misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Let’s talk about great Sci Fi – the Alternate History

Casting my memory back lo these many years (those of you who know my actual age may snicker) I think I can trace my own fascination with alternate history to an epigraph for a chapter in an Arthur C. Clarke novel, The Fountains of Paradise.

Almost all the Alternative History computer simulations suggested that the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732) was one of the crucial disasters of mankind. Had Charles Martel been defeated, Islam might have resolved the internal differences that were tearing it apart and gone on to conquer Europe. Thus centuries of Christian barbarism might have been avoided, the Industrial Revolution would have started almost a thousand years earlier, and by now we would have reached the nearer stars instead of merely the farther planets….

I do not remember when I read the novel, but it must have been right around early high school. I remember little of it beyond the outline of the main plot, the monks and the butterflies, and that little paragraph about alternate history: what if, in effect, the Dark Ages had been averted?

Of course even phrasing the question that way is a vast oversimplification of the long course of a whole host of cultures—I now know somewhat more about those subtleties—but the question as such captivated me. We live in such accelerated times that the seeming changelessness of prior centuries boggles our minds (though, again, that apparent changelessness no doubt oversimplifies). What if Earth had had an 800-year head start on the Industrial Revolution?  Good heavens, where could we be now?  (I suppose that’s answering my own question….)

This past season I have been reading The Best Alternate History Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by Harry Turtledove. But alternate history is fascinating in more than just fiction. A friend once told me that the “many-worlds” hypothesis comes to mind for him whenever he does something particularly stupid and escapes death, which happens occasionally (if not too alarmingly so) as a pedestrian in a city such as Boston. On such occasions he considers briefly and pities any number of now-dead “alternate selves.” I have always assumed that nearly all people rehash key conversations in their minds; though in my own case I try to focus on remembering the events as they happened, one also is tempted to consider how they might have gone better.

WARNING: Star Wars spoiler ahead.  Then again, I expect that many of us were spoiled for Star Wars before we were born.

And then … my own personal alternate Star Wars history (and I am not going to look up any sources for this, deliberately!): I have heard that Darth Vader’s declaration of paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back was so very secret a revelation that the crew’s scripts were written falsely, such that during the filming of the scene, the actor said something entirely different, while Jones dubbed the real line in later (of course, since it wasn’t Jones in the Vader suit, the last part is almost certainly true). My own reconstruction has it that, to downplay the deception, the actor must have said something that kind-of-almost would have made sense.  And the only other even halfway-consistent alternate history would have been, I feel, for Obi-wan himself to have been Luke’s father. And what would that have meant?

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  1. Ed December 30th, 2009 6:34 pm

    Hah! I think of many-worlds every time I’m nearly hit by a car. Amusing to find that this very specific idiosyncrasy is not that unusual.

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