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Writing Alternate History: The Unexpected Constant

Updated: Mar 28

By Tom Anderson.

How often does this man appear in Timelines of the 1970s and 1980s?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Although I have titled this article under “Writing Alternate History”, it applies primarily to AH written from the perspective of our own world, where (for example) travellers from the world we know visit an alternate timeline, or vice versa. It is also equally applicable to straightforward time travel science fiction. As we’ll see towards the end of this article, there are actually ways in which this trope could be applied to the more ‘hard’ form of AH where everything is self-contained within an invented history but – as far as I know – this has been used surprisingly seldom by AH writers.


But let’s stop beating about the bush and get to defining what I mean by ‘the Unexpected Constant’. This is related to what TV Tropes describes as a ‘Time Abyss’, though the two are not quite the same. Basically, I could apply the term Unexpected Constant to almost any category – an item, a sport, a religion, even a character if they are immortal.


The Unexpected Constant describes a situation in which we, the reader (or sometimes the characters in-universe) have gotten used to the idea that we are viewing a very different, alien time period (or alternate timeline) to our own, and perhaps are even beginning to dehumanise its inhabitants as so far removed from our own – when suddenly, something appears which connects with our own experience and shocks us with remembrance of this connection.


It’s probably easier to explain if I give examples. Perhaps the most clear-cut example I can think of comes from one of Alternate History’s most prominent authors, Harry Turtledove (who was interviewed on this blog, Here) In 1986, Turtledove published a time travel short story with the glorious title of: The Barbecue, the Movie, & Other Unfortunately Not So Relevant Material, which was later republished in the anthology Departures. The story is told from the perspective of a Los Angeles resident in the then-current year of 1986 named TG Kahn – his father was a professor of history and named him Temujin Genghis Kahn after the great Mongol conqueror. Naturally, he was teased at school for this and now only uses his initials. However, his name is close enough to confuse the time-travel method of Lasoporp Rof, a history student from at least fifty or sixty thousand years into the future. Rof thought he was travelling to meet the original Genghis Khan, but instead ends up meeting his later namesake. Now, Rof’s time period is so drastically far removed from the 20th Century (as he calls it, the ‘Late Middle First Primitive Period’, as opposed to the original Genghis’ ‘Mid Middle First Primitive Period’) that at first he can’t even tell he’s in the wrong century. He thinks the cars in the streets of LA might be oxen, as both oxen and cars are so far out of his experience that he can’t tell them apart. Turtledove does a great job of establishing, through Kahn’s eyes, just how radical a disconnect there is between the two. And then, when Kahn takes him back to his apartment, Rof spots a menorah in the corner and casually adds: “Oh, I see you’re Jewish.”

Recognisable from the far future, according to Turtledove.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

This is a perfect example of “The Unexpected Constant.” The Jews as a people, and their religion, are well-known for surviving endless attempts at persecution and genocide over the past three thousand years. Indeed, at the end of his book The Guns of the South, Turtledove – a Jew himself – uses the extraordinary re-establishment of the State of Israel as a way of confusing 1860s Confederates when they hear about the future year of 2014. The idea that in Rof’s unimaginably distant time, the one recognisable thing he spots indicates the survival of the Jews and Judaism, is both a powerful image and one which Turtledove uses in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek way.


Frank Herbert does something similar, if not quite as focal, in his last Dune series book, Chapterhouse: Dune. This is set well over fifteen thousand years into the future; to be precise, five thousand years after the original Dune, which is itself set ten thousand years after the establishment of the Spacing Guild, which must itself lie considerably into our future. The reader of the Dune series is used to religion being important in it, and how Herbert indicates the far future date by showing religions having fractured and merged in unusual ways – Zensunni Buddislamics, the Navachristians, the ecumenical Orange Catholic Bible, and so on. But near the start of Chapterhouse: Dune, we learn that the Bene Gesserit order have identified a secret society on the planet Gammu (formerly the old Harkonnen homeworld of Giedi Prime).


I quote directly from the book: “The people to whom your attention has been called are the Jews. They made a defensive decision aeons ago. The solution to recurrent pogroms was to vanish from public view... This does not mean they have abandoned age-old practices in which they excelled out of survival necessity. The old religion is sure to persist even though somewhat altered. It is probable that a rabbi from ancient times would not find himself out of place behind that Sabbath minora of a Jewish household in your age. But their secrecy is such that you could work a lifetime beside a Jew and never suspect. They call it ‘Complete Cover’, although they know its dangers.” The community is referred to among themselves as ‘Secret Israel’, and when asked about their beliefs by outsiders, they simply make ambiguous references to ‘seeking to revive the religion of the past’; there are always sects making similar comments, after all.


Similar to Turtledove’s use, Herbert uses the proven record of the Jewish people to survive persecution in secret (such as in Spain under the Inquisition) to create an ‘Unexpected Constant’. Amid the far distant future of Dune with its vast weight of history and its muddled and melded religions, Judaism and the Jews has survived, almost unchanged, in secret. Contrast this with, for example, five millennia earlier in Dune Messiah when Paul Atreides is confused as to why past generations thought ‘Emperor Hitler’ was evil when he ‘only killed six million [people]’; so much history has been lost that historiographers have imagined that Earth was already a single united monarchy and lack the perspective that humanity was not the endless billions of their own time. Secret Israel stands out because it is an almost unique survival of knowledge from our time (and before!) untainted and preserved.


Notably, the mixed-bag Dune prequels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson (see my earlier article on Prequel Problems: Prelude to Dune ) fail to get this right. At one point Duncan Idaho, on the planet Ginaz, has an unrealistically complete knowledge of Japanese history. I remember my suspension of disbelief being shattered when he refers to ‘the British’, when one gets the impression from the original Dune books that nobody really remembers individual nations anymore (‘The House of Washington was the first to use atomics’).


Instead of a religious/ethnic group, another example of the Unexpected Constant could be a political party – or at least a political label. Iain Bowen’s grand Alternate History opus, Arose from Out the Azure Main, describes (in great detail) the outcome of Margaret Thatcher’s United Kingdom from 1980 being time-transplanted onto the world as it was back in 1730. His SLP-published trilogy of ‘Viscount Fawsley’ novels, starting with Dislocated to Success are an abridged, narrative summary of the broader work.

Norman St John-Stevas, later to be Viscount Fawsley.

Picture courtesy BBC.

One of my favourite early moments in the piece is when the translocated 1980s British government sends an agent in secret to scout out the American colonies of the 1730s. The agent in question is, of course, SBS ace Paddy Ashdown, who in our history would go on to lead the Liberal Democrats. Ashdown, complete with contemporary wig, infiltrates Baltimore and speaks with a young, but already brilliant, Benjamin Franklin. Ashdown comes clean about the extraordinary events to Franklin and explains he is from the future.


Later, the Massachusetts businessman Thomas Hancock (future uncle of John Hancock) visits Cornwall and meets Liberal MP David Penhaligon (who in our timeline tragically died in a car crash in 1986). When Hancock asks Penhaligon if he’s a Whig or a traitorous Tory, Penhaligon notes: “I am a Liberal, which is a party partially descended from Whigs. I would be careful about using the word traitorous and Tory together, the current Government is Tory and whilst I have many issues with them, I wouldn’t associate them with treason.” Hancock retorts: “The Government are Tories. Well, that would explain the nonsense we have heard from Bermuda.” How many nations are there in this world where a man from 250 years earlier can understand a reference to the current governing party? It is a great example of the Unexpected Constant, in a setting with the people of 1730 otherwise are grappling with vast changes when they see the UK of 1980.


Of course, the term ‘Tory’ in British politics is a label whose meaning has shifted over time. ‘Tory’, from an Irish word meaning horse-thief, originally referred to the ‘Court Party’ or faction in 1670s England which favoured the rights of the Duke of York to succeed to the throne as King James II and VII despite his Catholicism – which the Whigs opposed. The Tories were a party of tradition, of a strong monarchy, of the Church of England, much of the aristocracy and the countryside – opposed by the bourgeois Whigs, who were backed by the rising merchant classes of the cities. After the 1710s or so, the Tories became an increasingly irrelevant minority beside the dominating ‘Whig Supremacy’, and the term eventually ceased to have its original meaning. In fact, almost everyone in Parliament claimed to be some variety of Whig, and ‘Tory’ was only used as an insult against any faction one didn’t like. This finally stuck after the 1780s, when William Pitt the Younger’s supporters were dubbed ‘Tories’ by the opposition Whig faction.


After the fight over the Great Reform Act in 1832, Sir Robert Peel gave a speech at Tamworth in 1834 in which he attempted to rebrand this ‘Tory’ faction – its reputation blackened by opposition to reform – as the Conservative Party, seeking to ‘conserve’ the best of the past.


Despite this rebrand (the Earl of Derby had preferred the term ‘Moderate’), the term Tory stuck around as a partly pejorative one. The Conservatives split over protectionism and the Peelite faction joined the Whigs to form the Liberal Party, then later the Liberal Party split over Irish Home Rule and the Liberal Unionists joined the Conservatives to form the Conservative and Unionist Party (as Britain’s main right-wing party is known today).


The Liberals also split again in the 1920s with some factions joining the Conservatives, partly contributing to them being surpassed by the working-class Labour Party as the main party on the left. But in the 1980s, Labour split and its more moderate faction became the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which eventually merged with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats. This gives us the three main nationwide parties of Britain today – the Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats. But throughout all this dizzying change, as the country around has radically altered, the label ‘Tory’ has never ceased applying to Conservatives in British politics.


