Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Warning about Politics and Alternate History

[Editor's Note: Updated 10/23/12]

The only time I ever had to act like a moderator with my alternate history Facebook group (Alternate History Online) was whenever it was an election year in the United States of America.  Discussions would always degenerate into ideological brawls and as soon as the elections were over, someone would always ask what if the outcome was reversed, as if we had enough information the day after the elections to plausibly speculate on the future.  As someone who witnessed what politics could do to an online community, I felt no remorse when I told people to cut it out and told them that if they wanted to talk politics there were plenty of places where they would be welcome, but it was not here.

While there is no denying that a good portion of alternate history involves politics, whether it is directly or indirectly related to the point of divergence.  I should clarify, however, that when I discuss government changes I usually means democratic elections and since the largest community of alternate historians tends to come from the English speaking world, the elections usually important to alternate history are the presidential elections in the United States.

Alternate history scenarios involving the President of the United States are very popular.  Next to American Civil War alternate histories, however, these alternate histories are probably the easiest type to ruin. In those timelines the author's political bias is blatantly obvious. Generally these timelines fall into one of two categories:

1) This is how better the world would be if my candidate won.


2) This is how worse the world would be if my candidate lost.

Now there are always exceptions to the general rule. If done right, an alternate US presidential election timeline can become a plausible alternate history. The Alternate History Wiki promoted such a timeline to featured status and even I gave Then Everything Changed a good review. Nevertheless, these timelines tend not to be very convincing and often lead to heated arguments between rival political factions existing in online alternate history communities.

Another issue with political alternate histories is the belief of the "lost opportunity".  I already touched on this a little with my opinion piece on American Civil War alternate histories when I discussed the common POD of having Abraham Lincoln survive his assassination.  Another assassination that gets a lot of attention among alternate historians (and speculative fiction writers in general) is John F. Kennedy's assassination.  An excessive amount of AH has been written about this event (see all the listings for 1963 on Uchronia) and just recently even horror author Stephen King came out with his own alternate history tale of the event.  The event was a powerful turning point in American history and the reason why was best summed up by author Greg Ahlgren:
I am 59 years old. To my generation the JFK assassination is what the Pearl Harbor attack was to my parents, and what the 9/11 terrorist attacks were to my daughter. It is a reference point that benchmarks history. Prior to November 22, 1963 the U.S. was a different place - peaceful, confident, and smug. Assassinations were things that only happened in far away South American juntas, not in OUR obviously superior democracy.

Dallas changed all that. It may have been coincidental that racial unrest, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the student protests, and the decade's social and gender upheaval, all happened after Dallas - but one from my generation will always be tempted to succumb to the nagging suspicion that November 22 was somehow causal - the proverbial watershed in American history - just like WWII and its social aftermath was for our parents.
With all of these emotions tied with the assassination, a writer must tread carefully.  There are people out there who will zealously defend JFK in their alternate history and there are those who will do the exact opposite.  Things become even worse when a strong emotional bias is entangled with a strong political bias.

So be warned. All alternate historians should approach politics with caution. Do your research and do not let your political beliefs override your common sense.  Alternate historians should always strive for plausibility in their works, so unless the POD is earlier enough in a person's life, they are unlikely to make decisions that do not go along with their personality and experiences.  Avoid succumbing to the biased arguments that are likely to arise when you produce your work.  Just stick to the facts and everything will turn out OK...hopefully.

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Matt Mitrovich is a long-time fan of alternate history, founder and editor of Alternate History Weekly Update and a volunteer editor for Alt Hist magazine. His fiction can be found at Echelon PressJake's Monthly and The Masquerade Crew. 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.

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