By David Flin
It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people. Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens.
If there’s one thing I can’t stand in any fiction, it is the presence of either Evil Moustache-Twirling Villains with no redeeming features whatsoever, or Perfectly-formed, Upright and Stalwart Heroes who display every virtue in vogue at the time of writing. The vast majority of people aren’t like that. A plausible character will have strengths and weaknesses, good traits and bad, and will neither be always right or wrong about the course of action to be adopted.
And yet there are countless examples of the Irredeemable Villain and the Spotless Hero. The trouble is, when authors do this sort of thing, once you look at the situation described from a different point of view, sometimes things shift perspective.
It’s not just an Alternate History thing. “Hang on, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you said my father had died, and now you’re saying he didn’t die, but was taken over by the Dark Side? Couldn’t we have tried to bring him back? And that’s another thing. You never told me I had a sister? You know, the person I helped rescue from the Death Star? The one I snogged while recovering from wounds, and had this been a more adult movie, well, luckily it wasn’t. And another thing. You knew that Darth Vader was my father back when we first met, you knew as soon as we met that my uncle and aunt were in danger, and you said nothing. I suppose my anger at their being murdered was useful for you recruiting me. And that’s another thing. You cut a guy’s arm off in a pub squabble. You’re a Master of the Force. Why didn’t you just make him decide it wasn’t worth it? No, slicey-slicey you go. And that’s another thing. You knew C3P0 and R2D2, and yet you pretended you didn’t know them when we first met. Lying again. That’s all you do. And that’s another thing …”
The same applies to a lot of other so-called heroes. Harry Potter, for example, doesn’t come out well when you start analysing things. Bully, cheat, liar, supporter of enslavement, and that’s without going into the moral implications of the interactions between wizard and non-wizard worlds. And don’t get me started on that sanctimonious Dumbledore.
In general, an alternate history timeline stands or falls by its plausibility. It’s inherently implausible to have a timeline in which Good Guys are uniformly pure, and Bad Guys are uniformly evil. People may not be consistent, and may sometimes act out of character, but as a general rule, some distortions that take place can blow away my willing suspension of disbelief.
Enoch Powell is one character who appears in a lot of timelines. That’s no big surprise. He was a colourful character with influence, firm views, and a well-known figure.
However, he was a complex character, and altogether too many timelines focus on the obvious, and manipulate actions in a way that make him unrecognisable. Everyone knows about his Rivers of Blood speech, and assume that this had certain implications for his attitudes elsewhere. I’ve seen him portrayed as a staunch supporter of the West and NATO against the Soviet Union, keen to fight alongside America in defence of right-wing ideology.
Umm, no. As late as the 1970s and early 1980s, he viewed the USA as a bigger threat to British interests than the Soviet Union, and argued that while Britain would never be friends with the Soviet Union, an alliance with it would be more logical than the alliance with the USA.
Even more egregious is, I find, those characters who are fictional, and brought into alternate history timelines with the express intent of driving the timeline towards a given outcome. There’s no complexity to the lead characters, who increasingly become caricatures. For a while, there was even a term for it: Rommelisation. This derived from a surprising level of hero-worship of General Rommel by some, to the extent that he was attributed the skills of a great general, that he was a great philanthropist, a skilled diplomat and statesman, and could solve any problem.
Furthermore, when one divides things up neatly into a Good Side and an Evil Side, it becomes simply wish fulfilment, which is usually best kept as a private matter. Wish fulfilment, of course, tends to be very much a matter of personal preference, and when you start going down that rabbit hole, you generally end up revealing more about yourself than you shed light on history.
Inevitably, other people will have different views, and will start pointing out where the timeline isn’t the utopia or the dystopia that the author thinks it is.
In and of itself, this isn’t a problem. What does cause a problem is that it tends to blow away any willing suspension of disbelief, and without that, the timeline is going to fall flat.
What does this imply for alternate histories? Quite simply, as soon as you start trying to force a specific viewpoint, you inevitably open the way for contrarians to view it in another direction. And that’s another thing …