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Alternate History: A,B,C

By Gary Oswald

This series will cover 26 topics related to Alternate History, as a beginners guide to the genre, through the format of the A-Z.

A - Alien Space Bats.

Image adapted by Andy Cooke from an original photo by Oren Peles on Wikimedia Commons which was adapted by user MathKnight

(This article heavily relies on an article by David Flin of Sgt Frosty Publications, and the late Alison Brooks' husband, as its source).

The term 'Alien Space Bats' or ASB is a familiar one in online AH communities. It was first coined by the late Alison Brooks in 1997 on soc.history.what-if.

The ASB was used as a thought exercise to point out the flaws in posited military scenarios. The idea being that even if magic Alien Space Bats flew in and did this, this and this, the losing side had so few advantages they'd not be able to achieve their larger goals anyway.

The first time Dr Brooks used the phrase was when talking about the likelihood of a Confederate victory in the American Civil War in the aftermath of a successful outcome of Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, and whether Washington would have fallen easily. Dr Brooks argued that, even if Alien Space Bats flat out removed the Army of the Potomac prior to Gettysburg, meaning Lee would spend no ammunition and lose no men to win the battle, Lee’s Army still didn’t have the heavy cannon to reduce the Washington defences, and didn’t have the manpower or siege train to have a realistic chance of assaulting those defences.

Late she used it in discussion about a Nazi German invasion of the UK, arguing that even if the Luftwaffe were gifted infinite fuel and ammunition, they still didn't have enough planes to do everything they needed.

Essentially it's a rhetoric device to illustrate just how many advantages one side of the conflict had and thus an aid to thought by requiring people to think deeper about the logistics needed to get one side to win rather than just going, win that battle and then they achieve their goal.

This use, as a dismissal of implausible scenarios, is one you still see on online forums.

Someone says 'hey, what if the CSA freed all their slaves as a condition of winning independence' (the scenario that Winston Churchill, yes that one, came up with in his AH story 'If Lee had not won the Battle of Gettysburg') and someone else replies 'that's ASB, dude'.

By which they, of course mean 'that situation is so unlikely that it could only happen if magical Alien Space Bats came down and completely switched the personalities of every person involved in the CSA. If you wish to do serious alternate history maybe consider another idea or alternatively just stick to politics'.

Obviously, because we are talking about online forums, the term can be somewhat overused and It is often aimed at anything even the slightest bit original or unexpected. But whether you need Alien Space Bats to get you there is still something worth keeping in mind when trying to write plausible historical fiction.

But there is a second use, which is much different to the original use, based on the idea that actually an Alien Space Bat coming down and flat out removing the Army of the Potomac is an interesting scenario to play out the reaction to. Even if Lee still can't take Washington, how do the people of America react to this seeming act of god favouring the slavers?

So people started using Alien Space Bats in stories. If you wanted to explore something impossible, just have an Alien Space Bat do it. They can move continents around and shift people through time and give armies unlimited supplies and then you can explore the consequences of that without caring about the logistics that got you there.

By all accounts, Dr Brooks was not thrilled by this use. Her whole point was to make people think about logistics and instead people used her words as an excuse to ignore them. But, despite this, the phrase stuck.

Fantastical/Science Fiction AH is still often known as ASB AH. And various published AH fiction, by the likes of SM Sterling, John Birmingham and Iain Bowen (through Sea Lion Press) have used Alien Space Bats as a starting point for their stories. In Bowen's 'Arose from the Azure Main' stories, ASBs move the UK from 1980 to 1730 and everyone has to deal with the consequences of that. In Stirling's 'Dies the Fire' ASBs suddenly alter physical laws so electricity, gunpowder, and most other forms of high-energy-density technology no longer work.

This is now the largest use of the term, not as a rhetorical device but as a means of scenario generation. ASBs do something mad and everyone then reacts to it.

B - Butterflies &

C - Convergence

These two will get one joint entry as they're two sides of the same coin or rather different philosophies about the same issue.

Essentially you have made a change. A different politician wins an election in New Zealand, a different army wins a battle in Kenya, a different sports team has won a match in Argentina. There are direct consequences from that, different people in different places making different decisions.

But what about areas with no direct links to the consequences. What about people who don't live in New Zealand, Kenya or Argentina? Would their lives continue as they did in our reality or be different anyway?

Butterflies is the name for the random consequences of any change. It takes it's name from the principle in Chaos theory that a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state. Or that a butterfly flapping its wing in one country can lead to a hurricane in another. Complex systems such as weather can be difficult to model because they are drastically effected by minor changes.

The act of a tiny change means people are in different positions, newspapers print different length stories, ships have different amount of cargo and so soon, every where in the world is different in tiny but significant ways and you can't count on anything, no matter how remote from the POD, being the same.

Convergence on the other hand is things just turning out the same as it did in our reality unless the POD directly changes it.

This is not really a scientific argument so much as a literary one. What makes for the best story?

Full butterflies is great for the writer because they are free of a lot of constraints and can just change things to suit the story. You don't have to deal with anything awkward to your plot, you can just butterfly it away. It also sells the reader on the significance of the change, in that the world is different and so allows the writer to try and create a genuinely alien world.

The problem with that approach however is it often appears random and arbitrary and you lose the parlour game aspect of comparing our reality with the altered one.

If you have Jeremy Corbyn win the 2019 UK election, part of the appeal of that scenario is how he copes with the Covid-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rising inflation of 2022. To just have none of those things happen, because of Butterflies, is narratively unsatisfying. You want to see how the changes you make alter world events, how a different France copes with World War II or a more successful Crusader states survives the Mongols. And so just butterflying those events away is an anti climax.

Convergence is also easier for the writer because they can remain focused on the core of the story. If Paraguay enter the narrative, a convergent writer can just use otl Paraguay and not explain anything about them whereas in a full butterfly scenario, they then have to use exposition to explain how a Paraguay ran by a ballerinas union and owning Hawaii came about, which often makes the narrative unfocused.

The problem with convergence is it can often seem lazy and like the changes didn't matter. If different leaders of the UK in the 1920s still result in a recognisable great depression and second world war than what difference are they actually making and if it's none then why should I care? A scenario where Carthage defeating Rome still leads to Barack Obama being elected in 2008 just feels pointless.

Of course these are both straw men. Most writers are somewhere in between the two extremes. In the 'Lands of Red and Gold' series, Jared Kavanagh uses what he calls a 'butterfly net' wherein essentially civilisations are isolated from changes until they reach Australia. So the Aboriginal civilisations that we follow are hugely different but those changes only reach the Maori or the Europeans, when those people reach Australia. So we have recognisable societies to bounce off, but once they enter the story all bets are off in terms of changes.

Most published work tends towards complete convergence, for instance there are two books about recognisable wars only with Dragons, Temeraire and Dragon America which posit that the existence of widespread fire breathing Lizards wouldn't prevent the 17th century from being basically identical to our reality. Amateur fiction, as a consequence, tends to push itself further away from convergence and uses more butterflies.

One particular controversy within this area is people born after the change. Should they exist? In literary terms, it makes useful shorthand. If you want to make a quick point about the state of the UK/USA/Vatican then an off hand mention of PM Farage/President Debs/Pope Calvin gets the point across with admirable economy. And showing a Jeremy Clarkson furiously arguing for more push bicycles shows how an education focused on ecology has had an effect in similarly concise style. As such it is the normal standard thing to do in most published AH.

But Butterfly purists avoid doing it and work originally written on forums such as 'Look to the West' often likewise simply don't use recognisable people after a certain distance from the change, but rather instead entirely originally characters. Both for literary reasons of freeing yourself from the constraints of historical personalities and also on the logical basis that their parents are less likely to meet and even if they did they'd be born from different sperm, etc.

One way to avoid that argument entirely, of course, is simply to end the story before you get to the next generation of people. Ed Thomas, one of the founding writers of SLP, felt that rigorous AH had to stay within the same generation of the change. Once you got past that, it was instead something closer to fantasy fiction. Fine in itself, but something different, regardless of whether it uses butterflies or convergence.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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