Friday, May 27, 2011

Open Friday: Alt History Pet Peeves

I love alternate histories as much as the next guy, but there are two things I see too often in a lot of them that I could really do without:
  1. "Corrective" Histories: This is where a person or event from our world doesn't happen in the alternate history, except that they reappear in some new guise. So, for example, Hitler is never born or is killed or something, thereby Nazism never arises in Germany -- except that it does, usually under a different name and led by someone else, perhaps even in an ironically different place. Sure, things have technically changed but the course of history is largely the same.
  2. Forgetting To Undo Changes: This is where the writer is either just sloppy or ignorant and forgets that, if he eliminates some person or event from the real world, it might undo a lot of very basic facts that people simply accept without thinking about them. Imagine, for example, a world where there's no French Revolution. Maybe then there's eventually a constitutional monarchy in France even in the 21st century. But guess what? That alternate France is unlikely to use the revolutionary tricolor for its flag, since there was no Revolution. It's little details like this that frankly bug me more than the big ones.
For today's question: what are your alt history pet peeves? What shticks and tropes drive you bonkers when it comes to imagining a world whose history turned out differently than ours?


  1. Watchman. I just find it hilarious how it ends making fun of Reagan and saying how without him the world wouldn't blew itself up. But in the real world thanks to him there isn't a USSR to worry over anymore. Same thing goes in RPG games like cyberpunk which always has the US failing but the USSR is doing just fine. I can't even play games like that. Too fantasy for my views.

    But to take an opposite example of an Alt.World that sounds good, I think of a book I read "What If". It's about military battles and what may had happened had the other side won (kinda like Tolkien saying how the English only lost because the Normans had horses). One of my favorites was what if Taiwan didn't go after Northern China in the civil war. In it, Communist China would of been like North Korea is today. Dependent on the USSR like N.Korea is on China. China mainland would be a much larger Taiwan. Millions never would of been killed which were under Mao.

  2. Oh, does 2nd, 3rd, and especially 4th edition Forgotten Realms count too as a choice? ;-)

    Talk about crazy Alt.history!

  3. Good alternate history is really hard to do. The only way I can see it working is if your setting is during or not long after the major alteration happens. As you've noted, there's just too many things that can change.

  4. The one "corrective" history I recall having read was Stephen Fry's Making History, in which (SPOILER) the unimportance of Hitler himself was the whole point of the story. I don't quite agree with him, but I respect his view on the matter. I there some less announced undercurrent of this that you see? Does it come across as pure laziness?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. What in the world are you talking about Mighty Veil? Watchmen has NIXON as president and makes fun of him, not Reagan. And the whole point of the book is that the world IS going to blow itself up if not for the grand plot that I won't spoil by mentioning the character name. I know there's a claim that Moore meant to mock Reagan and the 80s but he failed, everybody IRL hates Nixon and nobody right or left is offended by him being a bad guy in the story.

    On-topic, the alt history that just takes actual history and transplants it to a different era is lame. Make up some actual history if you're going to go to the trouble of changing it around.

    [sorry for the deleted post, had to nuke a terrible typo]

  7. People who were conceived after the change date, even generations later, being the same as people who were born historically.

    Bad history, where things that are false in real history are propagated in the alternate not as a change, but just because the writer didn't do his homework.

    Pure political commentary where complicating factors simply don't arise in the fallout from the change.

  8. Not so much a peeve, but I'm bored of alternative histories involving World War II or the American war of independence; sometimes it seems as if nothing else of importance has ever happened in all of human history.

  9. I think that the first rule of writing alternate histories is that the thing you're doing should not be less interesting than what happened. The RPG Victoriana is an excellent example of this. The game's history annoys me to no end.

  10. @Mighty Veil: Huh, in Watchmen, there's an in-character comment about Reagan towards the very end, saying how he could never be a president. It's meant to be ironic because we know how wrong that character is. In fact it's that character that's being mocked throughout the comic.

    If you mean Nixon, "without him the world wouldn't blew itself up", well the world didn't with him either, so I don't know at which point the comic says anything like that. You also need to remember that the geopolitical situation of Watchmen is subtly different from the real world because of the presence of Dr. Manhattan. (also, Nixon is serving his third term, that alone is a pretty big shift).

    There's no mockery of either president. It doesn't paint a terribly positive picture of Nixon, but given Tricky Dick's real-world shenanigans that's not really shocking. There are no objective good guys or bad guys in Watchmen (except maybe the dog guy).

    I don't like alt-history in general, especially when it takes itself too seriously. I like the Doctor Who way of doing it where they take real history but then come up with completely over the top, ridiculous and pulp justifications for something happening.

    In gaming I like real history where accuracy isn't of prime importance, because you're focusing on smaller, unimportant people who can't impact big events and you have some leeway about what fits and what doesn't (kinda like most Call of Cthulhu gaming is done). Either that or completely foreign worlds.

  11. I'm a bit more forgiving about the Hitler thing because if the departure point for your alternate history is "There's no Hitler", then you still have all of the social factors in Weimar Germany which the Nazis latched onto and fed off and eventually used to get into power. It's hard to deny that Hitler was massively useful to the Nazis as a figurehead, but it's also hard to deny that, at the time, German society was extremely receptive to extremist politics. To imagine the German far right couldn't find another figurehead who could have done just as good of a job seems optimistic to me.

    Where I do agree with you on corrective histories is where stuff like the rise of Nazism/quasi-Nazism happens when the divergent timeline of the alternate history means that the groundwork for those events isn't there. Say there's an alternate timeline where WWI as we remember it doesn't happen because, oh, I dunno, the Roman Empire never fell so Europe is still a united political entity. At that point you don't have a Germany bruised and battered and feeling unfairly victimised by the Treaty of Versailles, so you don't really have the fertile ground there for extremist politics to take root. So if you have the Nazis popping up in that timeline, I'd take it as corrective history of the bad sort - there's no good in-universe reason for those guys to show up, but they do so anyway because it's what we in our timeline have been told to expect.

    As far as other alt-history peeves go... I'm really, really tired of steampunk. As in properly sick of it. Mainly because most of the people working in it just use the Victorian period as an aesthetic and don't really engage with the history or the issues it raises. They fantasise about a Victorian era in which they all get to be toffs walking around in pretty clothes whilst ignoring the factory drudgery, the blood-soaked history of colonialism, and all the other bits of the time period which makes them feel uncomfortable. It's basically fetishising an enormously distorted and misleading idea of what the Victorians were like, in exactly the same way as Ren Faires fetishise a completely ridiculous idea of what the medieval period was like. Except I know so many people who bash Ren Faires on the one hand precisely because they forget about the serfs and then get all excited about steampunk on the other, and in that context are happy to forget about the downtrodden working classes.

  12. Actually the Nazis exist before Adolf Hitler; and Jews are being Massacred in eastern Europe as early as 1919 (I like to read early issues of the Melbourne Argus).

  13. @yellowdingo: I wrote a longer comment in response to you but Blogger threw a fit and rejected it.

    Summary: yep, agree with you 100%. Also the Nazis were simply the most successful of a good number of very similar right-wing movements trading off the dolschtosslegende and broader feelings of betrayal.

  14. In a recent column I discussed using alternate history in a fantasy setting to throw the players off balance a bit and fresh life into something too familiar. I did not get into the specifics. As to point No. 1, something do feel inevitable during the run of history, wars in particular.

  15. Frankly, I'm put off by any alt-history where the Nazis won. Because fuck those guys.

  16. Hmm I'm not sure that I have many, besides the overuse of second world war mentioned above. Maybe the tendency to focus on one particular theatre or geopolitical area, without thought to how the rest of the world might react to or influence the new version of events.

  17. There is a forum devoted to alternate history at and James pet peeves are shared over there.

    To get a taste of what kind of work they do over there look at Jared's Decades of Darkness
    or his current Land of Red and Gold at the same site.

    Note I contributed some entries to Decades of Darkness.

    I tried starting one myself called Decades of Light but I didn't have the time to pursue it.

  18. Huh, in Watchmen, there's an in-character comment about Reagan towards the very end, saying how he could never be a president.

    The Watchmen "cowboy actor in the White House" gag is about Robert Redford, not Reagan.

    Dislike: [nation]wank, ACW alts, and Alien Space Bats (exception: "Korea and the UK get swapped. What are the outcomes?")

    Like: Things That Look AH But Aren't and the magisterial Look to the West timeline.

  19. What if there U.S. Civil War had gone differently... oh gawd, not that again.

  20. What Jeff and JDJarvis said: if I never see another "Confederacy/Third Reich wins" alt-history, I'll be a happy man.

  21. Another bit of assumed knowledge from the French Revolution: the political Left and Right...

    As one might guess, my pet peeve in alt histories is the minimization of Christianity. Given that Christ is God, Christianity and His Church will survive no matter what.

  22. I'll climb on the "what if the Nazi's/Confederacy" win - it's been done, done well, done poorly, and done to death.

    In general I tend to get kind of bored with the Eurocentric nature of the narratives - I'd rather read a what if for rise of Mesoamerican empire that actually counter-balanced colonialism, or something of the same sort in Africa.


  23. I hate the need for some others who shall remain Turtledove, to try to shoehorn "parallels" to how history went down even when it makes no sense.

    "Trench warfare happened in the real WWI in Europe, so the entire Canadian prairie should be full of trench warfare, even though winter weather and the empty nature of the reason make it impossible!"

  24. I'm sure this is too low brow for the vast majority of this group but did you ever read 'The Nail' limited series by DC Comics?

    The Superhero genre is rife with alternate histories on any one of an infinite number of Earths. It's kinda their thing. Sometimes it's done in an interesting way, like the original DC/Quality comics Earth-X, in which Nazi Germany won a prolonged WW II. Sometimes it's done in a terrible corrective history way, like in 'The Nail'.

    The basic premise is awesome (and the artist was one of my favorite faves, Alan Davis). Using the 'For Want of a Nail' proverb, a simple nail takes out the tire on Ma and Pa Kent's truck and they never find and raise Superman. Fast forward to the present and there is no Superman. The assumption is the government found the Krytonian pod and either Kal-El was dead or wasn't inside. Luthor is running for Prez and the world's greatest hero is Hal Jordan, The Green Lantern.

    The major difference in the world of 'The Nail' is a fear and distrust of Supers by many people and an almost Marvel Comics like atmosphere. Combats are brutal and many heroes vanish or are killed in combat. I won't go into all the details but the point is...SPOILER the end, Superman is alive and well. He was found and raised by Amish parents.

    In the final conflict/battle in the book, Superman, Kal-El of Krypton, defeats the bad guy and saves the day.

    So for want of a nail...nothing changed. The Kingdom was still saved. Superman ends up joining the other heroes and being Superman.

    This series actually received an Eisner Award nomination.

    Corrective Alternate History of this type is the worst.

  25. Eteocles,

    It's at the end of Watchmen, they have a good laugh at why anyone would vote in a "cowboy" like Reagan.

  26. @FrDave,

    Or, given that Josh from Nazareth was just some dude (=P), how come we don't see much alt!history that skips over the Xianity altogether? For me, I think it'd be cool to see an alt!Europe with a big central pseudo-Catholic church based on Zoroaster or the Roman state deities (Juppiter &c.).


    Yeah, but you're forgetting the most important thing about steampunk:'s properly AWESOME!!!

  27. Jeff, JDJarvis, and Rob: I agree with you entirely. In addition, this plays into another pet peeve of mine: focusing on alternate history parallels where things are worse than in this history.

    Why doesn't anyone write an alternate history where WWI ends early, possibly with a German victory? No Lenin at the Finland station, no Weimar Germany, no or very limited Russian civil war, no Soviet Union. Things might have turned out a lot better than in our history, but no one seems interested in this.

    In fact, there aren't very many alternate histories of WWI around at all, even though that was the great turning point of the 20th century.

  28. I have a good laugh when I hear Reagan described in real life as a cowboy when he was a member of the aristocratic elite riding English and not Western before the 1980 election photo ops. :)

    As for alt history, I've never been a fan of the whole the South wins the Civil War/Confederacy still exists afterwards premise.

  29. While we are on the topic of alternate history here is one I wrote based on roleplaying games. Basically a what-if based on a form of Traveller rising in the 1940s as the first roleplaying game. Or Adventure Games as they are called in the timeline.

  30. Hmm. I oddly can’t really think of any. Except for my general dislike of time travel, if it is involved. (Though there are ways to do that that I can be OK with.)

    In general, I tend to think that the big themes of history aren’t dependent upon individuals. It’s just the individuals that determine the details. So, I’m good with any alt history that takes that path. Heck, I don’t know if it rises to a pet peeve, but I’m generally disappointed in alt histories that posit a small change having a big effect while ignoring the greater context.

  31. @ Barking Alien: the problem with so many of those DC Elseworlds stories is they have an annoying tendency to end with characters come out the same as their baseline versions no matter how their origins get mixed up. Clark Kent always becomes a good-hearted Superman, Bruce Wayne always becomes an avenging Batman, no matter if they were born in colonial times, England or swap places.

  32. I don't like alternate history that doesn't conform to my personal beliefs, which may or may not have any basis in fact.

  33. "...if I never see another "Confederacy/Third Reich wins" alt-history, I'll be a happy man."

    So much for my "Hitler travels back in time to lead the Confederacy to victory" alternate history novel...

    ::sound of paper shredder turning on::

  34. Everybody pretty much beat me to the punch this morning, but I was going to comment on the whole genre of "The Confederates Win the American Civil War" novels.

    Firstly, I don't really understand how these things can still get published today in a market that's saturated with them. It seems to be the #1 favorite of alternate history writers, followed closely the the "The Nazis Win World War II" theme. Blah.

    Secondly, if you're going to spend the time to write an alternate Civil War history book, maybe, you know, actually do some research on the topic and the people involved and don't just go with your "I wish the South had won" premise. I know it's a lot of work, folks, but nobody said writing a novel was easy.

    There are so many other events in history that are screaming for a creative alternate history treatment: the English Civil War, the Mexican-American War, the Russo-Japanese War... and forget about wars. How about a world in which Tutankhamun didn't convert back to the "old gods" but instead kept with the religion of Aton started by his father, and then he ended up not dying at age 16? Seems like that entire area of the world could be very different right now.

  35. I'm surprised I haven't seen anyone mention one of my biggest turn-offs to alt fic: the overuse of "modern" or "ahead of their time" characters who have modern political views (i.e. feminism, religious tolerance, anti-elitist, etc.) regardless of whether it makes any historical (or even alt-historical)sense what-so-ever in context.

  36. I don't care for most alt-histories, simply because a study of history reveals that the multitude of factors involved in creating an event, process, or movement are so complex and so densely tangled that removing a single thing might not change anything, or might change literally everything into something completely unrecognizable. I think that most of them presume certain people or events are more catalytic than they are, while overlooking relatively "small" events that might actually be incredibly important.

  37. @J.D. Higgins

    As a kid I had an anthology of short alt-history stories which had one scenario similar to what you were asking for. If I recall correctly, it had the Israelites abandoning their faith during the Babylonian exile, and thus, no Jesus or Mohammed later on. The Europe of the time (essentially early Middle Ages) was a mishmash of Saxon/Zoroastrian/Mithraic cults. I don't remember much else about it, even the name, so it must not have been that riveting.


    The same anthology I mentioned above had a story which involved a world where Robert E Lee didn't join the Confederacy instead siding with the Union and crushing the revolt in its early months. The US didn't abandon slavery right away (no need for a Gettysburg Address), became an apartheid-type state and didn't grow industrially like it did in reality, didn't get involved in WWI, leading to a German victory. A time-traveller gets involved, goes back and convinces Lee to switch sides, leading to the real history we know...and thus leading to WWII, the Holocaust, the Cold War, etc...

