Friday, April 18, 2014

Flag Friday: Ukraine

Originally posted on Sean Sherman's blog Other Times. Support an alternate historian by subscribing to his blog!
After the Baltic Event crippled the Russian Empire on 30 June 1908 dozens of new nations broke away from the Empire. The new Ukrainian Hetmanate was declared on 29 November 1908. It faced border skirmishes with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1909, a war with the new state of Poland from 1912-1914, and the loss of Crimea to the recovering Russian Empire in a war from 1918 - 1919.

Despite territorial losses Ukraine survived. Once their borders stabilized in the 1920s their primary concern was Ruthenian separatists in their western regions.

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Sean Sherman has been a fan of alternate timelines ever since seeing Spock with a goatee.  By day he is a CPA, at night he explores the multiverse and shares his findings over at his blog, Other Times.

Famous Tuckerizations of Alternate History

A "tuckerization" is when an author uses the name or likeness of a real person as a character in their fiction. Usually the author is friends with the person, but it could also be a contemporary celebrity or a fan who won a chance to have their name featured in their favorite work of fiction. Not only is this common in science fiction, but it is prevalent in alternate history as well. Here are just a few examples:

Ian Arnstein: Introduced in Island in the Sea of Time by SM Stirling, the bald and bearded Ian is a major POV character throughout the series. He also is knowledgeable about ancient history, had dreams of being a science fiction writer and made a Monty Python riff at the siege of Troy. If he sounds a lot like the master of alternate history himself, Harry Turtledove, you would be correct. Although as far as I know neither author has confirmed Ian is Harry, most fans are in agreement that the character is based off the author.

Michael Pound: Speaking of Stirling, over at his Facebook group Stirling hinted that the stocky (possibly Canadian) barrel driver from Turtledove's Southern Victory/TL-191, Michael Pound, is actually a tuckerization of him. "Michael" is the "M" in "SM" and Stirling did admit Turtledove likes to pun, which probably explains how Stirling became Pound (get it?). Both character and author are also quite outspoken.

Lord Darcy series: Although I have never read the series myself, Lord Darcy by Randall Garrett is a popular short fiction universe from the 1960s and 70s that is still spoken of fondly by older fans. This historical fantasy features England and France united under the Plantangenets. It is also full of tuckerizations including TA Water (Sir Thomas Leseaux), Michael Kurland (Michel Coure-Terre), James Randi (James Zwinge) and EE Smith (Sir Edward Elmer, Th.D).

Axis of Time series: The Lord Darcy series, however, pales in comparison to the king of tuckerization, John Birmingham, whose Axis of Time series is stuffed full of cameos. Some hero went to great lengths to list them out on Wikipedia, but not only did Birmingham include SM Stirling and Harry Turtledove (as Commander Turteltaub), he also referenced other recognizable names to alternate historians like Eric Flint and William R. Forstchen.

Can you name any other tuckerizations from alternate history fiction? Let us know in the comments below.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Timeline Thursday: CSA Today by Matthew White

Years ago, people looked at the state of American politics and asked a simple question: who actually won the American Civil War? It is not that ridiculous of a question. The last half of the 20th century was full of southern politicians, on both sides of the political spectrum, holding positions of national importance. So Matthew White decided to showcase how the political careers of northern and southern politicians would be different if their respective regions were separate nations in his timeline "CSA Today".
I will be completely honest: this is not a very plausible timeline. White doesn't go into detail about how the South won the American Civil War or how the CSA handled the end of slavery (a crisis that historian Roger Ranson thought could have broken up the nation in the 1880s if not handled correctly). The CSA's continued existence to the 1960s is simply presented as a matter of fact with no explanation. Meanwhile, the butterfly effect is completely ignored by having world history still play out as it did in our timeline, with recognizable political figures still gaining importance in their respective nations.

The separate histories of the two nations differ drastically. The American history tends to be kind of dull, with issues such as civil rights and national healthcare having been dealt with earlier. The Confederate history tends to be the more interesting of the two and darker. White portrays the Confederacy as a poor, corrupt and intolerant nation racked by civil disorder. I can already hear the furious clicking of keyboards as people prepare to tell me everything that is wrong with this scenario, so please let me preempt that by getting to the point of this Timeline Thursday.

Many alternate histories are criticized for their author's political bias and rightfully so. That being said, there is a fine line between political attacks and social commentary/satire. Both can be controversial, but only one can successfully act as the warped mirror of society the author intended. Regardless of whether or not you agree with White's timeline or whatever message you think he was trying to get across, you can't ignore the fact that alternate history (like science fiction in general) can and has been used to point out the flaws in mainstream society. "CSA Today" is an early example of this phenomenon in the young online community of alternate historians and probably influenced many of those who read it.

For that reason alone I felt it deserved some recognition, because even works of alternate history that are implausible (and borderline offensive) can still have an impact on our community. As always, if there are any timelines you would like for me to check out or ones you would like to recommend to our readers, please contact me at ahwupdate at gmail dot com.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Interview: Frank Harvey

I now present my interview with Frank Harvey, professor and author of Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence, which won the 2013 CPSA Prize in International Relations. Learn more about Frank below:

Welcome to The Update, Frank. Please tell the readers a little about yourself.

I grew up in Montreal and married an amazing Montrealer I met at McGill University (in the pub, playing pool). I completed my PhD dissertation in 1992 on US-Soviet nuclear rivalry, and started at Dalhousie University (same year) teaching world politics, international conflict and US foreign policy. I just completed a two-year term as Associate Dean (Research) at Dalhousie and am currently on sabbatical working on two books: one on the application of US coercive diplomacy (deterrence/compellence) in Syria and other asymmetric conflicts over the past two decades (addressing the question of whether ‘fight for credibility’ makes sense), and a second book on US-NATO cooperation on ballistic missile defence. We have a 19 year-old daughter, Kalli, completing a degree in the Faculty of Management at McGill, and 16 year-old son completing the IB program at Citadel High, Halifax.

What got you interested in counterfactual history?

If I had to pinpoint the primary motivation it would be this: despite the importance of understanding what happened in the lead up to the Iraq war, the most widely accepted version of that history (and still the preferred account) was becoming increasingly entrenched over time, despite its many obvious logical and factual errors. Scholars, journalists and foreign policy experts I respected began to offer a common historical account of this period that did not mesh with my recollection of the facts, arguments and decisions as they unfolded at the time. This popular account remained powerful not because it was right (or factually correct), but because it was comforting and useful. People are comforted by the belief that changing the leader would be sufficient to avoid these types of wars, and politicians on both sides (many involved in key decisions leading to the Iraq war) are more than happy today to continue blaming a few neoconservatives. This consensus also led to dozens of ‘counterfactual’ claims, by prominent opinion leaders, that if it wasn't for a few more hanging chads in the 2000 US election the world would be a very different place today. I decided to test this popular counterfactual argument, and the results are pretty devastating.

What is Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence about?

Briefly, any theory we might offer to explain the cause of some event, like the 2003 Iraq war, can be easily re-framed as a counterfactual argument. For example, if I am convinced that X caused the war, then I am also likely to be pretty confident that war would not have occurred if X didn't happen. In other words, if X is necessary for war, then the absence of X would be sufficient to avoid war - that is the essence of counterfactual historical analysis.

Now, consider how this logic applies to the most common explanation for the 2003 Iraq war: if Bush and his neoconservative advisers were directly responsible for fabricating the weapons of mass destruction intelligence that justified the war, then it stands to reason that an Al Gore victory in the 2000 presidential election would have been sufficient to steer the country down a different path (this is the standard story). But what if the historical record clearly shows that Al Gore and almost every other Democrat ‘agreed’ with the faulty intelligence on Saddam’s WMD (much of it collected by the CIA and UN weapons inspectors during the Clinton-Gore administration)? What if the record shows that Gore ‘endorsed’ most of the key decisions taken by George Bush and Tony Blair to deal with Saddam during from 2002-2003? What if the evidence confirms that neoconservatives actually ‘lost’ many of the key policy debates during this period? In this case, counterfactual analysis leads to a better explanation of the complex combination of domestic and international factors that combined to push the US and UK closer and closer to war.

