Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Points of Divergence 2: The Long Tail

In my last post I talked about the most common characteristics of alternate history: a singular, major point of divergence, a story examining either that change or events relatively close to it in time, key historical figures in play in the story, other events outside the POD remaining pretty similar to how we know them in our own timeline, and so on.

Yet this prototypical “hinge point of change” story is not the only way that alternate histories come about. There is another approach to creating an alt-history milieu, and it is as likely to lead to a story being classified as “science fiction”, as it is “alternate history.”

I am speaking here of stories based upon “change over time.” For the sake of discussion I’ll narrow this down to only two types here.

One is “big change, long tail of divergence.” This is a story in which the narrative of events takes place at considerable remove from the POD itself. In fact, I think the point in time chosen for the narrative viewpoint probably has a much greater effect on how we perceive alt-hist stories than is generally recognized. I’ll call this the “point of narrative focus,” or PON for short (and yes, I’m dropping the F – PONF? Really? - because I have a limit to how silly I can bear my acronyms to sound. ;)

The reason PON matters is because the nature of the alternate history story shifts the more time passes between POD and narrative focal point. In Harris’ Fatherland, for instance, the story is set in 1964, relatively recently out of the shadow of WWII. It has a certain piquant flavor precisely because of this juxtaposition to the nexus of change (a World War that Hitler won).

What, though, if the major shift in timeline is, say, the fact that Napoleon won at Waterloo? This is all well and good if, as in “mainstream” alternate history, the tale focuses on “what happens next”. This very scenario was one of the earliest alternate histories ever published: Geoffrey’s “History of the Universal Monarchy: Napoleon And The Conquest Of The World” appeared in 1836, imagining victory over Russia, a successful invasion of England, and unification of the world under Napoleon’s rule.

What, though, if the PON is set long after a POD? In the Napoleon example, what happens over, say, 150 years of unfolding European history? Is there ever even a First World War, much less a Second? Perhaps the question of Hitler victorious never arises, because that line of causality simply never appears.

Instead, we must determine how the course of history ran instead. This is a happy field of engagement for many alt-history fans, as various discussions and alt-history gaming around the internet will show. My point, though, in analyzing this from my writer’s perspective, is that where the world ends up, when the PON is far removed from the point of divergence, might be extremely different than how it was in our own timeline. Or at least different in unsettling ways. ("What do you mean, America doesn't exist?")

And here we come to the significant underlying factor: the more the constructed history is at variance with what we “know” to be true, the more alien, even "fictional", the alternate timeline feels.

What We Know to Be True

One of the issues I discussed in my last post is the assumption that aside from the major point of divergence (and closely related events), pretty much everything else in the fictional world remains the same as it is in ours. In short, if it’s not affected by the POD directly, it general it is assumed not to have changed at all.

We can’t sustain this fiction over a long span of time, however. The more years pass, the more one change affects other events, and the consequences of causality trickle out over the temporal landscape. Many of these subsequent variations will be inconsequential, but many will not. Like I noted above: if Napoleon had united Europe, would there ever have been World Wars later on? The answer to that is as likely to be “no” as “yes.” Add to this technology and social changes over time, and we end up with a world that might just be unrecognizable to the 21st century person rooted in OTL.

At that point, we start to think, “hey, this isn’t just a “what-if” exercise about one event. It’s a whole ‘nother world!” And at that point, it begins to feel like science fiction.

The second way to reach this "science fiction" conclusion is along a similarly divergent path, but takes as its starting point many small, instead of one big, PODs. Here, multiple PODs happen in a cluster, or in sequence. They need not be very large events, but cumulatively derail “progress as we know it”. Columbus being spurned by the court of Spain, thus not funding his voyage of discovery1, followed by Pasteur (or peers) not discovering vaccines, followed by religious strictures that squelched democratic movements in Europe – hey, it could happen. What would an under- or late-developed America, unmanaged epidemic diseases and lingering monarchial systems portend in Europe? Many factors of change, no one of which might be weighty enough for a traditional alt history – but all in all, the end result is:

This is not the world as we ever imagined it would be.

The Science Fiction Tipping Point

In this manner, long-tail divergence violates several of the unspoken precepts of “mainstream” alternate history. There is one or (the longer the timeline) more PODs; key historical figures are likely to not exist, the father down the resulting timeline we go; the PON is distant from the event, and the precept that we should have an otherwise-unaltered, recognizable world is blown sky-high.

The result can be a masterwork like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. The book is a thought-provoking treatment of what kind of world might exist if the plague had wiped out Europe in the 14th century, and Muslim and Chinese cultures had become the dominant forces in the world instead. It covers a span from the 15th to the late 20th century, and has been praised for its evocation of cultures shaped by forces markedly other than our own western Judeo-Christian historical background.

What is noteworthy to me is that this book was widely adopted in specifically science fiction circles. It was regarded, yes, as an alternate history, but one of such “scope” – because of the timeline involved and provocative cultural questions raised – that it was somehow elevated out of the ranks of mere alt history and up to the level of winning the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in 2003, and being nominated for the Hugo, the Arthur C. Clarke, and the British Science Fiction awards in that same year.

The book was praised by reviewers as "epic science fiction" (the St. Louis Dispatch) and the product of "a scientifically informed imagination" (New York Times Book Review) - always important, and expected, in a work of science fiction. The moral here? Perhaps it is, “wander far enough afield in your chain of logical consequences, and even otherwise die-hard science fiction fans will enjoy your alt-history, deeming it to be science fiction instead.”

But that doesn’t make an alternate history not an alternate history. It just seems to cast it into the ballpark of wider appeal.

In my next post I’ll talk about another pathway into the realm of alternate history that is tricky to pull off in a convincing manner, and which also attracts the “science fiction” label like flies to honey.

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1. World-shattering as the failure to discover America might seem to Americans, I would argue that this continent would simply be ‘discovered’ later, by someone not Columbus, and so its lack of discovery in the late 15th century might not be as world-altering as some would assert.


Deborah Teramis Christian is a science fiction and fantasy novelist with an alternate history work in progress. You can read more blog posts about this and related subjects at her website, Notes From the Lizard Lair.

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