Friday, September 21, 2012

So You Want To Change The Past?

Guest post by Chris Nuttall.

Dale Cozort’s article on the Prime Directive and Alternate History got me thinking.

Star Trek’s Prime Directive was invented, in universe, by a post-scarcity society that didn’t really have much (if anything) at stake.  Most, if not all, of the Prime Directive issues that Kirk and Picard agonised over were unimportant to the Federation as a whole.  Certainly, the moral dilemma posed by the crisis was worrying, but it was not a major threat.

This cannot be said for people and societies that get moved back in time.  Nantucket in the ISOT universe needs food from the outside world; the only real way to avoid ‘contaminating’ history is to destroy themselves so completely that future archaeologists will find no trace of their existence.  The same can be said for Grantville in the 1632 series, although a case can be made that history was derailed the moment they arrived and Simpson’s grand plan to seal off Grantville was utterly useless.  It is a great deal easier to argue academically that interference is bad when you don't have to worry about starving, being killed and/or raped by local barbarians, enslaved by slave traders, infected by smallpox and a thousand other nasty fates.  What would Captain Picard have done if he’d been forced to spend the rest of his life in a far more hostile era?

There are plenty of stories about people and societies that go back in time and produce a better world, at least as they see it. Lest Darkness Fall, The Guns of the South, Island in the Sea of Time, to name, but a few.  But really...would it be as easy as you might think?

The most immediate problem is language.  Languages change.  Someone from the Britain of 2012 isn't going to be completely comprehensible to Winston Churchill in 1940, even though both of them seem to speak the same language.  How many ideas have entered our language since Churchill died?  He would not understand the use of the word ‘laser,’ for example, or ‘microcircuits.’  Both of them were largely developed after his time.  The same can be said of American English; chances are that George Washington would find it difficult, if not impossible, to talk to someone from our era.

This only gets worse as you go further back in time.  How many people speak whatever language the Aztecs spoke, as they spoke it?  I doubt there are many, if any.  The same goes for the Romans; our Latin is not their Latin.  A student of the Roman Empire might be able to make himself understood, but even he would find it difficult.  Someone from an ordinary background would have to learn to speak Roman Latin the hard way, which is not easy at all without a tutor who speaks both languages – and who will speak modern English in Ancient Rome?

So you go back in time to Rome, where you are effectively mute.  Can you overcome this barrier before it is too late, or will you simply wind up being enslaved, or starving to death on the streets?

The second problem is cultural.  Cultures change, and not always for the better.  A case can be made that the rise of Islam immensely improved the Middle East, only to see that early advantage lost as Islam splintered and the repression of independent thought started to spread out of control.  A Muslim from our era would probably not fit into the early Caliphate; how much stranger (to them) would someone from our world be in Ancient Rome?

Consider; the Romans believed that women should be seen and not heard.  Athens believed that women should be neither seen nor heard.  That’s at least partly why there are so few famous Roman women (and those that we do recall were often scandalous in their time).  In fact, the Romans nursed a fear of powerful women. Augustus had little difficulty drumming up support for war against Cleopatra because she was a foreign queen.  A single woman from our era is highly unlikely to be able to make changes on her own, unless she finds a powerful male ally and protector.  It is far more likely that she will be enslaved and lost in the great heaving mass of Roman slavery.  And those who think that slavery is somehow sexy have never actually been real slaves.

[I came across a woman who argued that she would have liked to be a slave in Rome, after reading a corny erotic novel on the subject that was rather less convincing than Stars and Stripes Forever.  One day, I will write a story that serves as a rebuttal to that story.]

It gets more complicated in other places.  The Confederate States of America believed, quite firmly, that black men were inferior.  They liberally sprinkled the term ‘nigger’ throughout their conversation and, if someone had pointed out how rude that was, they would have been frankly uncomprehending.  The word ‘nigger’ was not forbidden to them.  It would be extremely difficult to convince them that they were wrong; even the success of black soldiers fighting for the USA didn't change many minds.  Tell them that the 44th President of the United States was black and they’d think you were making it up.

Or...what if you tried to convince the Founding Fathers to ban slavery.  Many of them – even Washington – were slaveholders themselves, but let’s assume you succeeded.  It’s unlikely that the American South would go along with it; instead, they would split off from the northern states.  If your overall objective was to create a USA that had never had slavery, odds are you would have failed spectacularly.

The modern world spends literally decades agonising about justifying itself.  Millions of trees have been killed while the world debates over the rightness or wrongness of invading Iraq, the War on Terror, Global Warming (or Cooling)...the ancient world rarely bothered to justify itself so comprehensively.  Rome never really bothered to question its own right to rule an empire, not in the sense we do today. Even the most ‘moral’ Romans would be somewhat amoral by our standards.

If you want to make meaningful change, you’d have to understand just what you were dealing with – and that isn't easy.  There is a school of thought that claims that slaveholders were basically evil and, by extension, the CSA was evil.  Most people believe that to be true, but the Southerners themselves didn't see it that way.  Chattel slavery survived because it was immensely profitable, very much the underpinning of the South’s economy.  The same can be said for most issues throughout history.  Can you learn while fighting to stay alive?

[Star Trek points out that the Federation doesn't always know what’s going on, hence the idea that it is better to stay out of the whole affair.  But as I say above, the time traveller may have no choice.]

The third issue becomes knowledge.  What do you actually know?

Take a look around your room.  How much could you build completely from scratch, if you had no other choice?  I doubt the average citizen could produce much of anything (hence the reason most ISOT stories feature people with experience and skills denied by the average western citizen.)  Do you know enough about computers to go back to 1975 (when Bill Gates was starting his business career) and beat him to the punch?  I don’t – and how many people with computer skills would be completely familiar with the tech from 1975, if they were born in – say – 1990?  If you happened to go back further in time, everything you knew about modern computers would be completely useless.  You couldn't hope to produce even a BBC Basic computer in 1940, unless you happened to be Mr. Spock:

Spock: Captain, I must have some platinum. A small block would be sufficient, five or six pounds. By passing certain circuits through there to be used as a duo-dynetic field core...

Capt. Kirk: [interrupting] Uh, Mr. Spock, I've brought you some assorted vegetables, baloney and a hard roll for myself, and I've spent the other nine tenths of our combined salaries for the last three days on filling this order for you. Mr. Spock, this bag does not contain platinum, silver or gold, nor is it likely to in the near future.

Spock: Captain, you're asking me to work with equipment which is hardly very far ahead of stone knives and bearskins.

It actually gets more complicated as you delve into the past.  In 1632, the main character speaks of using what remains of a 20th century technological base to hammer out a 19th century technological base.  Grantville has enough people – and a knowledge base – to make that possible.  However, if you were on your own, would you even know the formula for gunpowder?  And if you did, could you make it?  Outside of people I know who served in the military – and, I suspect, not all of them – I know few people who could produce gunpowder completely from scratch.

Even if you can, it doesn't solve all of the problems.  Primitive cannons were regarded as somewhat unreliable, partly because they could explode if shoddily made.  Not because of deliberate malice, but because metalworking wasn't entirely up to the task.  Accidents were not uncommon and they could be disastrous.  There were also problems when putting early firearms up against archers; it wasn't until the first set of bugs was ironed out that archers became obsolete.

Other things are easier.  Pretty much everyone with any sense knows that untreated water can be dangerous, and the simplest way of dealing with it is boiling it to kill the germs.  Plenty of epidemics spread through the pre-1900 world because no one knew to boil water, or wash their hands after going to the toilet, or understood exactly how diseases moved from victim to victim.  (Considering the AIDS crisis, where the exact method of transmission was not very well understood for decades, it isn't something uncommon even today.)  You could save millions of lives in Rome, for example, just by insisting on scrubbing the room where someone gives birth.  Poor sanitation accounted for a terrifyingly high rate of death in childbirth; maybe, if you could convince someone to have the room scrubbed with soap and water, you might save lives.  What if you saved Julia Caesar, the wife of Pompey the Great, from her untimely death?

There are two problems with this that need to be addressed.  The first is that the locals might not understand germ theory when you explain it to them.  It wasn't really considered until the American Civil War and, for quite some time, there were doctors who didn't take it seriously.  The second is that the local medical establishment might resist your new innovations.  You would be threatening their livelihoods.

That, as I mentioned above, is something else to keep in mind.  People tend to be guided more by ‘what’s in it for me?’  Slaveholders will resist you trying to ban slavery because it would mean the end of their livelihoods.  Generals might object to you introducing gunpowder because it would put too much power in the hands of barbarian tribes; landlords would oppose it because it would give their peasants too much power.  Pretty much everything you introduce will upset someone.

On the other hand, the people from the past are not stupid.  Give them a concept (as the Romans learned from Carthage) and they will probably be better than you at figuring out how to adapt it to their technology.  I could design a steam engine; someone from the Roman Republic might be able to actually build it.  They’d also probably be more capable of developing technology to match your concepts, because they’d know more about where they were starting from.

And there are all kinds of tidbits you could pass on to someone from the past, even if they’re not primarily technological.  What about Arabic numerals and English letters, so much more useful than anything from Ancient Rome, or even something as simple as stirrups?  Or what about America?  If you went back in time before Columbus, you’d know about the vast American continent just waiting to be discovered and exploited.  What if you told the British of 1812 that there were vast gold fields in California just waiting to be discovered?  Or oil in Saudi Arabia?

The fourth major problem receives less attention in alternate history than I would expect, although it is actually quite a serious issue.  Disease.  The locals may well be more immune to local diseases than you (for a given value of immune); smallpox will kill anyone from our era who doesn't happen to be vaccinated.  (Can you convince them to use cowpox to generate immunity to smallpox?  Would you recognise cowpox when you saw it?)  Any time-travelling mission will have to take that into account.

The fifth major problem concerns supplies.  What if you take a modern carrier back to 1940?  That’s nice, but what happens when the carrier runs out of missiles, bombs, bullets and jet fuel?  Modern-day cruise missiles are completely irreplaceable by any pre-2000 tech base, so if your carrier goes back to 1941 (as in The Final Countdown) there will be no resupply of everything you have with you.  You might end up sinking the Japanese Navy and then having to return to America, working with the locals to build up their tech base.

If you happen to be completely on your own...realistically, what can you have with you?

That is not to say that you can't get a good story out of an ISOT.  I’ve read and written many.  But there are issues that have to be considered carefully before you start writing.  In the end, knowing what you’re talking about allows you to present the past to the reader in its true nature, rather than hackneyed clinches and stereotypes.  Do plenty of research – and don’t be afraid to be politically incorrect.

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Chris Nuttall blogs at The Chrishanger and has a website by the same name. His books can be found on Amazon Kindle. Check out his upcoming book The Royal Sorceress.

1 comment:

  1. Nice summation of some of the problems with changing the past.

    One thing, though, "The same goes for the Romans; our Latin is not their Latin. A student of the Roman Empire might be able to make himself understood, but even he would find it difficult."

    Yeah, modern Church Latin isn't Roman Latin by a long shot (and even what "Roman Latin" is changes by what century of Rome you're talking about), but Rome was a major cosmopolitan city, with folks coming from all over. The residents would be *used* to handling people speaking bad/broken Latin.

    Oh, you're going to have to pick up a bit more to handle the fine concepts, but asking for basics like "where are the baths?" or "where can I change my gold jewelry into coins" should be manageable.