One could argue that this trope could be executed even more effectively with America’s two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, as their names (and to some extent symbolism) have remained effectively unchanged for over 150 years. Their values and policies have changed to some extent, but both have always been broad-church coalitions bringing together many disparate, and seemingly incompatible, voter groups from across the nation. The Democrats were once simultaneously the party of white supremacist former slaveholders in the South, Catholic immigrants in the North, and anti-Prohibitionists, hence the pejorative slogan that they were the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”.


The Republicans, meanwhile, attempted to be both the party of Protestant German immigrants and the party of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nativists who tried to ban German newspapers, with predictable results at one point.


The nature of American politics has changed in some ways, but it would be quite possible to make a long-range time travel story in which an American of, say, the 1880s is thoroughly unsurprised that New York City is dominated by Democrats or that debates over new forms of currency remain a hot political topic.


Besides references that the audience themselves will be familiar with from real life, one can also make ‘mythological’ references to the background of a setting itself. Let’s take Batman as an example. In one of the earliest comics from 1939, we see a flashback to Bruce Wayne deciding what form his crusade against crime will take. “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible... a... a...” (Narration: As if in answer, a huge bat flies in the open window). Bruce: “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen... I shall become a bat!” (Narration: And thus is born this weird figure of the dark... this avenger of evil. The Batman!)

Criminals are scared of this cute boy?

Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

These lines became iconic and central to the character. In the cartoon Justice League Unlimited, a two-part episode entitled The Once and Future Thing aired in 2005. This was an adventure in which Batman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman chase a time-travelling villain named Chronos first to the past, in the form of the Wild West (where they crossover with various DC Comics Western heroes like Jonah Hex) and then into the future. This was a crossover with a previous animated series named Batman of the Future (or Batman Beyond in the US) where Bruce Wayne is now too old to be Batman, but has passed on the role – and some technological tricks – to a teenager named Terry McGuinness.


Present-day Batman finds himself in a Gotham City transformed beyond all recognition into a futuristic cyberpunk nightmare, and encounters his own older self. With criminals striking all over the city, he resolves to find information to track down Chronos, and goes out to intimidate an informant. It’s pointed out that: “It’s not gonna work. You don’t know your way around here. A lot of things have changed.” Present-day Batman retorts, simply: “Are criminals still superstitious and cowardly?” and, on this being affirmed, adds: “That’s all I need to know.”


It’s a great link to the mythology of the character, showing an unchanging constant in-universe that also suggests why he will always be needed.


I’ll finish with some notes on the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek is known for getting technology predictions right, in part because it sometimes inspires engineers (such as communicators prefiguring the flip phone). Some of Star Trek’s future predictions are laughed off at the time, but prove more durable in reality. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG), one can simply say things like: “Computer, music... no, something more Latin,” and the computer obligingly pipes the music in. At the time, many people poured scorn on the idea that we’d ever be happy with a computer forever listening in the background – which, of course, has come to pass with devices such as Amazon’s Alexa.


Another Star Trek prediction was that linear broadcast TV would cease to be mainstream in the mid 2040s, which many found ridiculous at the time, but again seems a lot more believable now in the age of streaming.


This is not to say that Star Trek always gets it right. Sometimes it falls victim to the problem of assuming that a current popcultural or social phenomenon will be more enduring than it actually is. The original series (TOS) had The Way to Eden, an episode involving a group of instantly dated hippies. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture, released in 1979, Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy rejoins the crew sporting a beard, an open shirt with a bare chest and a gold medallion. At least he wasn’t accompanied by disco music. And, just to show we have learned nothing, Star Trek: Picard in 2020 introduced a character who vapes – rather than the more appropriate and utopian tradition in Star Trek that nobody smokes except the occasional group of backward aliens. Indeed, Roddenberry resisted the urge to show smoking in the original series, rejecting sponsorship from tobacco companies in the process.


On the technology side, like most science fiction of the era, TOS assumed all computers would be single centralised units, rather than the trend towards decentralised networking that we have witnessed as an outgrowth of ARPANET.


The critic Phil Farrand pointed out that TNG had a better understanding of music than TOS with its hippies, noting: “Bach has endured for three centuries. He will easily endure for another three.” The downside to that was that it fed an impression (largely unwarranted) that TNG was priggish or elitist. I personally prefer the phrase: “Unashamedly intellectual”.


Does Star Trek have an Unexpected Constant? Perhaps. While TOS liked to portray Kirk and Spock playing three-dimensional chess games to indicate that it’s THE FUTURE, later Trek series clarified that standard chess is still played as well. In the recent Strange New Worlds episode Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, the character La’an finds herself stuck in the 21st Century past alongside an alternate version of James T Kirk. As they lack funds, Kirk raises money by challenging people to chess games. It’s a nice example of a constant that exists across centuries, but I feel the show could have acknowledged this more. As it is, it’s just mentioned in passing.

Also available in two dimensions.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

When writing stories that involve time travel or time jumps – or, for that matter, travel between different timelines – take a moment to consider whether you can use an Unexpected Constant. It will help not only characters form connections with each other, but with the audience as well.


Discuss this article Here.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series


among others.



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