entertainment (playing at superheroes, watching drag comics and UPN, reading geek authors’ fantasy books) and of course I know you’re so not a geek anyway, so why even bother you with more geekwank?

Because while you may not all relate to beating the crap out of costumed baddies, crossdressing and pre-Sumerian computer viruses, you’re still a participant in history, like it or not.

Alternate history engages me because it can be a bit of an ego boost. Follow me, here.

When you were stuck in your history classes as a student, it was -- unless you had an outstanding teacher -- a dry recitation of dates coupled with the biographies of lots of dead people. There was no interaction, no perspective. Nothing personalizes history, because we’re so busy studying the past that we usually fail to recognize its impact on our present.

So stop and think about what you could have done differently to this point in your life. Where would you be now? Might you be wealthy? Might you be dead? And what if you’d never been born? Who would your spouse be sleeping with tonight?

“The kingdom was lost, all for the want of a nail,” goes the poem. Ah, but had the nail been there, the horse would have been shoed, the rider would have turned the battle, and the kingdom would have been saved!

Maybe you’re the rider. Maybe you’re the nail. Either way, you don’t know what impact you may have on a history yet to be written. Alternate history recognizes this in a way that standard -- “actual” -- history doesn’t. When you understand how important these choices were in the past, you’ll gain a better perspective on how you make your choices today.

“Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it,” goes the aphorism. Sometimes the best way to learn from the past is not to repeat it...but to reinvent it.


ABOUT RUSS CARR

If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.

more about russ carr

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COMMENTS

tracey kelley
11.22.04 @ 10:34a

You just set the dryer lint in my head on fire.

Ya know, I try not to think "back." I don't know if it's a belief in destiny or just the desire not to know what I wouldn't have screwed up "if only..."

mike julianelle
11.22.04 @ 11:00a

I love alternative history stuff, if it's good. I LOVED the premise of Fatherland, except for the fact that the book's central mystery wasn't a mystery to those of us living in the REAL history.

russ carr
11.22.04 @ 1:39p

I haven't read Fatherland, but I agree, if we already know from our (OTL) timeline how a particular thing works out, then it would remove a considerable bit of the suspense. It's like knowing whodunit at the beginning of the episode of Columbo or something; all you have left is watching the detective put the pieces together.

But on the other hand, part of the enjoyment of AH comes in knowing what happened in OTL, and then seeing how small things got twisted in the alternate (ATL) timeline.

There are some really good AH anthologies out there, featuring short stories written by authors who aren't necessarily AH genre writers. Often these anthologies are collected around a particular topic. One which springs to mind is "Alternate Kennedys," which has a dozen or so stories revolving around Massachusetts' most famous family. The stories range from the comic (Judith Tarr has a piece in which the four lads from Hyannis -- Joe, Jack, Bobby and Ted -- are the preeminent rock band of the 60s) to the tragic (a poignany tale of a JFK who survives Dallas, but because of his injuries has the mental capacity of a young boy, who is cared for by his brother Teddy). Good, good stuff.

heather millen
11.22.04 @ 5:03p

This reminds me of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" Stories!

robert melos
11.22.04 @ 5:03p

I didn't read Fatherland, but saw the HBO film based on the premise. It was very good.

Heinlein went into alternate realities and splintered timelines and such in his Lazarus Long novels.

The concept is comforting in the thought that, in some alternate universe, I'm a happy person who has everything I want. One out of infinity is pretty good odds.

[edited]

juli mccarthy
11.23.04 @ 1:59p

I'm geek enough to be a Trekker (and insist on not being called a "Trekkie") and I've read Harry Harrison's Eden series and most of Heinlein - but for some reason AH stuff that takes place in MY reality/timeline makes me nervous. I'm sure that says something about my ego or my insecurity or both.

robert melos
11.23.04 @ 4:37p

In the Druid and Celtic beliefs, there is the theory that all time exists simultaneously, and is likened to an outstretched accordion, but we are only conscious of the present. Occasionally we are aware of glimpses of the future. Not exactly an AH theory, but still an interesting concept. Sort of like a space-time donut theory.

russ carr
6.26.05 @ 1:49p

I just happened to go back and re-read this. The feature date is 11/22/04, well before the death of Pope John Paul II on 4/2/05, or the election of his successor on 4/19/05.

For the purposes of this column, I chose a rather infamous German-speaking person to become pope in 1963. He chose the name Benedict XVI.

For the purposes of Catholic leadership, the college of Cardinals chose a German-speaking person to succeed John Paul II. He chose the name Benedict XVI.

Weeeeeeeeird.

[edited]



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