By Tom Anderson
In January 2007 I first began writing and posting a project I called “Look to the West”, my first ‘proper’ attempt at a long-form alternate history timeline. 12 years, 7 volumes (3 of which so far are published by SLP, with more to come) and well over a million words later, I think I can safely say I have succeeded at the ‘long-form’ part!
The impetus for LTTW came from my desire to bring something back to the Alternate History community after devouring the works of others. My earlier attempts at AH were hampered by limited historical knowledge (please do not get me started on the British education system!) and I was determined to do some research before settling on a project. At the same time, then and now I was mindful of the tendency that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and it is easy to put off putting pen to paper. I was already an experienced writer in the genre of science fiction and knew (to paraphrase Confucius) that the most important step in the journey of writing any work is the first. So, after playing with ideas throughout 2006, I finally began in 2007.
My main inspirations for LTTW were “Decades of Darkness” by Jared Kavanagh, and Tony Jones’ AH scenarios “Monarchy World” and “Cliveless World” (the latter forms the setting of his SLP-published novel “The Plague Policeman”). “Decades of Darkness” pioneered the ‘scrapbook history book style’ of long-form narrative timelines which LTTW also uses; I feel slightly guilty now that some younger writers attribute its invention to me instead! LTTW’s main innovation over earlier uses of that style is that I like to emphasise the malleability of historiography, with the same events being reported quite differently by the writers of the different fictional history books quoted (all of whom are stuffily convinced they are right). As for Tony Jones’ scenarios (which are descriptive rather than narrative, originally being designed as RPG settings), they taught me two important lessons: one, the wondrous depths of worldbuilding one can derive from our timeline’s dead-end technologies and ideologies becoming more successful; two, that the eighteenth century is a rich and under-utilised vein of Points of Divergence (PODs).
The period between 1688 and 1815 is arguably the most important one for not only the creation of the modern British national identity, but also shaping the world we know today—it is because of the outcome of the many great wars of this period (sometimes called the Second Hundred Years’ War) that the world speaks English rather than French, for instance. Yet this period also tends to be ignored in British history reaching today, which in my experience jumped straight from the Civil War and Restoration to the Victorians. In LTTW I try to bring out my own sense of wonder in reading about this age for the first time: the global conflicts in which European issues led to battles in America and India; an age before coherent nationalism in which adventurers could travel the world and serve in the armies of a dozen different empires; the scientific breakthroughs of people like Priestley, Scheele and Lavoisier; the ideological flowering of the Enlightenment which led inexorably to the American and French Revolutions and the world changing beyond recognition. The eighteenth century is a time period which defies regular categorisation by our stereotypes. It’s a time of the slave trade and the first development of ‘scientific racism’ by Linnaeus, but also a time in which Polynesian princes were fêted on their travels to Britain, Ethiopians could become Russian admirals, and New Jersey and the Corsican Republic experimented with women’s suffrage. It bridges the mysteriously exotic ‘blank spaces on the map’ attitude of earlier centuries with the thrilling sense of technological progress of later ones.
LTTW began as a series of vague scenario maps I sketched and posted in 2006. These maps bear almost zero resemblance to the final product, of course, save that they include continued ties between Britain and America, and a powerful unified state in South America centred on Argentina. The latter concept, which became the United Provinces of South America (UPSA), was inspired by the fact that British media depictions of the Falklands War often make Argentina look as though it was a superior power that plucky little Britain had done well to beat. What if there really was a super-Argentina power as strong and influential as the United States of our timeline (OTL)? I learned about the 1780s rebellions against Spanish rule by Túpac Amaru II and Túpac Katari, coupled this with shifting a foreign occupation of the River Plate earlier in history (Britain’s failed occupations in 1806-7 helped spark Argentine nationalism in OTL) and the UPSA was born.
This isn’t where the timeline diverges, however. I wanted to attempt a more realistic take on ‘Britain and the American colonies stay together’ than existing ones, which were usually either chest-thumping American-penned ones painting this as a dystopia—or at the other end of the spectrum, Turtledove and Dreyfuss’ The Two Georges, which is conversely quite utopian, but unrealistically portrays British culture as still dominating over American in 1996, despite the population gap and the fact that OTL former British colonies like Canada and Australia still developed their own cultures. I originally toyed with the rather romantic idea of George III becoming obsessed with America thanks to a childhood tutor and fleeing Britain to fight in the Seven Years’ War alongside George Washington (they were very close in age). I kept elements of this idea in the final product, but shifted to an earlier Point of Divergence, in 1727. LTTW is generally fairly strict at keeping to the butterfly effect (i.e. the same historical characters as OTL should not appear after the POD because the circumstances of their birth would have changed) but the reader will note that I basically apply this rule as though the POD was in more like 1760 than 1727—which is an artefact of my earlier plans.
