By Ryan Fleming
...We could be sure that robber barons and monopolistic trusts would lead to a growing Socialist Party in the United States that would be ruthlessly crushed.
...It was inevitable that close cooperation between the United Kingdom and United States in the Second World War would lead to the formation of a transcontinental super-state.
...Naturally, the counterculture movement in the north-western United States would eventually be unable to reconcile with the rest of the nation and secede.
...Of course, the industrial disputes of the 1970s in the UK would continue to be the norm well into the 1980s with no end in sight.
...The rising crime rate in the United States would have to see a radical reintroduction of penal colonies, likely taking advantage of natural barriers within the worst locations for crime.
...The problems faced by the early Thatcher government would lead to its downfall and the election of a unilateralist Labour Party. Any left-wing Labour government elected for that matter would quickly see the established powers look to launch a coup.
All visions of the future that, to their authors, seemed to be inevitable based on their own hopes and fears. In all cases events would not come to pass as they had planned them out, but these worries and desires of people in the past can provide a framework of ideas that are very useful in planning out an alternate history concerning the same era.
One of the earliest instances of an author instilling their own hopes and fears into a literary vision for the future was Jack London in his 1907 dystopian novel The Iron Heel. London, as an avowed socialist at a time of great inequality in the United States, saw the next few decades as bringing about a Socialist Party as a mass movement in the United States that would face oppression from the robber barons and trusts that were so prevalent at the time of writing. London might not have seen that the Democratic government of Woodrow Wilson would add further substance to antitrust law (called competition law in Commonwealth countries) enshrining into law the earlier trustbusting efforts of Theodore Roosevelt’s Republican government. He could also not foresee that the coming of the Great War and as a result the Red Scare in the United States would make the idea of a popular socialist party in the United States almost an impossibility. To someone who had seen the excesses of the Gilded Age in the streets of Oakland and in the gold fields of the Yukon, it must have seemed inevitable the impoverished working classes of the United States would eventually seek a more equitable system than what was offered by the oligarchs of the day. In this case legislation and global crises would keep things from boiling over, and the future posed by The Iron Heel would pass from the future to the counterfactual history.
A famous prediction of a future that never came to pass, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell has already been made the subject of alternate historical interest. Now forgotten concerns that the military effort needed to defeat Nazi Germany during the Second World War would mean the end of democracy in the United Kingdom served as the kernel of the idea behind the 1949 novel, with Orwell’s experiences of the Spanish Civil War, the emergence of nuclear weapons, the onset of the Cold War, and the complete state control and cult of personality seen in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin all providing further colour to the world portrayed. As fate would have it, democracy in the United Kingdom would survive the war, the superpowers that would form in the aftermath would not be quite as all-powerful as portrayed in the novel, and Colchester was spared an attack by nuclear weapons. Already others have tried to carve the history of Orwell’s novel as alternate history, some taking the world presented at face value, others portraying Airstrip One (the novel’s name for Great Britain) as a North Korea like dictatorship with no knowledge of the outside world being true, and even Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier using the fall of a North Korea like Oceania as part of its allohistorical setting.
From dystopia to utopia, the experiences of the counterculture movement in the Pacific Northwest of the United States during the 1960s would form much of the content of Ernest Callenbach’s 1974 novel Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston. He envisaged a separatist nation forming from Northern California, Oregon, and Washington breaking away from the United States in 1980. The titular Ecotopia in it’s twenty-five years of independence (the book is set in 1999 during the first visits by US reporters to the breakaway state) has embraced social democracy, environmentalism, drug use and free love, all the while fearing invasion by the United States. Callenbach’s work may lean more towards political pamphlet than novel at times, but again these visions of the future that did not come to pass are equally as interesting for what they get wrong as what they get right. This vision of a world in which the legacy of the counterculture of the 1960s and the burgeoning environmentalist movement of the 1970s lead to secession of most of the US west coast certainly gets plenty wrong but hidden in there are trends that never came to pass.
The myriad of problems faced by the United Kingdom in the 1970s would serve as inspiration for Anthony Burgess’s tribute to Orwell in 1985. Split into two parts, the first being a discussion of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the second part is a novella using the same ‘look ahead’ method as Orwell to portray the world of 1985 from seven years prior in 1978. In the same way the threat to democracy form military effort would form the kernel of idea behind Oceania, so too would the increasing power of trade unions (a hot topic in 1978) become a major part in the Britain portrayed in 1985. Burgess envisioned unions as becoming almost as prevalent in society as Orwell’s Ingsoc, but as we know from our own history a little over a year after publication the anger from the Winter of Discontent (amongst other factors) would sweep the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher into power where she would begin an unprecedented in the modern era eleven years as Prime Minister. The 1985 history brought us, with the notion of the wildcat union strike on its last legs in the ongoing miners’ strike, was a very different one from what Burgess envisioned seven years previously. Of another note is the portrayal in the novel of an increasing presence of Islam in the UK following large immigration from the Middle East, which can seem almost jarring to a modern readership almost seeming like it was pulled from the worst baiting column in a tabloid newspaper. Naturally, the novella also features the ubiquitous King Charles III – which most works set in the future from the 1970s and 1980s seemed to predict would arrive before the year 2000.
