By David Flin
The Alien Space Bat: the development of a phrase.
Alien Space Bats. A fairly odd term, and one that, to the uninitiated, is a bit obscure. Within the Alternate History community, however, it’s known as a short-hand phrase, often abbreviated to ASB, referring to a Point of Departure that breaks physical laws, and is usually of a ludicrous nature, to lead to a cartoon-like Time Line. ASBs are creatures with the ability to cast a form of magic, and enable the ridiculous, for no readily apparent motive. One example of the start of an ASB Time Line might go: “What would happen if ASBs turned all ballistic missiles into systems to allow Father Christmas to deliver presents on Christmas Eve?”
That’s not how they started. In fact, they’ve switched into an entirely opposite meaning to that which they were originally used for. Back in 1997, alternate history forums, in particular, a forum called soc.history.what-if, there were a lot of discussions that took the form: such-and-such an outcome would have arisen if this change took place. A number of these were, quite frankly, stupid, but their proponents tended to believe that if they restated the case again and again, it might become accepted as true. Some of the arguments got quite heated.
The late Alison Brooks developed the Alien Space Bats as a method of combating some of the more egregious examples of stupidity. The first use of ASBs came when there was a discussion of 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 that Washington would have fallen easily. Dr Brooks pointed out that, even if Alien Space Bats arrived in the aftermath of a successful assault in Pickett’s Charge, and they swept away every trace of the Army of the Potomac, resupplied Lee’s army with all the ammunition and food and boots that it could carry, miraculously healed all of the Confederate wounded, erased every trace of exhaustion from an army that had been marching hard and just finished a three-day battle, even with all that, Lee’s Army didn’t have the heavy cannon to reduce the Washington defences, and didn’t have the manpower to have a realistic chance of assaulting the defences.
ASBs took off when it came to discussions of Operation Sealion, the proposed German invasion of Britain in 1940 during WW2. In particular, there was a long-standing suggestion that fitting drop tanks to German fighters would have resulted in an inevitable successful invasion. Alison invoked ASBs to give all German fighters infinite fuel capacity, infinite ammunition, and pilots who never needed rest. “ASBs give the German fighters the ability to fly and fight all day, every day for the entirety of the Operation. They never need to return to base for fuel or bullets or repair. Furthermore, they are invulnerable to any harm, and never get shot down or damaged.” She then went on to demonstrate that even if ASBs granted all that, the German fighters didn’t have the numbers to accomplish all the tasks that they were required to do to facilitate a successful invasion. The number of fighters required to cover the barges, escort bombers, provide ground support, escort bombers trying to interdict the Royal Navy, and all the other tasks allocated to them in the plan was significantly greater than the number of fighters available.
The original usage of ASBs was to demonstrate why a given outcome from a change was just not possible.
However, over time, ASBs became increasingly used to provide an absurd POD, for the purposes of facilitating an absurd Time Line. They became used as a source of absurdity, rather than as a tool for debate.
Alison very much regretted the change. “I understand how Frankenstein felt, creating something that turns into a monster, wreaking havoc wherever it goes.” She also said that if she had a time machine, she’d go back and ensure that she never developed the term. Essentially, she regarded the evolved form of ASBs as being a substitute for thought, rather than an aid. Over time, she accepted the validity of their use in setting up a Time Line with a ridiculous initial premise, provided that the logic of the situation was followed through. For example, ASBs transport the Army of the Potomac to 1066 to help King Harold would be fine if the Time Line then looked at the psychological impact on both Saxons and Yankees, on what the Army of the Potomac would do once its ammunition gave out, what impact diseases might have in both directions, and so on.
However, she was usually disappointed, and ASBs evolved even more towards being an arm-wave to allow ridiculous events.
I suppose it is a salutary tale for our times, about how our creations end up as something other than what we intended. When we release an idea into the wild, it may take on a life of its own. All one can do as the parent of an idea is to hope that the idea has had a good enough upbringing to add to the sum of human well-being, rather than subtract.