Analogues in Timelines

by David Flin

We’ve all seen it. A time line with a major divergence many years in the past, and yet history follows a very analogous path, with the same events cropping up, the same situations, the same people. It’s easier to write, certainly, and it does mean that the author can summon up an image through the use of a simple name.

Different people have different views on this. Some regard it as an appropriate simplification that allows a better focus on the story; others regard it as lazy and a quick way to destroy willing suspension of disbelief. Up front, I have to say that I fall very firmly into the latter camp. If you’re going to change things, change them, and don’t mess about with the illusion of change.

An example of analogue writing in a timeline might go something like this: Pickett’s Charge is successful, and as a result, Lee wins the Battle of Gettysburg. This somehow leads to the Confederacy winning the Civil War, and the CSA becomes an independent nation. At this point, I would expect the world to diverge significantly from our history.

However, what tends to happen is that everything proceeds as per our timeline. The Great War breaks out on schedule, usually with the USA ending up on one side and the CSA on the other. We see similar technological developments at much the same rate, and we generally see the same people from OTL doing the same sort of things. The timeline generally moves on to WWII starting up more or less on schedule, and lo and behold, Hitler is in charge of Germany, Patton is an American general keen on mechanised warfare, and so on.

It’s nonsense on stilts. Aside from the question as to whether these people would be born, different experiences brought about by changes will mean they have potentially different outlooks on life.

Now, sometimes using an analogue can be justified. For example, the point of the tale might be to see how an individual develops differently under different circumstances. One person often used as an analogue, to the point of cliché, is Enoch Powell. He’s almost invariably portrayed as a far-right-wing politician with racist views, and little else. The second most popular use is to take his desire to be Viceroy of India, and make that happen, regardless of how utterly unlikely that particular ambition was of ever coming to be.

The sad part is that there are so many other possibilities. To take just one possibility. He was a noted classic scholar, with a double starred First in Latin and Greek from Trinity College, Cambridge University. He also had a facility with words.

JRR Tolkien was a noted student of Old English, and had a facility with words, but from Oxford rather than Cambridge.

You’re way ahead of me.

HG Wells and Jules Verne had had a notorious rivalry over science fiction writing. Is it unreasonable to posit that Tolkien and Powell could replicate that rivalry with regard to the adaptation of Old English/Greek classics into a fictionalised setting?

It is an idea that subverts the use of analogues. Making Powell a far-right politician is boring, boring, boring.

All of this presupposes that analogues will be born in the first place, and that they will have similar experiences up until adulthood. If we take the example of the CSA surviving the Civil War, the experiences of the African-American is going to be different for the one born in the USA and the one born in the CSA, and both will be different from OTL. To take just one aspect: will there be a KKK in this setting? There’s no need for them in the CSA; slavery still exists, and there’s no need for the KKK to operate. In the USA, the situation is likely to be more complicated. Race relations are not going to be all sweetness and light. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see the KKK arising in a USA shorn of the southern slave states.

Worse still are those forced timelines where events change, but somehow the outcome is the same. WWI is avoided and a Cold War takes its place, and the Empires that were destroyed as a direct result of the Great War remain in place. This would be fine, and I make use of this premise in Bring Me My Bow. The trouble comes when the author of a timeline with this premise blithely assumes that all the social and technological changes that were brought about by the war remain exactly as they were OTL. A series of minor conflicts in far-off parts somehow magically has much the same consequence as the bloodletting of the Western Front. Economies never get turned over wholesale to conducting the war, and yet somehow industry behaves as though it had.

It’s lazy and it’s boring. If you’re going to use an analogue, do something interesting with it. If you have a surviving CSA and a WWI starting on schedule, then don’t simply have the USA and CSA ending up on different sides of the alliance blocks. Have one join, and the other not. Have them on the same side, with possible complications of rivals fighting on the same side. Have them get involved in their own separate squabble. Have them rushing to pick up bits of the European Empires while the European powers are busy with slaughter elsewhere. Have the CSA using the opportunity to acquire slaves from abroad while Europe is busy. Anything different.

The basic premise of developing a timeline is quite simple. A major change will have consequences. Work out what these consequences are. These consequences will have further consequences, and these build up until what you have is something totally different and unique. That’s has got to give a more interesting result than the same old clichés.

Hasn’t it?

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