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The Write Stuff: Does the End justify the Means?

By David Flin

It’s not so much the moral question I’ll be looking at, but the way events play out in some time lines. The debate comes when an author is trying to reach a specific end goal with the time line. As the plot develops, it becomes apparent that there are points where those involved have to behave totally out of character in order for the desired goal to be achieved.

One very common example is in a number of WWII timelines, in which the author wants to have Germany defeat the Soviet Union. This then leads the author to consider the role of Japan. How much easier it would be to achieve the result if Japan attacked the Soviet Union in the Far East rather than going south. It would distract the Soviet Union, and force it to split the division of its forces. The Soviet Union would now no longer be able to draw on forces from the east to defend the west. It also prevents the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and keeps the USA out of the war, thus preventing the Soviet Union being propped up by Lend-Lease.

There’s every reason why Germany would consider this to be a good thing. It’s a benefit without a cost. It’s harder to see why Japan would do this. Japan’s main concern was the war with China, which tied up much of the Japanese Army and very little of the Japanese Navy. Striking south would mainly involve the Navy, and would go up against the denuded forces of Britain, France, and the Netherlands, far, far away, and potentially gain the oil fields of the Dutch East Indies, and rubber and tin from Malaya. Available forces to go against weakened foes to gain access to resources.

The alternative was to strike north against the Soviet Union. They’d tried this before, in 1939. In the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, the Soviet forces crushed the Japanese without too much difficulty. Because of this, the Soviet Union maintained sizable forces in the region with much better and heavier equipment than the Japanese possessed. Striking north would largely involve the already heavily-committed army, and the navy would have minimal work to do. If successful, it would gain for Japanese a large amount of tundra, with very limited exploitable resources.

Japan had a choice: go south, against weak opponents, using forces that weren’t really doing much, and gain the resources it needed; or go north, against strong opponents, using forces that are already over-stretched, in order to gain nothing of immediate use.

It’s possible to justify a North policy, but it needs to be justified.

It’s at this point that I need to declare an interest. When I write stories or timelines, I do so very much on the basis that the various participants involved will have reasons to act as they do. That may well mean I need to rethink the outcome of the piece, but it does ensure that the stages of the tale make sense.

In my view, a critical factor in any tale, story, or timeline is that the author needs to retain the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. It’s a phrase from the SF community, but it equally applies to AH. Essentially, a reader is willing to grant a premise at the start for the sake of the story, such as faster-than-light spaceships can whizz around engaging in WWII-style dogfights and skilful pilots being able to react quickly enough to dodge laser blasts. Once you’ve established the premise, you need to stick to it. If you’ve established that the Roman invaders of Britain face a collection of tribes that prefer to squabble amongst themselves and don’t see the Romans as a common enemy, and then you can’t, ten pages later, without any explanation, have a major battle with a confederation of British tribes fighting in a well-coordinated manner against Roman forces. If you do this, the reader is, not unreasonably, going to go: “Wait a minute.”

If you’ve got a desired end-goal, then you need to check the steps along the way. An alternative is to arm-wave and go straight to the end-goal, and start the story there. Man In The High Castle, for example, takes this approach. There’s a brief summary of how Japan and Germany managed to carve up the United States during WWII (the explanation being, to use technical terminology, “nonsense on stilts”), and then it goes into the story. If Phillip K Dick had got bogged down in the details of how he got to the situation in his story, it simply wouldn’t have worked.

A lot depends on the type of story you’re telling. If you’re essentially telling a history, then the details matter, because the story is about the details. That means that you can’t just gloss over the details, as suggested in the path, and you’re going to have to check the steps along the way for plausibility.

In checking for plausibility, you have to look at a decision from the point of view of those making the decision. In the example of the Japanese attack on the Soviet Union, described above, the decision has to be looked at from the point of view of the planners. If nothing is changed from OTL that will affect Japanese calculations before the decision is made, then there is no reason for the north option to be taken. Bad decisions are often made (and Japan made a lot of bad decisions in WWII), but there is usually an underlying logic to them, even if that logic is founded on false assumptions.

If a character in a novel or film acts out-of-character and in a totally illogical manner, it wrecks the story. It often happens to villains. There’s a whole list of Evil Emperor Errors; for example: “When I employ people as advisors, I will occasionally listen to their advice.” The same applies to Alternate History, and the Plans of Evil Empires. It’s comical when it happens to a character in fiction, and the same is true for Alternate History fiction.

Then again, sometimes in real history, some actions genuinely undertaken were really dumb. That’s the advantage real history has over alternate history: alternate history has to be plausible and make sense. Real life is not constrained by the need to be believable.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow