Friday, December 5, 2008

What if Part Three

Continuing from my previous posts on the subject of alternate history. The second main category of alternate history is the time travel derived alternate history. These often vary widely on how much allohistorical content is actually present in the novel.

Both Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, about a Union that had suffered a defeat in the American Civil War and John Brunner's Times Without Number which was set in a world where the Spanish Armada successfully invaded England had very little time travel element in them. It wasn't until the end of the novels that the time travel element was introduced with devastating results for the main characters. Some novels such as John Jakes Black in Time in which two competing factions; a black militant group and a white supremacist group  have taken control of a time travel device to make a better world, at least from their perspectives have a series of mini alternate histories in them as the time travelers continually change history. The time travel show Voyagers also featured mini alternate histories which the protagonists had to fix to fix the timeline. One of the common tropes of time travel alternate histories, especially in the min-alternate that alternate history is the result of meddling by a time traveler and that it needs to be fixed. As a result you have organizations such as Poul Anderson's The Time Patrol,  the television series  Voyagers and film versions such as Timecop.

Another common theme in time travel alternate history is changes brought about by the introducion of modern technology or idea. The first example I can think of is A Connecticut Yankee is King Arthur's Court in which modern technology was introduced into the Britain of the Middle Ages. Now arguablely this could also be seen as a alternate universe rather than a alternate history tale since the changes that Hank Morgan made do not seem to have affected the time line. L. Sprague De Camp also has a similar story in Lest Darkness Fall. Martin Padway, an archaeologist is struck by lightning while studying some Roman ruins and finds himself in 6th century Rome. He uses his knowledge to keep Rome from falling. Unlike A Connecticut Yankee, even though we do not see the long term consequences of his actions Lest Darkness Fall is more of an alternate history because Padway does change the lives and fates of historical characters.

Conrad Schwartz, a Polish Engineer of the late twentieth century falls asleep in an inn and wakes to find himself transported to 12th century Poland, a decade before the Mongol Invasion. Conrad uses all his technical skill and military training to create a modern army that will prevent the Mongols from devastating Europe. This is explored in Leo Frankowski's Conrad Stargard series.

Two of the most common changes that time traveler's want to make are to change the outcome of the Civil War or prevent WWII. Harry Harrison's A Rebel in Time is one such novel on this theme. Harry Turtledove's Guns of the South, which was in some ways a precursor to his mammoth Southern Victory series,  has the Confederate Army receiving modern weapons such as uzis and rocket lauchers from South African extermist. Two examples with widely varient results are Elleander Morning by Jerry Yulsman and Making History by Stephen Frey. In Elleander Morning a woman travels back to 1913 and assassinates Adolph Hitler while he is still a starving artist. The lack of Hitler led to no Second World War but the time traveler had left behind some anamlaous objects such as the Time Life History of the Second World War which causes complications in the other wise peaceful world. Making History wipes Hitler from existance by making Alois Hitler infertile. However another person who is a better strategest fills the niche and creates a world that is even more terrible than the one that time traveler desired.

Author Robert Adams who was most famous for his Horseclans series, also had another series The Castaways in Time. The title was a bit of a misnomer since the Castaways were sent back in time to medieval England however, it was the England of an alternate history. The castaways were a group of people who had taken refuse in a house when a flooded highway due to a flooded highway. As it turned out the Castaways and the change in history had come about from time meddling.

More modern authors have taken the idea of a group of people transported to the past with and run with it. S. M. Stirling, who is almost as prolific as Harry Turtledove as an alternate historian, wrote the Nantucket Trilogy which explored the consequences of  Nantucket Island of 1998 being transported back in time to 1250 BC. His Change World Series is a collary series that explores what happened to rest of the world once Nantucket disappeared.

Author Eric Flint also transported an entire city back in time,  The town of Grantville, West found itself transported back in time to 1632. Unlike Nantucket however, Grantville had also been displaced in space and founded itself in Germany in the midst of the Thirty years War. 1632 spawed several sequels which demonstrate that while the technology does have an impact it is the ideas that have the most impact on altering the timeline.

Author John Birmingham explored this idea of the impact of ideas and attitudes in his Axix of Time series. In this case it was not a city that was taken back in time but rather a 21st naval fleet which was transported back in time to the the Battle of Midway. Plopping down in the middle of the American fleet both sides took a horrible toll on one another before realizing that they were fighting the wrong enemy. Although the main part of the fleet landed in a group, some of the ships did get displaced in space as well, thus giving the Axis access to this higher technology. However the science and underlying technology of the 1940s was not sophisticated enough to simply begin cranking out the superior tech, it was not just a matter of the 21st centurians giving up their secrets, entire support technologies had to be learned and recreated. However the difference in idealogies and cultural attitudes between the 1940s and the 21st century were so different as to cause immediate social problems. The 21st centurians were at first confined to an area near California so their radical ideas could not contaminate society but eventually ideas, films and books leaked out.

One recent variation of the time travel element in alternate history that also segues into our next topic is the idea that time travel is impossible but travel between universes is not. Therefore some authors have used this concept to make time travel seem more plausible. Instead of actually traveling back to the past you are traveling to an alternate universe, which was nearly identical to their own but several years younger. This time travel via alternate worlds was used in Stephen Baxter's Time Ships and in the more mainstream author Michael Crichton's Timeline. This concept however was first utilized in Sam Merwin's Three faces of Time in which the crosstime travelers discover an alternate universe equivalent to Ancient Rome. In both cases these were to alternate that were almost replica's of our past. I will explore this further in my next blog.

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