197. Alternatives to History

I am not always a fan of science fiction based on alternative timelines. They can be superb, but they are often pedestrian, and too often deeply dumb.

I’ll give you two examples – best and worst. Pavane by Keith Roberts is a powerfully written novel set in a fully realized alternate world. It’s premise, spelled out in a prolog, is that Queen Elizabeth was assassinated, leading to a conquest of England by Catholic Spain. That shows a lot more imagination than the typical, “What if Lee Harvey Oswald had been hit by a bus on the way to Dallas?” setup, but the story didn’t need the premise. If the prolog had been left out and the story had been marketed as fantasy, it would have been just as good.

My candidate for worst alternative timeline story is Mirror, Mirror from the original Star Trek. While it is fun to see an alternative Spock, the notion that the entire course of human history had gone down a different and dystopian path, yet still the Enterprise was the Enterprise and all its main characters were still there doing the same jobs is too silly to even laugh at.

Actually, scientific accuracy is rarely invoked. Most alternate timeline stories are just an excuse to explore a situation contrary to fact, and there is nothing wrong with that. It has obviously excused Mirror, Mirror to its many fans. There is a sub-genre of historical novels called alternate history which doesn’t claim to be science fiction at all.

All this is a tortuous route to Heinlein and the novel fragment I posted yesterday. Heinlein’s short stories from the thirties and forties build up a future history that I would have loved to be a part of, or at least to write stories in. Time, however, eventually caught up to them. In our world, Leslie LeCroix was not the first man on the moon. As Heinlein continued to mine his old works, he eventually cast what had been his future history as an alternate timeline. He added more timelines, and eventually let them all blend together into a view of multiple universes. This was great fun for me as a reader, but it held nothing for me as a writer. I was interested in writing about a robust exploration of the solar system in the near future, informed by astronomical information Heinlein did not have.

I asked myself how the world Heinlein wrote about was different from the world we live in. The answer was simple; his culture developed nuclear powered spaceships, and ours didn’t. That begged the question, “Why not?”. We developed nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, so why not nuclear spacecraft?

Not denying the technical difficulties involved, the answer seemed to be fear. Somewhere on the road to the cold war, nuclear power became the enemy. Nukes took out Hiroshima; nukes gave us Godzilla. Nukes gave us fear, and fear does not deal with reason; it has a logic of its own.

What if that fear had not developed, or had developed differently. It would be easy to envision a timeline in which they developed nuclear space propulsion technology, so we had to follow suit, and to hell with the consequences.

So when and where could we tweak reality, and how should it be done? Should we simply present the chosen future as fait accompli, or should we create a character from the present who would go back in history and cause the change?

Heinlein came to the rescue again. In one of his late novels, in a throwaway line, he mentioned an attempt to change history by sending an agent back, not to kill a horrid dictator, but to give a condom to his father, an acne-faced teenager, on the night the dictator had been accidentally conceived. Beautiful!

I decided to save Franklin Roosevelt’s life, or at least prolong it for an additional several years, to make things come out differently in a different timeline. opening chapters Wednesday and Thursday

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6 thoughts on “197. Alternatives to History

  1. Joachim Boaz

    “I am not always a fan of science fiction based on alternative timelines. They can be superb, but they are often pedestrian, and too often deeply dumb.” — sounds like it could apply to SF more generally 😉

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  2. charcamolson

    Fear is a useful survival response. It only becomes bad when we allow it to shape our view of reality rather than just motivate us to caution and respect.

    In the case of nuclear powered spaceships, considering the ongoing disaster that is Fukushima, it seems fairly sensible to be afraid of launching large amounts of fissionables into space when the failure rate on launch vehicles is something like 1 in 100. A bunch of plutonium burning up in re-entry probably would not be good for the planet. Extra caution (secondary re-entry shell for plutonium, etc) could help, but might make an underfunded program even more expensive.

    I imagine the nuclear arms treaties with Russia may also have something to say on the issue.

    Still, it’s a no-brainer that if the fissionable material can be gotten safely into space, and out of Earth orbit, then it’s pretty much no longer a threat.

    Of course, if we could just figure out fusion…

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    1. sydlogsdon Post author

      Personally, I pretty much agree with everything you’ve said, although there are tradeoffs. I am always pleased when a nuclear power plant is taken off line, even though I know it will mean more coal pollution or more mountain valleys lost to reservoirs. As a science fiction writer, however, I don’t have to live in the worlds I visualize. They can be utopian, dystopian, or just plain strange, as long as they are interesting.
      Of course, if we could just figure out fusion…

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      1. charcamolson

        In late reply to figuring out fusion, here is an interesting fusion tech to look at: http://lppfusion.com/

        They call it focus fusion, but I personally would describe it as PULSE fusion, because it gets around the whole difficulty of continually containing a small sun with magnetic fields by making a plasma pulse that only lasts for a microsecond, but which is hot enough in that microsecond to create a brief fusion reaction. Repeat thousands of times per second, run the resulting ion beam through a set of magnetic conversion coils and VOILA: electricity.

        They’re still working on it, of course, but it seems to be progressing better than tokamak-type fusion so far. Also, even if the huge tokamak reactors work, this would still solve something they probably never will: Portability. Unlike containment fusion, pulsed fusion can be turned on and off as needed, and doesn’t need a huge mechanical conversion apparatus. This makes it genuinely portable. A small one could, possibly, be shoved into a car. Or a tank. Or a plane or a space ship. Or a house. And if containment fails? You turn it off. No nasty tritium. No lingering neutron irradiation. No big boom. Just off.

        Of course, all the funding is still going to the tokamaks.

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