The book’s main conclusion (there are many) is this: contrary to popular opinion, leaders of large, developed liberal democracies have very little control over the foreign and security policies they implement. In fact, many of these leaders typically adopt the policies of their predecessors, notwithstanding their own ideology, personality, values or belief systems. Replacing a leader, in other words, won't change much, and counterfactual historical analysis can play a major role in demonstrating this important point. Foreign policies usually have more to do with a complex combination of domestic interests and international pressures that leaders attempt to balance on behalf of the states they govern. In fact, one of the more important points I raise in the book’s conclusion deals with the concept of "projectibility" - i.e., using counterfactual analysis to predict future foreign policies.

If my counterfactual explanation for the Iraq war is sound (i.e., neoconservatives were irrelevant and Al Gore would have made the same decisions as president), then this pattern should also apply to future US foreign policies embraced by very different presidents. As expected, Obama's foreign policies (e.g., the use of drone strikes, keeping Guantanamo Bay prison open, the NSA’s surveillance program, homeland security policies, Obama’s decision to intervene in Libya and to threaten Syria, etc.) look very similar to Bush's. In fact, the speeches by Obama and Kerry (in congressional testimony) defending the planned Syria strikes were virtually identical to those put forward by Bush and Powell prior to Iraq - they are all defending the same coercive diplomatic strategies, national interests and principles. The only difference in the Syria case is that Assad and Putin didn't miscalculate, because they had the benefit of seeing the effects of miscalculations by Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Kadhafi (they all underestimated US resolve).

What are some of the pros and cons of using counterfactuals when studying history?

Biggest Pro: Counterfactual analysis is not just another method for comparing different interpretations of major historical events – the approach is fundamental to any serious historical or social scientific inquiry committed to evaluating competing explanations of major events in history. And valid ‘causal’ explanations for any event are essential to understanding (and implementing) effective foreign policies and solutions, especially when identifying lessons learned following major foreign policy failures. For example, weak explanations of the Iraq war that blame neoconservative ideologues are likely to downplay the scope and nature of intelligence errors prior to the war, because faulty intelligence, they would argue, had almost nothing to do with the decision that were taken. The real problem, according to those who embrace the standard account, was the politicization of the generally sound WMD intelligence that neoconservatives re-framed, exaggerated and exploited to support their pre-determined invasion plans.

The solution is simple: get rid of the neoconservatives and everything is solved. But if the standard account is wrong, then the policy advice is unlikely to solve and could actually exacerbate the central problems confronting the American intelligence community. Now, if the real problem was the generally accepted but mistaken intelligence estimates on Iraq’s WMD, compiled over decades of UN weapons inspections and documented in numerous US, UK and UN reports, and if these systemic intelligence errors explain the decisions by the US and UK leading to war, then the solutions are far more complex and difficult to implement. Getting the history right is essential to fixing the real problems facing the US intelligence community and avoiding similar catastrophic and costly errors in the future. Counterfactual analysis leads to better policy advice.

Biggest Con: everyone uses counterfactual analysis, including (ironically) a majority of scholars who remain highly critical of the approach, but they rarely acknowledge or understand how central it is to their own analysis and conclusions. Many of us (including world renowned historians) have a somewhat simplistic understanding of the approach and tend to dismiss it or reject its application without any effort to appreciate its potential contributions to historical analysis. Why is this a con? Because it makes it exceedingly difficult for me to persuade people that their preferred explanation for the Iraq war is essentially wrong, despite the overwhelming fact-based evidence to support my argument. Why is this a con? Because, as explained in the ‘biggest pro’ above, if we get the history wrong we are unlikely to be able to resolve the main problems that led to the Iraq war. History is likely to repeat itself.

Historian Richard J. Evans has recently come out in opposition to counterfactuals. Do you think he has made any good points and are counterfactuals really as popular as he says?

