Friday, April 13, 2012

Rearranging the Deck Chairs and Changing the Course: Titanic Alternate Histories From the Writers Point of View

Guest Post by Tyler "Tbguy1992" Bugg.

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic is here, and I have decided to talk about the different alternate histories that revolve around the sinking. Ever since the morning of April 15, 1912, when the world awoke to find that the massive liner was gone, people have been asking “What If?” Walter Lord, historian and writer of A Night To Remember, one of the greatest Titanic books ever written once said:

"I still think about the 'might have beens' about the Titanic, that's what stirs me more [than] anything else. Things that happened that wouldn't have happened if only one thing had gone better for her. If only, so many if onlys. If only she had enough lifeboats. If only the watertight compartments had been higher. If only she had paid attention to the ice that night. If only the Californian did come. The 'if only' kept coming up again and again and that makes the ship more [than] the experience of studying a disaster. It becomes a haunting experience to me; it's the haunting experience of 'if only'."

So, there are many ways we could look at Titanic Alternate Histories, but how can we make them plausible? After all, ships at sea face many other dangers besides icebergs like fog, collisions with other ships, fires and countless other events that could send any vessel to the bottom of the sea.

While we now know most of the major flaws of the ship, and how they could have been rectified, Alternate Historians are faced with a challenge. If, say the White Star line, the owner of the Titanic, agreed to put on even more than the 20 she ended up carrying? More people might have been saved, yes, but unless there were enough lifeboats for every single person, many were still going to die that night.

We could go on about the design, the number of people saved, and that sort of thing, but in the end, if you are going to write an Alternate History of the Titanic, you have to decide one question: does it sink, or does it survive?

This is where it gets tricky. Most people will go: “The Titanic just missed the iceberg, made it into New York.” Okay: then what? One thousand, five hundred and seventeen men, women and children that would have died instead survived. How many of them would go on to lead normal, uneventful lives? Will maybe a dozen of them become rich, go into politics, or shape the world in a way that is completely different? The butterflies now kick in, because not only did those 1,517 people survived, but now the passengers that are unmarried or do not have children are going to have kids, and they will have kids, etc. etc. This means that thousands of people that would not even exist are now living, and how will that change things?

Okay, so the Titanic made it to New York, disembarked its passengers, and is prepared to go back to England. Does Fate now strike? Or does it strike a few years down the road? What about World War One? All the major powers used the merchant shipping for troop transport, hospital ships, axillary cruisers, and dozens of other roles. The Titanic’s sisters Olympic and Britannic served in the Great War: the former as a troop ship and survived the conflict (and even sank a U-Boat!), while the later struck a mine in the Mediterranean in 1916 and sank with only 30 deaths while serving as a hospital ship. What’s to say a torpedo or a battleship’s cannon doesn’t find Titanic there? And after the war, is the Titanic returned to trans-Atlantic service? Is it sunk later, or lives out its long and useful life until finally its outdated, too expensive to run, and ultimately scrapped like the Olympic in 1935? It is, after all, up to the writer to decide.

Another thing to remember, if the ship did survive, will it still carry insufficient lifeboats? The answer is most likely yes, because, after all, why fix what isn’t broken? This, in the end, would mean that another maritime disaster would be needed to spur the installation of enough lifeboats. The only reason the Titanic didn’t carry more was because J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, wanted enough room on the boat deck for the wealthy to enjoy, and not raise the fear that the ship was in any danger.

So, let’s instead say the Titanic sinks. A lot of people would make an otherwise unknown or forgotten Point of Divergence years before the ship set sail on its maiden voyage, then have a shadowy cabal or secret organization or (le gasp!) the GERMANS sink the Titanic. Then you can say it sparks a war with any combination of the powers in 1912.

But, say the warpath is not for you. Instead, why not make up an idea to save the liner, or at least the passengers and crew? In The Mammoth Book of Alternate Histories did exactly that, in a (horribly implausible and downright ludicrous) short story, “The Raft of the Titanic.” You can treat it with more class, and instead say another ship, such as the Californian makes its way to the shipwreck and saves more lives, though this point is disputable. After all, the smaller liner was stopped and surrounded by ice, and took four hours to make its way to the rescue ship Carpathia in day light. If it took that long (and possibly longer, due to the dark) to reach the Titanic, the Californian would have been unable to rescue anyone else, even if it received the radio message just after midnight, it would have been almost 4:00 am when it arrived, an hour and 40 minutes after the ship sank, and too late to save the 1,517 that died.

This is not to say that Titanic Alternate Histories are bad. It’s just to say that it is very difficult to make a convincing story of the disaster. The story itself, of man’s greatest achievement, touted as indestructible is in turn brought to heel by Mother Nature, and revealing heroes, cowards, the brave, and the foolish. The fact that over fifteen hundred where killed that night is what draws us to the disaster; very few people delight in tragedy, while we all desire to recover something that was lost in a time before the world jumped into the fire of war, Fascism, Communism, death, misery and destruction, overthrowing the status quo in a world that never seem to cease throwing curveballs at humanity.

First Class Passenger John B. “Jack” Thayer, a survivor of the Titanic, later wrote of the Titanic, and what it did to humanity:

"There was peace and the world had an even tenor to its way. Nothing was revealed in the morning the trend of which was not known the night before. It seems to me that the disaster about to occur was the event that not only made the world rub it's eyes and awake but woke it with a start keeping it moving at a rapidly accelerating pace ever since with less and less peace, satisfaction and happiness. To my mind the world of today awoke April 15th, 1912."

I now would like to present my list of Alternate History related to the Titanic. It is a tad difficult, because throughout the past 100 years there have been many references in movies, books and other media about the Titanic, but mostly to tell a story revolving around the sinking with historical and fictional passengers and crew. This list will seem short, because, frankly, it is.

  • Titanic Sails On: A Collaborative ATL”: Simply an thread where editors can add on what happens after the ship does not sink.
  • The Company of the Dead by David Kowalski: The Titanic does not sink, and the US never joins WWI. Can the grand-nephew of JFK prevent history going off the rails, even if that means his own death? Check out Mitro's review of the novel.
  • Titanic: Adventure Out of Time: perhaps the most detailed video game related to the Titanic. You play a British agent, sent back in time after a bomb burst outside of your apartment 30 years later in World War Two London to reattempt your failed mission on board the famed liner. While the ship does sink, this point and click adventure game gives you the chance to change the Russian Revolution, the rise of Adolf Hitler, and the course of both the First and Second World Wars, unless you prevent them!

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Tyler “Tbguy1992”Bugg is a Canadian student of History, and a Titanic know-it-all since he was seven, and is working on a Titanic AH as well. In memory of the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, Tyler would like to take this chance to dedicate this post to all 1,517 who died, totaling the number of words in this article.

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