Fantastic History #9: Name Dropping by Kurt Wilcken

I think one of the first alternate history books I ever read was Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos, set in a world where 20th century technology was based on a fusion of science and magic. There’s an intriguing passage at the very beginning where the narrator directly addresses the reader:

“You probably do not live in worlds radically foreign to ours, or communication would be impossible…You too must remember Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Watt; the chances are that you too are an American. But we have diverged at some point. Have you had an Einstein? And if you did, what did he think about after his early papers on Brownian movement and special relativity?”

That passage has always stuck in my imagination. Although Einstein never comes up again in the story, his mention here establishes a point of similarity between the fantasy world and ours: Einstein existed and was a significant figure in both. And at the same time, his mention suggests that there are differences too, and invites the reader to speculate on what those differences might be.

I will admit to doing a fair amount of “name dropping” in my own creative works–often little more than in-jokes for my own amusement and maybe of those who notice, but sometimes to offer, as Pooh-Bah says, “corroborative detail to give verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.”

My webcomic, Hannibal Tesla Adventure Magazine, is a pulp-era adventure set in an alternate version of 1935 where dirigibles and electric autogyros soar above the skyscrapers of Manhattan and where rockets travel to the moon and beyond. My main characters are Hannibal, a two-fisted scientist in the Doc Savage mold, and Ginger DuPree, a gutsy girl reporter following in the tradition of Lois Lane and Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday. But I always wanted to give my readers the sense that there were other heroes in this world besides my main protagonists and that there were other adventures happening off-panel.

For this reason, I decided that in my world, Charles Lindbergh would be the first man to walk on the moon, in a rocket built by Charles Goddard. In one adventure where Ginger traveled into space to battle the Cat-Men from Mars, mention is made of “Lindbergh Base” located in Mare Tranquillitatis, (where Apollo 11 landed in our universe). And although this was largely a throw-away reference–like Einstein in the Operation Chaos passage, Lucky Lindy makes no other appearance in the story–the choice was appropriate. I found out in later research that Lindbergh was interested in rocketry, and after he gained celebrity and fortune crossing the Atlantic, he helped Goddard get financial support for his rocket experiments in the desert. You’d think I planned it that way.

These things don’t always work out that conveniently, though. In another story, I had Hannibal traveling into the Himalayas and looking up a Sherpa guide who has worked with him before. “Going to try for Everest again?” the guide asks him. I originally intended to have Hannibal laugh and say, “No, I thought I’d give Sir Edmund a shot at it this year.” But then I wondered, was Edmund Hillary a knight before he climbed Mount Everest, or was he knighted as a consequence of it? Looking the matter up, I found that the knighthood came afterwards; and that Hillary didn’t conquer Everest until 1953, nearly twenty years after my story takes place. With a sigh of regret, I cut the joke.

Sometimes the reference can grow beyond just a casual name-drop. The current story in my webcomic involves Hannibal’s father, the noted inventor Nikola Tesla, and in researching the man I found all sorts of factoids to work into my plot: the “Peace Ray” he tried to invent which he hoped to make war obsolete by disintegrating battleships; his device for operating ships by remote control; his ambitious plan to broadcast electricity like radio waves; the early computer built in the sub-basement of Grand Central Station designed to handle switching for subway cars. Some of these will just be bits of flavor, but some will become important plot points as the story progresses. And sometimes I don’t know myself which will be which.

And sometimes all these bits remain beneath the surface. For the “Cat-Men from Mars” story, the climax involved a battle in space between the invading Martian armada and a fleet of rockets from Earth. I thought it would be cool to have Brigadier General Billy Mitchell in command of the Earth defense fleet. In our timeline, Mitchell was an aviator who served as commander of the US Army’s Air Service in France during WWI. Both during and following the war, he was a vocal and determined advocate of air power, to the annoyance of his superiors, and was ultimately brought before a court-martial for insubordination. He was right about air power, but he was still found insubordinate. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor vindicated his theories and predictions, and today Billy Mitchell is regarded as the Father of the modern U.S. Air Force.

I decided that for my history, Mitchell played the game of military politics a little better and managed to avoid the court-martial. He still annoyed his superiors in the general staff, though, and so got shuffled off to the newly formed U.S. Army Space Corps following the Lindbergh moon landing, which was considered a position of little importance…until the Martians invaded the moon.

I had worked up a nice little backstory for Mitchell, but little came of it. By the time I got to that part of the story, I was nearing the climax and really wanted to finish things up. I didn’t want to impede the plot further by introducing a new character, so Billy Mitchell wound up appearing in only a single panel, and that one was so small that I couldn’t really draw a good likeness of him. In the end, the reader had no way of knowing that he was anyone significant, or that someday there would be a spaceport in Milwaukee named after him. But I did.

I suppose in that case my appropriation of a historical figure amounts to little more than an obscure and highly-indulgent in-joke. Still, I think that such name-dropping serves a valid purpose. It establishes points of similarity which anchor the fictional world to the real one, as well as benchmarks which give a sense of how they differ.

At least that’s my excuse.

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In his secret identity, Kurt Wilcken is a Ninja Cartoonist. He attended Iowa State University, where he drew political cartoons for the Iowa State Daily and sold photocopied comics out of his backpack. He went on to write and draw comics for Innovation, Antarctic Press and Radio Comix. He has illustrated children’s books and occasionally blogs about subjects ranging from science fiction to comic books to weird Bible stories. He currently publishes a Pulp-Era adventure comic, HANNIBAL TESLA ADVENTURE MAGAZINE, on his website.