Yes, I read Evans’ book and Guardian article (and your response…thanks for the nice plug, by the way) and I am familiar with his criticism of counterfactual historical analysis. I actually ‘share’ many of his views on what usually passes as counterfactual history, particularly the tendency to privilege contingency at the expense of careful analysis of the many pressures that typically play a role in major decisions. And I ‘agree’ with his major criticisms of counterfactual analysis outlined in his book and summarized in his recent Guardian piece, for example:
  • Counterfactual history “…threatens to overwhelm our perceptions of what really happened in the past, pushing aside our attempts to explain it in favour of a futile and misguided attempt to decide whether the decisions taken…were right or wrong.
  • “…leads not to historical understanding but to all kinds of wishful thinking, every hypothesis political in motivation.”
  • “Counterfactuals…open up the past by demonstrating the myriad possibilities, thus freeing history from the straitjacket of determinism and restoring agency to the people.”
  • “Yet this ignores, of course, an infinite number of chances that might have deflected the predicted course of events along the way.”
  • “…almost always treat individual human actors – generals or politicians, in the main – as completely unfettered by these larger forces, able to make decisions without regard to them in any way. And yet this simply isn't the case.”
  • “…regress into a ‘great man’ view of history that the historical profession abandoned decades ago.”
  • “…‘kings-and-battles’ view of the past…is thoroughly outdated – outdated because it is crudely simplistic and desperately unsophisticated.”
  •  “In practice, of course, every historian tries to balance out the elements of chance on the one hand, and larger historical forces (economic, cultural, social, international) on the other, and come to some kind of explanation that makes sense.”
Again, I agree with these points. But they apply to ‘weak’ counterfactuals not to ‘all’ counterfactual analysis, which is why I fundamentally disagree with his conclusion that “counterfactuals aren't any real use at all.” This may appear on the surface to be a pretty serious contradiction, but it isn’t. And I am hopeful that anyone who reads my book will see the difference between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ counterfactual histories and appreciate the important role counterfactual analysis can play in challenging seriously flawed (but very popular) ‘historical’ and related 'counterfactual' accounts of the war (they are logically connected, as I explain in the book). I hope readers will also notice the effort I invested in collecting historical 'evidence' and 'facts' to defend my account of contemporary US history and the key decisions that led to the Iraq war.

So with all that being said, what is the best point of divergence to prevent the United States from going to war with Iraq?

No question - it was 9/11. Take out 9/11 and it would have been virtually impossible for ‘any’ US administration to: convince UK to join them, get UN Resolution 1441 passed, get congressional authorization to deploy troops, obtain any European support for the initiative, etc. All of these prerequisites would not have been present in the absence of 9/11, and all related imperative to deal with Iraq’s WMD threat would have been absent.

There are a lot of President Gore alternate histories, but few President Kerry timelines. Why do you think that is?

The more interesting alternate history or counterfactual arguments usually focus on changes that would have produced significant, path breaking effects on history. The Gore counterfactual is interesting because of the overwhelming (but mistaken) consensus that his victory would have had a major effect on the course of US foreign policy. But Kerry’s victory would have occurred after 9/11, after Afghanistan and after Iraq - all of the big (historically interesting) decisions were already taken, so his impact would have been negligible.

What are you reading now?

Mostly books on contemporary US foreign policy, coercive diplomacy, deterrence theory and ballistic missile defence.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

What If Wednesday: Quebec Declares Independence in 1995

From the AltHistory Wiki.
In 1995, Quebec held a referendum to decide whether or not they should become an independent country. By a margin of 1.16%, Quebec narrowly voted to remain a part of Canada. With such a small margin, it begs the question, could the vote have gone the other way?

Maybe the Federalists run a poorer campaign or else recognizable names (like Bill Clinton) fail to come out in support of Canadian unity. Either way on October 30, 1995 the result of the vote is "Yes". What happens next? Wikipedia does list some contingencies in case of a "Yes" vote and things did not bode well for peace. Sovereigntists threatened to take possession of Canadian military bases in the area, while the Canadian government seemed likely to reject the outcome of a pro-independence vote.

If Quebec voted "Yes" and the Canadian government refused to recognize the vote, Quebec may have unilaterally declared independence. Some military units may have sided with the new government, while other would have stayed loyal to Ottawa. Those could have been surrounded by pro-independence groups, raising tensions. Then there is also the First Nations of Quebec. Most voted to stay with Canada and if there was a "Yes" vote they may have tried to rejoin Canada if they felt there rights would not be represented. When you consider events like the Oka Crisis, there is no guarantee Quebec will respect aboriginal rights or allow them to take Quebec territory back to Canada.