Instead of that earlier idea, I instead came across a historical threat made by King George II to exile his son Frederick (George III’s father) to the American colonies after he came to the throne in 1727. It seems fairly likely this was not a serious threat and just part of the never-ending mutual father-son hatred between generations of Hanoverian kings. But what if, in the heat of the moment—say, if Frederick had publicly laughed at his father tripping on his coronation carpet and humiliated him—George II had gone through with it? Would Frederick have taken such an exile lying down, or would he have turned to the American colonists for help and plotted to regain his place of power? And if, having done so with their help, what difference would it make for the Americans to have a friend on the throne of Great Britain when the debate over taxation and representation began? (In our timeline, Frederick was killed by a cricket ball and died before his father, so the throne passed straight to the young and experienced George III). The Empire of North America, formed initially of five Confederations (New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Carolina) was born. But let not the British patriot imagine that this means the continuation of mere loyal colonies. In time, as America rises and eclipses Britain, the tail might wag the dog, and the title of kingship of Britain might be a mere appendix behind that of emperor of North America…
I also came across additional interesting points in the eighteenth century on which history could have turned…
Frederick the Great of Prussia was nearly killed at the Battle of Kunersdorf, and if Empress Elizabeth of Russia had lived a little longer (and her Prussophile son Peter hadn’t come to the throne in time) Prussia would likely have been virtually destroyed, her rise to lead Germany halted. Who might fill that power vacuum? With Hapsburg Austria still regarded with suspicion, maybe her ally Saxony, no longer cowed by Prussia?
In Persia (Iran) the Zand dynasty was modernising, forward-looking and its rulers even called themselves Advocate of the People rather than Shah. In OTL, they were toppled by the Qajars, who led the country on a deteriorating path through the nineteenth century until they were finally toppled and Persia would be influenced by external powers until well into the twentieth century. But what if the Zands had survived?
In OTL, Britain, France and other powers jockeyed for influence in India, with Britain coming out on top in the end. Some works of AH, like the aforementioned “Cliveless World”, instead have France dominating India. But what if no power came out on top at all, and India remains contested between many colonial powers—and still retaining powerful native kingdoms of its own?
The Comte de La Pérouse nearly discovered Australia before James Cook. What if Australia had been French? Or divided? What if the Maori had had a longer gap between European first contact and colonisation attempts, allowing them to unite and modernise?
The Qianlong Emperor of China nearly died young, and his father Yongzheng could have survived much longer than OTL. What if he had done so, and brought different policies to the Celestial Kingdom: never conquering Dzungaria, but instead intervening to save Ayutthaya from Burmese conquest, leading to the development of a powerful Thai/Siamese state earlier on?
Carolus Linnaeus of Sweden wrote on theories of human evolution, tied to a scientific racist conception of there being four human races, but in OTL never published his theories while alive for fear of the backlash. What if he had done so, and his ideas had amplified the OTL racial-nationalist aspects of the French Revolution?
French inventor Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered car/tractor capable of pulling artillery in the 1770s, which lost funding after being involved in the world’s first car crash. What if he had been able to persist and perfect it by the time of the French Revolution?
This is just a small selection of the ideas that went into LTTW. The notion of historical determinism seems laughable when one looks at just what a boiling sea of possibilities the eighteenth century was. As well as political and military events, scientific theories could have developed in different ways and at different times; LTTW has more advanced chemistry than OTL as Carl Scheele’s work was recognised earlier, but less advanced electrical research—as the Galvani-Volta rivalry that led to OTL’s first battery doesn’t happen and the required discoveries are delayed by years. The world of LTTW has airships long before it has radios, for example.
Finally, there is the realm of ideology. Our timeline’s twentieth century was dominated by the ideological struggle between Communism and capitalism. Is the idea of materialistic property ownership the only breaking point on which a world could be divided? Of course not! Many different political ideologies arise in LTTW, from racist Jacobinism and Burdenism to moderate Adamantianism to the Neo-Confucian Silhak of the Kingdom of Corea. But the ideology that will set the world alight is the Societism of Pablo Sanchez, an idealist who argues that the only way to prevent the tragedy of war is to destroy all borders and cultural differences between nations, homogenise the world and let the ‘natural and universal’ hierarchical human society appear. Needless to say, the rise of this ideology in one part of the world after the Pandoric War will result in many powers who see things rather differently, and the rival counter-ideology of Diversitarianism is born in turn. Identity, not property, is the great question that colours all historiographic attitudes of the in-timeline writers of LTTW.
I’ve been writing about this world for twelve years now, and there are many more stories left to tell, many more hidden corners of world history to explore, and many more really silly punchlines to spend an entire chapter building up to. But LTTW could never have succeeded without the many, many readers who have shared that story over the years and constantly given me kind and useful feedback. This article is dedicated to them—and if you wish to join them, please feel free!
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth