Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Reflections on American alternative history

After a few quite serious topics, I thought I would go a bit whimsical again. (Perhaps indulging in a little rant…)

Just finished an amusing set of short stories by one of the best of the American alternate history writers, S. M. Stirling. who does a considerably more sensible approach to how societies change in different contexts that most of his contemporaries, (Eric Flint can be quite good, Turtledove considerably less so, and Harry Harrison is abysmal). I have always enjoyed Stirling's lightweight Peshawar Lancers book, which, with some of the short stories in Ice, Iron and Gold, almost meets the standards of H. Beam Piper for comprehension of what is and isn’t possible given changing circumstances.


I will deal briefly, and dismissively, with their ideas of time travel backwards. It is a bit laughable to believe the concept of a pre-literate or pre-industrial society successfully adopting good old American values, and launching a US Republic… cold. First, it cannot happen. Have a look at their success rates in Afghanistan and Iraq to see the results, even with an overwhelming modern military and beaurocracy trying to enforce their pipe dreams. And that assumes their fantasy version of their own reality in thinking that republics, let alone a US version, are a good thing. (See my previous posts on Republics.) It is notable that the best attempt at this genre by Americans is the 1632 series, where the initial attempt at a Republic quickly becomes a Constitutional Monarchy as the American protagonists themselves face reality.

So let us move onto the more interesting, and revealing, contemporary alternative histories…

The most fascinating element of American viewpoints of alternative history, is their assumption that the United States as is obviously the highpoint of all civilisation, and therefore any contemporary alternative world will be less politically and scientifically advanced. It is a nice conceit I suppose (and you could theoretically find some sort of parallels from British or French arrogance by going back to the period of such authors as H.G. Wells or Winston Churchill), but it is hardly realistic.

Americans draw alternative histories where the British won the American War of Independence; or the French won the Napoleonic wars; or the South won the Confederacy War of Independence; or the Nazi’s won World War Two: as though the modern world would be physically and politically more backwards. This is real fantasy.

Politically, the Americans fought their war of independence largely because British liberalism had already made slavery illegal in Britain (and the South could see what was coming), and had signed treaties with the American Indians limiting the expansion of the north. One of the great motivations for the hatred of British customs by the slavers and smugglers and pirates who became many of the US founding fathers, was that the British had black captains on some of their frigates…. Yes black! The US was founded on racist principles, with a constitution designed to protect the institution of slavery (that was part of the reason they picked Roman and Greek models). How is that going to get a more liberal world order than the British or French might provide? When did American blacks get the vote compared to British or French?

Technology is even silliere. American writers constantly interpret a modern world run by the British, French, or Germans: as powered by brass valved airship technology with steam-powered cars. Where do they get this stuff from? 'Steam punk'? (I will note Lorenzo's comment that in a world dominated by one empire wars would be less common, as would the technologies inspired by wars. Fair point, but it presupposes that A) Britain had any interest in such an empire, and B) that German technology was not created by conflict within Europe rather than with Britain. Consider the German chemical industry of the late nineteenth century, or their invention of automobiles. Britain certainly didn't plan to conquor all Europe to enforce peace and slow technology.)

Industrialisation was invented in Britain. Despite US fantasies, if any major European powers had taken an interest in the American Civil War, the North would have been squashed like a bug. (It was the North’s blockade and freedom to mount repeated invasions that finished the South, not the land front that was largely stalemated until the very end.) Britain, or even France, could have given the South independence without needing to mobilise anything larger than their existing Atlantic fleets.

In World War One the United States was entirely reliant on Britain and France for war fighting material. Guns, tanks, aircraft, artillery… everything except ships (and do not underestimate what a leap forward the US navy got from the British giving them modern designs for warships as part of the deal). Radio, and later television, were European inventions. I can only think of one place where the US led in 1900, the submarine Even the American born inventors of the machine guns finished up living and working in Britain to get funding for development and production (and was a British citizen and knighted for his efforts).

In World War Two the British gave the United States such minor technical achievements as radar, sonar, jet engines, programmable computers, and access to British and German scientists to expand the Allied atomic bomb project (which the US administration later reneged on sharing the results of). At the end of the war British and German jets, rockets and scientists, became the foundation for American cold war technology. Had Europe not been impoverished by the fighting, the US would not have looked anything special in the post war world. (As the Japanese economic miracle immediately set out to prove.)

The Americans might be able to point to a few breakthroughs more recently (possibly of use rather than type – such as Apple’s conversion of office computers into genuine PC’s): but even the world-wide-web is a British invention, let alone the gadgets imported from Asia. Only in medical breakthroughs could the Americans possibly have any great lead on the rest of the world since the fifties. Even the much vaunted American military is using only improved versions of jet adn submarine technology. The genuinely new things like include British jump jets and tank armour; and to a lesser extent European missiles; joint NATO project aircraft. In fact the Americans have just worked out that after retiring their space shuttles they will either have to rely on the Europeans, Russians or Japanese to put things into space, or go back to rockets based on designs put together by someone called Werner vohn Braun.

The idea that the United States has caused the world to be more technologically or politically advanced than it would otherwise have been is pure fantasy. Yet the science fiction writers who come up with this stuff are clearly from the American educational elite. They have degrees and backgrounds in science and the military that mean they must have experienced something of the real world. What is wrong with their understanding?

Is it just misplaced patriotism? Is it just the result of a terribly insular education system? (I would note that even the very best of them - Flint or David Weber - do not really understand history the way Piper did. They keep having the other side adopt new inventions immediately... Perhaps they fail to note that people just do not work that way. The French captured British flintlock naval cannon in the 1790's, but were still failing to make copies at the time of Waterloo - after 20 years of losing the war at sea!) Or (we can hope) are they just writing populist crap the way they think the masses want to hear it; and hiding the truth from their readers in the sort of jingoism that makes Kipling look remarkably like an apolitical and balanced reporter.

Personally I think alternative history, or it’s semi-respectable cousin ‘counterfactual’, is a wonderful and enlightening exercise. Well done, it is thought provoking and even inspiring, but it has to be done with some limits, or it just becomes fantasy. I have nothing against fantasy, as I enjoy that too. Yet even if we consider 'steam-punk' to be just the fantasy end of the spectrum, that still leaves some really bad interpretations of how people and their environments develope, which seems purely based on the unthinking prejudices of a poor education. My main concern is whether the authors who are attempting to merge fantasy with reasoned analysis can tell the difference.


  1. "powered by brass valved airship technology with steam-powered cars. Where do they get this stuff from?"

    It sounds like Steam-Punk to me, and therefore part of an existing cultural genre.

  2. an American i would be the first to point out our flaws and misconceptions..but many of your interpretations of America and it's role in history are just flat wrong. I would go more into detail, but frankly your idiotic statements don't warrant it. It wouldn't matter anyway...

  3. Read 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' for a rebuttal to your thesis that Americans are too myopic to understand that cultural differences are important.