It is not completely implausible to think that violent conflict could have erupted. Regrettably, I do not know enough about Canadian history and politics to craft a plausible scenario. If you want to take a shot, please do so in the comments below or send me an email for a chance to be published on The Update. I will say this: history rarely happens in a vacuum. Events in Canada could easily have an impact elsewhere, especially to their southern neighbor.

Only a minority of Americans recognize a state's right to secede. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the fact that many secessionists hold extreme political views that are rejected by most Americans, but a big reason is that there hasn't been a successful secession since the country's foundation. Having Quebec secede (peacefully) would bring the idea of secession into mainstream society as a realistic possibility. New groups would form and old groups would change their message to attract new members. While I still find it unlikely that an American state would successfully secede in this timeline, since most states lack the cultural differences Quebec has with the rest of Canada, it could potentially shift public opinion to further limit the power of the federal government.

In fact it may even encourage Ron Paul to run for President as a Libertarian again. He ran as a Libertarian in 1988 and considered doing it again in 1992. With the shifting political landscape he could decide the time is right to make another run at the White House. This could backfire on the growing state's rights movement as it could split the conservative vote and give the election to Al Gore. How would a Gore administration handle a stronger state's right movement? Could he screw things up enough that a state would actually hold their own referendum? That is the fun thing about alternate history, you just never know what direction your new history is going to go until you start researching the possibilities.

So what did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I miss completely? Let me know in the comments and if want to submit your own scenario email me at ahwupdate at gmail dot com for a chance to be featured on What If Wednesday.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Preview: Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett

I am going to receive a review copy of Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon by David Barnett, sequel to the steampunk tale Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl (which I reviewed at Amazing Stories). Check out the description from Amazon:

Nineteenth century London is the center of a vast British Empire, a teeming metropolis where steam-power is king and airships ply the skies, and where Queen Victoria presides over three quarters of the known world—including the east coast of America, following the failed revolution of 1775.

Young Gideon Smith has seen things that no green lad of Her Majesty’s dominion should ever experience. Through a series of incredible events Gideon has become the newest Hero of  the Empire. But Gideon is a man with a mission, for the dreaded Texas pirate Louis Cockayne has stolen the mechanical clockwork girl Maria, along with a most fantastical weapon—a great brass dragon that was unearthed beneath ancient Egyptian soil. Maria is the only one who can pilot the beast, so Cockayne has taken girl and dragon off to points east.

Gideon and  his intrepid band take to the skies and travel to the American colonies hot on Cockayne’s trail. Not only does Gideon want the machine back, he has fallen in love with Maria. Their journey will take them to the wilds of the lawless lands south of the American colonies – to free Texas, where the mad King of Steamtown rules with an iron fist (literally), where life is cheap and honor even cheaper.

Does Gideon have what it takes to not only save the day but win the girl?

David Barnett's Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon is a fantastical steampunk fable set against an alternate historical backdrop: the ultimate Victoriana/steampunk mash-up!

Keep a look out for the review either here or at Amazing Stories. If you plan on ordering a copy of the Brass Dragon or the Mechanical Girl, please click through our Amazon banner and help support The Update and its mission to bring you the best alternate history content on the Internet.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: The Enceladus Crisis by Michael J. Martinez

Today at Amazing Stories, I reviewed The Enceladus Crisis by Michael J. Martinez, the second book in his Daedalus series. For those who don't know, the Daedalus series is a tale about two parallel dimensions. One set in a future not far off from our own and another is set in an alternate history where alchemy works. You can find out more by reading my review of the first book in the series, The Daedalus Incident, and my interview with the author.

So what did I think of Enceladus? You will have to click on the bolded link above to find out.

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Matt Mitrovich is the founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a blogger on Amazing Stories. Check out his short fiction. When not writing he works as an attorney, enjoys life with his beautiful wife Alana and prepares for the inevitable zombie apocalypse. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter.