The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'alternate history'
Charlie Stross posted to his blog the synopsis of an alternate history novel he almost started writing in 2002, set in an interesting timeline:
The year is 1950 -- but it's not our 1950. Things began to go off the rails, history-wise, in 1917-1918. Lawrence of Arabia was shot dead at the gates of Damascus, for example: the whole face of the middle east is utterly different. Trotsky had flu in October 1917 — the Bolshevik revolution happened in early 1918, and Stalin got himself killed in the process. Because of the late Russian collapse, World War One ended differently in this universe: the Kaisershlacht started in June (not April), the German high command collapsed in January 1919, and Germany was actually occupied by Allied forces (including the first large-scale deployment of what would later be called Blitzkrieg warfare — this was actually planned, but never used because of the German capitulation in November 1918). Germany was invaded, subjugated — no support for the "stab in the back" theory that Hitler used so effectively.In this world, Hitler never becomes dictator, and nor does Mussolini; fascism, however, is invented in Britain (with an Eric Blair becoming dictator of the Empire), and a standoff in Europe between the fascist republic of Britain and the Soviet Communists, with an isolationist America gradually taking an interest in the state of affairs, sending over two agents to investigate a curious trade of computers for heroin, and various real-world historical figures' alternate selves making appearances:
(This is all rooted in a vision I had, of William S. Burroughs as a CIA agent, and Philip K. Dick as his young henchman, going head-to-head with notorious gangster and pervert Adolf Hitler somewhere in Hamburg to find out where Hitler is shipping all the computers he can get his hands on.)It's a pity that this book will never get written. But one can console oneself with the outline posted in Charlie's blog:
And linked from the comments (on a tangent from Charlie's dislike of traditional high fantasy and its somewhat reactionary politics): Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky's (unused) audio commentary for Peter Jackson's Return of the King film, which exposes the colonialist-imperialist nature of the Elves and their lackeys:
ZINN: Self-hating, Elf-emulating Men invest so much in symbolic one-upmanship characteristic of capitalistic societies: Who has the nicer tunic? Whose dagger has more shiny gems on it? Who has the strongest pipe-weed? But the Orcish alliance seems to be a truly mutual, multicultural cooperative enterprise.
ZINN: You see the walls of Minas Tirith up close here. Albert Speer would have been proud. Notice the grand scale, the "great works" emphasis of Gondorian architecture. The fascist uniformity of their battle dress. Compare it to the folk artwork of Orcish armor—their improvisatory use of shrunken heads and Mannish skulls, for instance. There's something very beautiful about it to me.
CHOMSKY: A perfect example of what Ruskin valorizes as the Gothic aesthetic.
ZINN: It's nonstandardized, individual, homespun, bespoke. It's also imbued with a kind of nature worship that Elves merely play at.
Maciej Ceglowski has written up an illuminating history of the Alameda-Weehawken Burrito Tunnel, the spectacular feat of engineering which delivers fresh burritos from the San Francisco Mission District to New York, in a chord under the continental United States:
Who can imagine New York City without the Mission burrito? Like the Yankees, the Brooklyn Bridge or the bagel, the oversize burritos have become a New York institution. And yet it wasn’t long ago that it was impossible to find a good burrito of any kind in the city. As the 30th anniversary of the Alameda-Weehawken burrito tunnel approaches, it’s worth taking a look at the remarkable sequence of events that takes place between the time we click “deliver” on the burrito.nyc.us.gov website and the moment that our hot El Farolito burrito arrives in the lunchroom with its satisfying pneumatic hiss.
Once in the tubes, it’s a quick dash for the burritos across San Francisco Bay. Propelled by powerful bursts of compressed air, the burritos speed along the same tunnel as the BART commuter train, whose passengers remain oblivious to the hundreds of delicious cylinders whizzing along overhead. Within twelve minutes, even the remotest burrito has arrived at its final destination, the Alameda Transfer Station, where it will be prepared for its transcontinental journey.
Not everyone is as delighted with the tunnel as the geologists. Old-time San Franciscans will be quick to point out that the comestibles in the tunnel flow strictly one way. “In the old days you’d go to a place like Pancho Villa and get yourself a steak burrito in five minutes, maybe ten if it was near lunchtime,” says lifelong Mission resident Howard Washington. “Now the line is out the door even in the morning. And some of those places down in the South Bay won’t even take customers anymore. If you want a burrito in the daytime you have to get it first thing, or else you go to one of the places that isn’t hooked up to the tunnel.”
Last night, I visited the local video library a rather good one in Stoke Newington Church St., which has a lot of art-house/foreign films) and rented a copy of C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America.
This is a mockumentary, presenting an alternate history in which the slave-holding South, rather than the abolitionist North, won the American Civil War, and formed what we know as America. It presents this history from the Civil War (in which the South managed to get British and French support for its cause, in the interest of "private property rights"), through the reconstruction (in which the values of the slave-holders are imposed on the North, successfully, and all non-whites become slaves), wars of conquest across South America (forming a "tropical empire", of the sort envisioned by Confederate leaders, governed under a policy of racial "apartness"), through to the present day CSA. The documentary is framed as an imported British documentary being presented on a CSA TV channel; it is preceded by a disclaimer as to its "controversial nature" and interspersed with ads, which shed some light on life in an early-21st-century Confederate America; these include advertisements for cable-TV slave-shopping programmes and electronic tracking bracelets, Cops-style TV programmes about federal agents hunting down runaway slaves, and public-service announcements urging citizens to beware of the disease of homosexuality and report suspected racially-impure people passing as white to the government.
What does the C.S.A. circa 2004 look like? Well, people with any non-white blood are, by law, slaves, Christianity is the state religion (generously, and narrowly, allowing Catholicism to be considered Christian), women are not allowed to vote, Jews are confined to Long Island, and there is a cold war with "Red Canada", which harbours abolitionist "terrorists" and is the home of rock'n'roll and "race music". (Canada is not alone; virtually everyone but South Africa has imposed sanctions on the C.S.A.) Those are the obvious and spectacular differences; on a more subtle level, the C.S.A. is a much more conformistic and authoritarian culture. The mindset which allows ordinary people, who see themselves as good and decent, to tolerate and participate in slavery is one in which society is organised along strong chains of authority and hierarchy, which are seen as part of the order of nature. (One example of this is in an ad early in the film, for an insurance company, which mentions that the father is "master of the house".) With acceptance of arbitrary authority comes the acceptance of beliefs on the basis of faith in authority, and unsurprisingly, the values of the religious right are dominant in the C.S.A. (in one scene, there is a shot of the front page of "CSA Today", which includes a story about scientists disproving evolution). Not surprisingly, this mindset and the focus on "purity" creates a stagnant, homogeneous culture, one seeming in some ways quaintly archaic (one example is music and entertainment programming on its television stations, where, of course, all black influences are banned). Quoting from a friend, it is Pleasantville meets Triumph Of The Will.
C.S.A. has its lighter moments as well; artistic licence is employed to ensure that the history doesn't diverge too wildly from the world we know, but instead parallels it, mirroring and counterpointing. For example, the C.S.A. enters World War 2 after launching a surprise attack on a Japanese naval base; John F. Kennedy is assassinated, right on cue, for having suspected abolitionist sympathies, and the Clinton sex scandal is echoed, quote for quote, in the investigation into a politician's racial make-up.
All in all, C.S.A. was quite an interesting and thought-provoking film, and is worth a look.
Considering the virtual absence of American authors from this year's Hugo shortlist, Charlie Stross has an interesting piece on the state of science fiction writing today, and in particular the slump in US scifi.
Here's my speculation: American SF is going through a gloom-laden period induced by external social conditions, much as British SF did in the 1947-79 period (and differently, in the 1980-92 period). Extrapolative SF is often used by writers as a mirror for reflecting our concerns about the present on the silver screen of the future. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Puppet Masters" were artefacts of the late 1940's/early 1950's paranoia about communist infiltration. "Fugue for a Darkening Island" was a dismal if-this-goes-on dirge played to the tune of Enoch Powell. "Neuromancer" was 1980's corporate deracination hooked up to an overdose of MTV, mainlining on hidden assumptions of monetarism. When SF is at its most overtly predictive -- especially when it speaks of the impending future -- it is talking about the present, capturing the zeitgeist and projecting it forward.
n American SF today there is a huge surge in the proportion of alternate history counterfactuals: as James Nicoll notes, AH is often used as a consolatory literature that, at its worst, says "we go back in time and make history happen the way it should have happened! Yay, Us! In a completely contrived scenario, we can win!" The boom in fantasy probably needs no further explanation. Ditto the military-SF field, which at its worst reflects the self-indulgent imperialist excesses of the British penny dreadfuls of the early 20th century.
what's almost totally absent is convincing near-future SF about a future America that is anything other than a dystopic rubbish dump. Bleakness is the new optimism. Writers living in the USA today just don't seem enthusiastic about the near future in the way that they did as recently as the 1980's, where at least the cyberpunk future of cliche was a vaguely habitable pastiche of the globalized present. They are, in fact, exhibiting the same canary-in-a-sociological-coalmine malaise as British SF writers of the 1960's and 1970's.
Today in Alternate History is running a Halloween edition today:
n 1961, Stalin's body is removed from Lenin's Tomb, only to bring its foul curse upon all of Russia. It creeps across the streets of Moscow, draining the essence from unfortunate comrades, using their energy to fuel its undead existence. It is finally stopped when an Egyptologist, a spunky Red Army soldier and a beautiful young nurse from Moscow People's Hospital destroy the ankh that was keeping it alive.
in 1987, Joseph Campbell, explorer of ancient myths, dies and is buried in Honolulu, Hawaii. That night, he appears in a dream to George Lucas, who conceives a new trilogy for his Star Wars saga based on the tales that Campbell brings to him from the other side; but, he has to tone down the Gungan that Campbell speaks of, because its horror is too much for an audience to take.
Had the Nazis invaded Britain, they would have had a wide range of puppet leaders to choose from, from the Duke of Windsor (formerly Edward VIII) as king to the Duke of Bedford, and Maj. Gen. John Fuller (a close friend of the owner of the (then) notoriously pro-Nazi Daily Mail), who was tipped to be the British counterpart of Vichy puppet ruler Marshal Petain. Or so a list of potential traitors (to be arrested and interned immediately upon invasion), recently released by the National Archives, says. The list also includes Irish, Welsh and Scottish nationalists thought likely to bet on the Nazis and miscellaneous working stiffs overheard by neighbours making suspiciously pro-German remarks.
Today in Alternate History, a blog giving, each day, the events that happened in several parallel universes:
in 1976, hot off the success of American Graffiti, director George Lucas begins work on a science fiction film that he has written himself, based on old film serials. Unfortunately for him, and everyone involved, the picture runs horribly over-budget and the studio barely advertises it at all. The name Star Wars becomes synonymous with movie failure from that point on.
in 1902, the Vidalia Eddie is introduced. The Vidalia has a small movie screen on it that allows the user to see the output of the Vidalia prior to printing it. This innovation rocks the world and spells the end of Edison's French competitors, who cannot match this technological advance.
in 1953, Elizabeth Windsor, daughter of exiled King George VI, was crowned Elizabeth II after her father's passing. The ceremony, held at the British Government-In-Exile's compound in Washington, D.C. was brief and untelevised. Elizabeth herself lived a reclusive life and would die without returning to England, which remained under Nazi control until her son's return in 1982.
Recently, claims have been coming to light that a lot of exotic inventions really came from Britain; first we had the mediæval English origins of curry, and the Scottish origins of the Afro-American musical tradition. And now a popular history author wants to add the boomerang to the list of British inventions, on the strength of rock carvings in the West Yorkshire moors depicting four-armed boomerangs. (Mainstream archæologists, however, believe that the swastika-like design was merely a common motif in Greek and Roman mythology.) Do you suppose that the contemporary two-armed design came about to make them more compact and easier to ship from England to Australia?
(Hmmm; someone should do up "historical" boomerangs made of brass or porcelain or somesuch and adorned with British imperial designs; lions, cannon, Union Flags, and such, which, in this alternate universe, could have been issued to British explorers.)
A comprehensive history of the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency, a branch of the US Government in a parallel universe where infestations of undead were a significant problem. It's sort of like an American equivalent of the British TV series Ultraviolet. (via bOING bOING)
In the finest tradition of Labor true-believer yarn-spinning, an alternative history of the Australian war of independence, and the subsequent declaration of a republic: (via VM)
11 November 1975 At 1pm, after discovering his govt has been dismissed by Kerr, Whitlam stands on the steps of Parliament & refuses to go. He announces "Well may we say God save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General!" Whitlam & his fellow members returns to the House & Senate.
14 December 1975 Whitlam arrives in Newcastle to a hero's welcome. He proclaims the Federal Republic of Australia. The Newcastle & Wollongong leaders announce their allegiance.
6 January 1976 Kerr & Fraser leave Perth for London. Neither ever return.
Perhaps someone should have a word with Mel Gibson about doing a movie adaptation, with a sufficiently villainous Kerr and craven Fraser?