Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Alternate History Versus the Prime Directive

Guest post by Dale Cozort.

When you think about it, a lot of alternate history is about violating Star Trek-style prime directives. Think about the iconic stories of alternate history. Sidewise in Time by Leinster has a couple go to a primitive timeline to change it into their own image after a timequake gives them access to it. De Camp's Lest Darkness Fall has a guy from the late 1930s go back to just after the fall of the Roman Empire and prevent the Dark Ages.

The Federation would be displeased with both sets of protagonists if they did what they did in a Star Trek universe.  But what about outside that universe? What about alternate history situations? Is it realistic to apply something like the Prime Directive in contact between timelines with different tech levels? In certain circumstances, maybe. It depends on how hard it is to get from the technologically advanced reality to the primitive one.

There are two issues here. First, could something like the Prime Directive be applied in Alternate History situations?  Second, is it ethical to do so?

It’s possible in certain situations.  Rules similar to the Prime Directive are applied in my novel All Timelines Lead to Rome (due out at the end of September). In the near future, we create portals between our timeline and an alternate reality where the Roman Empire froze in the political and economic patterns of the early empire. A few hundred years later, the rest of the Old World stopped changing. There is a reason for that freeze, which I won’t get into here.  As a result, the Old World never colonized the Americas.

The portals set up a situation tailor-made for the Prime Directive. Two continents full of Indians are even more vulnerable in this setup than they were when Chris Columbus sailed over from Spain. On the other hand, we know what will happen if we allow free access to the alternate reality. Indians will certainly die of disease by the tens of millions, and even the alternate reality's Old World is vulnerable to technological disruption and disease.

Given easy access to the alternate reality, it would get colonized in spite of the  problems that would cause.  I made keeping the realities apart feasible by making the portals energy hogs that only governments or very wealthy individuals can afford to keep open, and even then only in a few weak spots in the walls between the realities.  The weak spots are detectable from a distance and the world’s governments know where they are. That makes a Prime Directive sort of manageable, but only given the political will to maintain it.

Political and economic pressures build. Technological advances threaten the isolation.  The sharks circle.  The issues are discussed in government and academia, but also by bartenders at redneck bars.

Bill Dickey brought their drinks. “Did I hear the word scandal?”

“Probably,” Scott said.

“I told you she was trouble. You’ve been here twice, so you’re regulars. Any time you want to get drunk and tell me your darkest secrets, I’m here for you.”

“We’ll keep that in mind,” Scott said. He gestured to the stage. “No ‘UDE’ girls.”

“You’re not drunk enough to appreciate the girls I get here,” Bill said. “Speaking of deep, dark secrets, when are they going to bring oil through the Portals?”

“Hopefully never.”

Bill grinned. “Ah, tree hugger. Leave the Indians alone? Well your money spends as well as anyone’s, but remember, screwing over Indians made this country great.” 

“That’s one way of looking at it.” 

Bill stretched his long arms. His shirt rode up, revealing a pot belly. “We’re a plague of locusts, all of us, Americans and Europeans, Asians. We eat the land bare. Stop moving and we starve to death. Now we have the portals—a whole new world to ravage. We’re a Biblical plague. No use pretending we aren’t.” He strolled away, grinning.

“Cheery thought.”

It’s not just economic pressure. There are also religious ones
Scott barely noticed the handful of demonstrators near BTI’s underground garage, a tiny remnant of the thousands that gathered there when the portals opened seven years ago. As he drove his four-year-old green Chevy past them, they chanted, “Close the Portals. Timeline X for the Indians.” A tall bearded guy brandished a sign that read, “Jesus Died For TimeLine X Too.”

If you’re from any one of dozens of religions that believe in souls and saving them, keeping your missionaries away from millions of souls is a crime of enormous proportions.

So the pressures build. The price of natural resources goes up. Jobs get scarce. And the path to the promised land leads through those portals. How long could a Prime Directive hold up? What do you do if you think it’s going to fail politically? I had fun with the premise.

All of that assumes that a Prime Directive is a morally superior policy. There is certainly a case that it is, but that’s not the only way to look at it. Leaving a society to develop at its own pace is arguably healthier for the society, but if you have medicine that can save thousands of kids and thousands of young mothers from premature death on the other side of the portal, it’s tough to argue that it’s ethical to withhold that medicine.  Once you put a crack in the wall--sending medicine to save young lives, for example, it’s difficult to keep that crack from widening. Is it ethical to let children grow up malnourished when you know how to change that? Is it ethical to deny women birth control when child-birth is so dangerous and pregnancies deny them control over their lives?

That’s ethically tricky stuff. Uncontrolled entry into modern society often causes the majority of the technologically more primitive society to die or give up, yet not intervening is ethically questionable too.

What about manipulating the technological primitives so they adopt the useful parts of modern society and integrate them into their own society?  That’s not impossible. The Amish have arguably done a good job of it, though they started at the same level as the surrounding societies and simply were more selective at adopting new stuff. The Japanese and to an even greater extent the Cherokees and a few other southern Indian tribes were historically able to bridge very large technological gaps in remarkably short times, while maintaining  much of their traditional cultures.  The ideal way out of the dilemma would be to figure out what allowed those cultures to succeed where so many others failed and apply it universally. That’s easier to say than to do though.

Semi-spoiler alert: One of the characters in All Timelines tries to manipulate other timeline Iroquois cultures so that their technology advances rapidly. That ends badly, of course. We don’t know enough about our own culture to reliably change it for the better. Trying to manipulate somebody else’s culture for its own good is likely to fail badly.

By the way, this probably gives the impression that All Timelines is a “serious book”. It does address serious issues, but it also keeps a sense of wonder and adventure, and I promise that I don’t stick ‘serious’ down your throat. Wandering through a North America where Indians had an extra five hundred years to develop is a lot of fun, as is my version of the Roman empire.

The issues behind the Prime Directive aren’t easy ones.  There isn’t an easy way out. Would we stand by and watch people live short, hard desperate lives?  Is the only other choice the kind of mindless, exploitive, destructive invasions Europe did in the colonial era and that are still going on in parts of South America?

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Dale Cozort is a novelist, editor of Point of Divergence, the alternate history APA, and a long-term Chicago area fan and writer. Check out his website, blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating book, and lots of good ideas to ponder!

  2. "Jesus Died for Timeline X, Too", well, if I know anything about God, its that He exists outside the Multiverse, and He would make sure His Son would have died for all of possible divergent timelines and histories.