01/21/14

For want of a nail…


Big SwitchBought a book at Loblaws (of all places) this week, one by Harry Turtledove: The Big Switch. It’s one of his many alternative history novels, about what might have happened if things had happened a certain way – a different way from what actually transpired – in the opening years of World War Two.

He’s written several in this vein and they’ve all been generally well received. I’ve liked what I’ve read of him in the past.

Many authors have taken up this sort of speculative fiction, although none as frequently as Turtledove. What would have happened if Hitler had invaded England? If the USA had not entered the war? If Germany had developed the atomic bomb? If India and the colonies had used the war to spark a rebellion against British rule? What if the USSR sent troops and materiel to Spain to help the republican cause?

I suspect every major theme in WWII has been explored in such speculative novels.

Every event in history is open to this sort of what-if debate. Since at least the 1950s, science fiction writers have been giving us alternate reality stories – that awkward neologism, Uchronia – where timeline-changing events have shaped a universe just like ours, but made different because of different choices or results. It’s a rich field, and great intellectual exercise.

Alternate history fiction offers different sorts of challenges to fiction writers, as opposed to say, scifi where writers can create their own new worlds. And for readers too, because the skeins have to be both imaginative and close enough to reality to make sense. Orson Scott Card’s Redemption of Christopher Columbus, for example, offers an alternate history world where Columbus is shipwrecked in the Americas, and rises to political power there. Fascinating stuff.

More recently, the TV series Fringe explored the alternate-universe concept through five seasons of entertaining shows. (Well, entertaining at least through the three-and-a-half seasons we’ve watched so far).

It’s always fun to explore the ideas, and to read what intellectual landscapes others have created around them. Such speculation is even captured in colloquial proverbs often called for want of a nail:

For want of a naile the shoe is lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost.
George Herbert: Outlandish Proverbs, 1640

Those readers who are also M*A*S*H fans will recall the episode in season two called, “For Want of a Boot.” Shakespeare aficionados will think of King Richard shouting “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” in Act V, Sc. 4 of Richard III.

Small changes can have ripple effects that run through to shape the larger history. or as Wikipedia says it, “a failure to anticipate or correct some initially small dysfunction leads by successively more critical stages to an egregious outcome.”
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