Altering History: Tweak or Wallop? – Alma Boykin
Given the spate of alternate histories and the rise of Steampunk, a writer interested in poking around in the genre needs to look at a couple of things. First, what culture and time period are you going to play in? Second how do you want to change it? Third, are you going to shift it to a different place and play, or keep it on Earth? Fourth, how big of a deal is the alteration to the big scheme of the story? And fifth, what do you need to do to make those changes? There are probably other things I’ve not thought of yet, but for now this essay focuses on the last question.
Before we go too far into the discussion, I’m going to touch on a slight variant that may or may not be alt-hist, depending on what definition you like to use. Straight history but with magic could be considered alternate history, or it could be “fantasy set in Victorian-British-Empire-like world.” It’s up to the author, because how much the magic changes past events tips the balance. Sarah’s Magical British Empire strikes me as closer to fantasy, even though she’s done a lot of research into the time and place and how magic would complicate social and political goings on. But adding Shifters to WWI feels more alt-history, unless it is “magic-talisman type were-creatures” instead of “tough luck to be born an polar bear Shifter in Tucson” like her other were creatures. Patricia Wrede’s Magical West is another that I’d call fantasy rather than alt-hist, although it has major alt-hist elements.
So, how do authors go about mucking with the past (aside from time-travel)? Some people favor the “something didn’t change” method. The western Roman Empire never fell, but shifted over time, developed new technologies, and the year is now [thousand plus years] After the Founding of Rome. Or the Byzantines beat off the Arabs and took over Europe. I look at those as more of extrapolations than the current alt-history trend.
Another way is to take a possible “tipping point” or “hinge of history” and reverse it. What if Rome lost the Punic Wars and North Africans and Arabs dominated the world? Toss in Viking slavers and keep the same pace of technological development, and you end up with Vikings and Arabs colonizing the New World and stocking it with plantations of Celtic Christian slaves (Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes.)
That leads to the question of just how to go about changing the past. Two general methods seem to be emerging from within the field at the moment, although I sure there are a lot more that I just have not come across, or that people have not published. One is what I’d call the “Wallop” method, like that favored by Eric Flint and S. M. Sterling. These are authors who took a single, massive event and (literally) dumped the change-inducing thing into the past, in one case a West Virginia town that suddenly appears in Central Europe in 1631. In another case a meteorite causes the abandonment of the British Isles and the relocation of the British Empire to India, wipes out part of North America’s Atlantic Seaboard, and creates a steampunk world in the process. Yanking Nantucket Island back a couple thousand years also works. In all these examples, a single huge disruption yanks the path of known history out of shape, and you go from there. You can have moderns running around and getting under the skin of historical figures, or introducing new technologies that tip the balance of world power (or perhaps not), or delay the development of certain technologies (usually electronics and the internal combustion engine). I tend to think of the “send agent back in time to assassinate [major world historical figure]” novel as a Wallop School novel.
It looks easy, it’s dramatic, and you can have modern characters as well as historical ones. Imagine Gloria Steinem lecturing Eleanor of Aquitaine on women’s liberation! (OK, maybe not.) Or giving repeating rifles to the Hussites in 1423 (not that they needed much help), or dragging other high tech or medical tech back in time and changing everything.
Then there’s Tweaking the past. What if Richard the Lionheart decided to stay home and do his dynastic duty? Well, you might get Lord Darcy’s Angevian Empire, for example, with or without magic. What if Emperor Qui Huang Di had managed to eradicate all the teachings of Confucius and Lao-Tse? Would China have developed a different sort of Buddhism? Or would Nestorian Christianity have made more inroads in eastern China, leading to a three-way split in Christendom of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Chinese, all fending off the Muslims? Imagine China waging a crusade against the pagan Japanese and sending missionaries to North America and Australia in the 1500s.
Your tweaks can be less dramatic. Let’s say that in 1629, during the Thirty Years War, Emperor Ferdinand II Habsburg issued an Edict of Restoration that established a formal legal process for transferring formerly Catholic ecclesiastic properties back to the Catholics. By doing this he acknowledged that some property had been in Protestant hands for almost a century, and other monasteries and convents had been destroyed, and that a full return was impossible. His Jesuit confessor, who had pushed for a complete and instant reversion, became ill and was unable to push his case at the last minute. As a result, although unhappy, the Protestants leaders were unsurprised and everyone approved of the legal system put into place, more or less. When Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden invaded the next year, the Protestants welcomed him, but warily, and did not go out of their way to open doors. He made less progress as a result, and when the Thirty Years War finally ended, Emperor Ferdinand III was in a much better position and the Empire was stronger and more flexible.
Then, say, in 1864 the Austrians win the Battle of Sadowa, although not easily (and they almost did IRL). This gave Franz Ferdinand considerable power to leverage against the Hohenzollerns, especially since Bavaria waffles, tip-toeing as a neutral between the two, even though officially it remains within the Hohenzollern sphere. This discredits Bismarck, who is unable to take advantage of the situation that develops in Italy the next year, when Count Cavour’s death removes the last obstacle to the unification of the peninsula (another tweak). Garibaldi died in 1850 of a combination of malaria and a riding accident (larger tweak). The Germans concentrate on the French and on their African colonies, leaving the Habsburgs to focus on cementing their control over Eastern Europe and maintaining strong diplomatic ties with some elements of the former Holy Roman Empire.
So, by the time WWI breaks out, you have a different situation in Central Europe, one that would allow for the creation of a Habsburg Confederation after the war, a commonwealth based on the Habsburg Emperor as neutral arbiter and focus of loyalties and shared interests. None of the previous tweaks, in themselves, were large, and all were possible, but the final outcome is very different from Real History. It also means, to do it well, that you have to have a pretty good grasp on what did happen, the personalities involved, and what the different tweak-points might be.
Many authors tend to blend the two, using one moderate Wallop and a number of Tweaks. After all, at a certain point you are going to run out of the technology you dragged back in time as things wear out and can’t be replaced.
It all comes down to the story. Which technique fits your story and the characters in it? You might have Vesuvius in the late 1700s do what it did to the Romans and kill off Lady Hamilton (who was stationed with her husband at the diplomatic mission in Naples), so Lord Nelson settles down and gets married. Or a meteor strike drives the Mongols farther west, so instead of conquering China and India, they take over Europe. You might have Fredric Engels disinherited so he has to work for a living, which keeps him from funding Karl Marx and gives him a rather different view of economics. Or Poincare might die in 1922, which allows the other French, and American and British leaders to ease up on reparations demands from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and will change the social dynamics when this short Austrian painter starts ranting about Lebensraum. (Except dibs on that last one, I need it.)