Fantastic History #63: Turning Points and Alternate Histories by Laurence Raphael Brothers

The turning point is one of the key conceits of alternate history stories. As readers, writers, and day dreamers, we naturally want to redress the many grotesque injustices and horrible outcomes of real world history, but it’s daunting and sometimes rather unpleasant to consider these events as the emergent consequences of all-but-inevitable tides of historical processes. It’s much more fun to consider a particular dreadful executive decision from a head of state, or to analyze that one crucial battle in which that one general got up on the wrong side of bed and inexplicably botched their orders of the day. Sometimes we may want to use our time machine not to fix the problem, but to find the culpable party responsible for some all time bad decision and just slap them silly.

Winston (slap) Bloody (slap) Churchill (slap) what (slap) were (slap) you (slap) thinking (slap) when (slap) you (slap) came (slap) up (slap) with (slap) the (slap) idea (slap) of (slap) an (slap) assault (slap) at (slap) Gallipoli (slap slap slap)? And that wasn’t even the worst thing he did in his career. If it wasn’t for his conduct during WWII, he might well have been one of the worst British politicians of all time, including even the current crop of monstrous clowns.

But of course you might equally well abuse the Khwarezmian governor at Otrar for his cosmically bad decision to execute Genghis Khan’s trade embassy out of hand, or perhaps suggest gently to Pericles that Athens probably can’t win a war with Sparta after all, or even advise secretary-general Hammarskjöld that laudable as his intention to fly to Katanga might be, his peacekeepers will be just fine if he only lets the whole situation well enough alone…. Or perhaps you have more humanitarian motives and will swoop down to rescue Hypatia from the Alexandria mob, or Archimedes from the Romans, or, for that matter, Oscar Wilde from Reading Gaol. None of these last are classic turning points, but who knows what kinds of butterfly’s-wing consequences they might entail.

This kind of fiction has broad precedent and comes in several varieties. Starting perhaps with Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp (1939), there’s the common trope of a time traveler who changes history deliberately. In de Camp’s case, this is achieved by rescuing the Gothic revival of the western Roman Empire from Belisarius and Justinian through sheer technological prowess.

Then there are alternate historical setpiece dramas with no fantastic element involved in the historical divergence. In some of these (say Neal Stephenson’s gonzo Baroque Cycle books, 2003-4) the points of historical divergence are fairly obvious (the duchy of Qwghlm, precocious computing machinery research, alchemical gold-based immortality, etc.), but in others the story is just plain fabulism with no fantastic explanation for the historical deviation. Examples of this type include The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick (1962) and Tirant lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell, published in 1490 and possibly the world’s first alternate history story. This kind of story can sometimes be a sort of roman à clef temporelle (to coin a phrase) in which part of the reader’s fun is figuring out exactly what the crucial turning point might have been. Then there’s the radically different magical or steampunk version of the world where for unexplained reasons familiar historical figures and historical events recur despite the profound differences in setting and technology. For a recent example of this type, consider Naomi Novik’s delightful Temeraire series (2006-16) in which the Napoleonic wars proceed more or less along familiar lines at least at first despite the presence of overwhelmingly powerful dragon forces on all sides.

In the first volume of my WWI-era historical fantasy duology, Twilight Patrol, set at the end of 1917, there are no turning-point deviations from history whatsoever, not on the large scale, anyway. Though I suppose in the real world George IV probably didn’t send a scout squadron to the Celtic otherworld in response to a request for assistance from the previously only thought to be mythical Seelie Court. I chose total historical authenticity to the extent I was capable of offering an accurate presentation of the war time situation. Apparent deviations from history are the author’s mistakes. However, there’s the strong implication of some kind of enormous turning point deviation to come. With their discovery of the otherworld, the Triple Entente can hardly play out the rest of their hand in quite the same way as before… and then there’s the question of the otherworld’s influence on our own, as well. In the second volume, the consequences of actions in the otherworld will reverberate from the fields of Flanders to London, Paris, and Berlin, not to mention Rome, Vienna, Istanbul, and Washington DC.

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Laurence Raphael Brothers is a writer and technologist. Over 25 of his short stories have appeared in such magazines as Nature, PodCastle, and Galaxy’s Edge. His WWI-era fantasy novel Twilight Patrol has just been published by Alban Lake and is available for purchase on Amazon. His urban fantasy novella The Demons of Wall Street will be published in 2020 by Mirror World, and his Gothic historical fantasy novella City of Magic and Desire will be published by World Castle. Follow him on twitter: @lbrothers, or visit his website for many stories that can be read or listened to for free online.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.