The United Kingdom was not the only country to face what seemed like a never-ending series of problems in the 1970s, and those experienced by the United States in the same era would inspire John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York. The combination of the Watergate scandal and a seemingly exponential explosion in the crime rate would set the scene for Carpenter’s vision of the United States government sealing off the island of Manhattan as a gigantic maximum-security prison by the late 1980s. Further depth to the background of the history portrayed in the film was added by numerous casual references that should serve as an example of how to provide colour to an allohistorical background without resorting to big infodumps of exposition. William Gibson cited the line “You flew the Gullfire over Leningrad, didn’t you?” as having little relevance to the plot but providing a whole heap of information about the world as it currently stands as well as our main character. Science fiction films like this can provide so much guidance on how to be evocative of major world events in the historical background to a work, in some ways more than their literature equivalents as in film most of the time it only has dialogue with which to get the point across.
In some instances, even after their prediction has proven wrong an author can still run with it in their work. An example of which is the comic series V for Vendetta, written by Alan Moore. Moore posited in the work that the Thatcher government was going to lose the next general election based on the political climate of the early 1980s, with the unilateralist Labour Party under Michael Foot coming to power. Moore extrapolated this to have the United Kingdom escape mostly unscathed in a late 1980s nuclear war, but the resulting problems from the conflict leading to the rise of a Fascist government under the name Norsefire. The first issue of V for Vendetta would be published in March of 1982, mere weeks before the beginning of the Falklands War, which is commonly cited as a major factor in providing the Conservative Party the clout needed to decisively win the resulting general election in 1983. Its last issue was published in May 1989, with Margaret Thatcher still as Prime Minister and a nuclear war looking potentially less likely than it had at any point in the past forty years. V for Vendetta can perhaps paradoxically be called a work of future science fiction that became alternate history as it was being published.
The election of a left-wing government in the United Kingdom also loomed large in the 1982 novel A Very British Coup, by Chris Mullin. Written at the time when Michael Foot was Leader of the Labour Party and it seemed likely Tony Benn would become Deputy Leader, Mullin combined these with conspiracy theories from the 1970s over attempted undermining of Harold Wilson’s Labour government by security services to portray the efforts of the security services and media to discredit the left-wing government of the fictional Harry Perkins. Mullin’s work is just part of many British political thrillers from the 1970s through to the mid-90s that, by predicting political events that never came to pass, can now almost serve as templates for alternate history. Other examples include Michael Dobbs House of Cards (1989) and its sequels; as well as the works of future Cabinet minister Douglas Hurd and Andrew Osmond, in particular 1971's Scotch on the Rocks.
There is already tapped potential in such thrillers, conspiracy theories, and allegations of the times in alternate history. Agent Lavender: The Flight of Harold Wilson by Jack Tindale and Tom Black looks at a world in which the allegations that Harold Wilson was a spy for the Soviet Union turn out to be fact, that the theories of a cabal of security, business, and entertainment figures sought to subvert the British government were true, and where Chris Mulling and many other recognisable faces find themselves caught up in what appears to be an actual very British coup. It weaves these disparate strands into a narrative of a United Kingdom that if we were able to present it to someone contemporary to the events portrayed, they might take it for as much as a vision of the future that could have been ripped from the newspapers of the day.
The potential in casting the hopes, fears, and theories of the past as allohistorical events is great. Perhaps without the election of the Wilson government in the United States trustbusting falls back and the US remains neutral throughout the First World War, allowing a broad socialist movement to form in that country. Perhaps the cost for defeating Nazi Germany is democracy in the United Kingdom, irreparably damaged. Perhaps the counterculture movement in the United States coalesces into an actual political movement. Perhaps without the Falklands Margaret Thatcher would be remembered as a short tenured Prime Minister notable only for being the first woman to hold that office. Perhaps the security services would launch a coup against a left-wing government, a violent strand of Scottish nationalism might emerge, and a new monarch would lock horns with a government of which they did not approve. Alternate history is all about examining the way history did not pan out, and the works cited in this article and its predecessors are as much an examination of the way things could have turned out but did not as any actual work of alternate history written after the fact.