    Granted, all fiction is an "alt-history" in some manner, but I generally find Alt-history overall fairly dull and predictable...too many reused tropes that people have mentioned: Nazis win, Confederates win, etc...and so many of them are simply used to promote some political/philosophical position ("If only 'x' would have happened we'd be living in a Utopia!") rather than just tell a good tale. There are exceptions to be sure, but just my opinion.

  38. @ Martin R. Thomas: The Confederates could have won. All they had to do was free the Slaves dumping cheap 'black' labour and the sickly and old and force them into the Northern States to compete with the 'whites' for jobs.

    While the North is thrown into chaos because of the 'riots' over farmers and industrialists employing cheap labour, the Confederates could have then continued in their plan to break away from the North and then arranged to purchase new slaves from the Dutch, German, and Belgian Slaver colonies in Africa.

  39. @ Gregor: The reference to "RR" in Watchmen is explicitly to Robert Redford - he's named on the very last page. While Moore's pretty left wing, I think it was just an alt-history joke.

    @ yellowdingo: Can't see that working. Slaves made up a large percentage of the Southern population, in some states the majority. Freeing them and sending them away would collapse the economy - never mind how you'd transport them all. The slaves were the most valuable part of the plantation and plantation owners were among the richest men in the world. That was the whole point of the war.

    Getting back on topic, one problem is a change in history is going to have all sorts of secondary effects you probably won't think of. For example, suppose you have a change in the early 1960s so the Vietnam War doesn't escalate. Well one result is that the draft isn't ramped up - so law school deferments aren't revoked - so the Ivy League Law Schools don't suddenly have a shortfall of students in the late 1960s leading to admitting more women - so there isn't a cadre of young feminist lawyers going into the 1970s. You've just changed the development of American feminism and you probably didn't know it. Every other change will have little effects most people won't think of and that makes it hard for me to find most alt-history plausible.

  40. @Yellowdingo - sorry if I wasn't clear. My point was not that it's not plausible to put forth a scenario in which the South wins the American Civil War. My point is that most authors don't do their research and make it plausible and believable - they leave out major characters and don't fully consider the consequences of what it would have meant.

    That, and I'm just tired of that theme. Time to go back to the well and dig up another alt history theme to beat like a dead horse.

  41. Arthur -- Oh, come on. You tell me, where are the steampunk stories where all the characters are toffs, and no mention is made of bad Victorian conditions? Every single steampunk book I've ever read or seen, including romance novels by non-genre authors, has had huge amounts of grit, grime, poor people starving and ragged in the streets, and human misery. Meanwhile, all the good factors of Victorian life are systematically ignored or destroyed, and religious reform movements usually aren't a factor at all (unless some minister is Jack the Ripper). It's dark satanic mills all the way, in steampunk, and very tiresomely uniform it is.

    And people don't dress like toffs, either. Most women cosplayers seem to want to dress in ways too revealing for Victorian streetwalkers, and most men just shove together some kind of middle class outfit and spend their time on the cool robot arm accessory.

    It's very sad, because people seem to have a very hopeful steampunk aesthetic but don't seem to know how to translate that into art.

    If you come from an alternate universe, of course, your mileage may vary.

  42. Re: Nozzies -

    I can't help but think of the afterword to Spinrad's _The Iron Dream_, how the whole scenario of a charismatic dictator taking a agricultural nation and industrializing it through war and racism is, in the opinion of Spinrad's alternate-history English department critic, just so ridiculously over-the-top as to be unbelievable. "Who could possibly take this seriously" or words to that effect. Who indeed.

  43. @Infornific: On the contrary. I see it as their capacity to wage an economic war on the north. Lincon declares this is a fight to free the slaves but if there are no slaves to free and the new 'indentured labourers' will be working for food and shelter, then Lincon has very little political clout when he recruits for a war.

  44. "Lincon declares this is a fight to free the slaves but if there are no slaves to free and the new 'indentured labourers' will be working for food and shelter, then Lincon has very little political clout when he recruits for a war."--yellowdingo

    But Lincoln didn't say it was a fight to free the slaves -- because it wasn't.

    Even though the main reason the states that seceded did so was because they wanted to maintain slavery and feared the USA would outlaw it, the USA didn't fight them to end slavery.

    The USA fought them to force them to stay in the USA. That's it.

    So, if the CSA had free its slaves and sent them north, that might've disrupted the USA's economy, but it wouldn't have taken away the USA's reason for fighting them. And, as explained before, it would've completely destroyed their own economy.

  45. I'm just excited we're almost to June with a blog-post tangentially related to the US Civil War that hasn't fully degenerated into a "Lost Cause/The Confederacy wasn't about slavery" flame war...

  46. "I'm just excited we're almost to June with a blog-post tangentially related to the US Civil War that hasn't fully degenerated into a "Lost Cause/The Confederacy wasn't about slavery" flame war..."--Coldstream

    Me too! Hopefully it's because all Grognardians are intelligent and educated enough to know and accept that, without alot more foreign assistance than it got, the Confederacy was a lost cause -- and it was absolutely, first and foremost, about slavery too.

    Now, to try to tie this tangent back in with the original blog post...

    I wonder if the reason why so many people here are tired of Civil War-related alternate histories is because almost all of those assume an outcome -- the Confederacy successfully secedes and survives -- that seems absurdly improbable to them?

    And I wonder if a similar reason is why so many people here are also tired of WWII alternate histories in which the Nazis win as well?

  47. I've found that authors & historians tend to be a lot less objective/balanced with their alternate histories the closer the "change" and/or setting gets to the present day.

    I recently read "What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve 'What Ifs' of History," edited by Andrew Roberts. The early essays tend to be very plausible, whether they posit lasting major changes to history (Napoleon wins in 1812-13 and establishes a lasting Empire), modest cosmetic change (Stalin flees Moscow in 1941 and Molotov becomes the man of the century), or very little change at all (Japanese don't attack Pearl Harbor but since Roosevelt had pretty much convinced the USA that involvement in the war in Europe was necessary, the US enters six months or so later and the war wraps up in '46).

    The last two essays however are much more partisan, possibly/probably because they deal with events within the authors' own lives (and about which they feel more directly passionate). Simon Heffer's "The Brighton Bomb Kills Margaret Thatcher" suggests that without Thatcher, the UK wouldn't be the economic powerhouse (?) it is today; while David Frum's "The Chads Fall Off in Florida" is a completely ludicrous and satirical look at a Gore Presidency's handling of 9-11.

    They tell people in writing classes to write about things they're passionate about, but maybe a little dispassion isn't a bad thing when it comes to Alternate History.

  48. Anybody ever read Terraplane by Jack Womack? One of the few bits of AH I think did it well.

  49. IBL:
    "Why doesn't anyone write an alternate history where WWI ends early, possibly with a German victory? No Lenin at the Finland station, no Weimar Germany, no or very limited Russian civil war, no Soviet Union. Things might have turned out a lot better than in our history, but no one seems interested in this."

    Very interesting - I think there's a very good reason for this: it brings home that the victory of the English-speaking nations in WW1 may have led to pretty well the worst of all possible outcomes. Few English-speaking authors want to engage with this. A few Germanophile/German-ethnic Americans are prepared to mention it, eg William S Lind the military theorist, but it's never going to be as popular as 'OMG Nazis Won WTF?!' stuff.

  50. Martin R Thomas:
    "How about a world in which Tutankhamun didn't convert back to the "old gods" but instead kept with the religion of Aton started by his father, and then he ended up not dying at age 16? Seems like that entire area of the world could be very different right now."

    You mean the Arabs and Jews and all could all be - *Monotheist*?! :-O

  51. JBM:
    "David Frum's "The Chads Fall Off in Florida" is a completely ludicrous and satirical look at a Gore Presidency's handling of 9-11."

    'Imagine if Barack Obama had won the 2008 election - Osama bin Laden would be dining on caviar at the White House!' >:)

    Of course lefties can be just as bad as the righties you mention (Heffer, Frum) in letting their political views determine the outcome of their alt histories.