They are called “jonbar points”, from the moment in Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time when a small boy, John Barr, picks up either a magnet or a pebble. One choice turns the world towards the good Jonbar empire, the other turns it towards the bad Gyronchi empire.
They are, other words, the point of change around which alternate histories are built.
If you are looking for the big dramatic moment when history is in the balance, when events could have gone either way, then the obvious place to look is a war. Because wars are, by their very nature, full of such moments when, but for chance, things could very easily have turned out differently. And because wars can be presented as a bold struggle between good and evil, between democracy and fascism, between freedom and slavery, they make for good jonbar points in science fiction alternate histories. In this blog we’ve already looked at Hitler winning the Second World War, or the South winning the American Civil War (though even the books we listed in those articles barely begin to scratch the surface: at a rough estimate, more than half of all alternate histories fall into one or other of these broad camps).
But there are many other places where history could have taken a different path, and that’s not counting all the cases where alternate histories are initiated by time travellers (we may have to do a separate post just on that at some point). These are some of the more interesting turning points.
The Black Death
The bubonic plague reached Europe, probably aboard a Genoese trading vessel, in 1348. Within the next two years it had killed 25 million people, nearly half of Europe’s population. And yet this sudden and devastating depopulation of the continent was followed by immense social changes, the rise of an independent merchant class, and the cultural explosion of the renaissance. However, this onslaught, which led to people in every family, in every village, dying a terrible death, an onslaught against which there was no defence, could easily have had far worse consequences. It is easy to imagine the nascent civilizations of France, of England, of Italy, being weakened beyond the ability to recover; of the continent being seen as easy pickings for invaders from elsewhere, such as the Mongols from Central Asia.
The first author to really explore this scenario was Robert Silverberg with The Gate of Worlds. The Black Death actually kills 80% of the European population, laying Europe open to conquest by the Turks, and as a result there is no renaissance, no rapid development of modern science and technology, and the Americas are not reached from Europe, leaving the Aztecs to dominate the entire continent. Silverberg later edited Beyond the Gate of Worlds, a short collection of three novellas by himself, John Brunner and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro exploring how the elimination of Europe would affect Eastern Europe, Timbuctoo and the court of the Incas.
A very different take on the same scenario came in The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. The devastation of Europe shifts things elsewhere, so it is from China that explorers set out for the Americas and for Africa; the scientific advances that developed out of the renaissance here emerge from India and the Middle East; and the religions that shape the world are Islam and Buddhism, not the forgotten beliefs of Christianity.
One of the consequences of the Black Death was that people became more willing to question authority, particularly the authority of the Church. Such resistance reached its head in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg, and what he saw at first as no more than a scholarly dispute became the seed of the Protestant Reformation. Over the next 200 years, religious wars stormed back and forth across Europe as Protestantism expanded, acquired powerful allies such as Henry VIII of England or Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, then came up against equally powerful resistance in Catholic southern Europe. As the religious wars turned into dynastic wars, so Protestant Europe became more accommodating to the scientific advances of the age, while the Catholic Church increasingly saw those advances as a threat and tried to ban them.
Perhaps the most powerful novel to emerge from this scenario, and one of the best of all alternate histories, was Pavane by Keith Roberts. (In a postscript added when the stories that made up Pavane were initially gathered together into one volume, Roberts tried to make out that this was an example of cyclic history rather than alternate history, but whatever he says it really is an alternate history novel.) In this world, Queen Elizabeth was assassinated on the eve of the Spanish Armada, consequently the Armada was successful and England was recovered for the Catholic Church. As a result, in the 1960s, when the novel is set, Britain is suffering under repressive rule, the Inquisition is in full and malicious swing, technology is strictly limited, and out in the country there is still a belief in fairies. There’s a very similar scenario at the heart of Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove: the Armada was successful, Elizabeth is in the Tower, Isabella is on the throne, the Inquisition has been imported, and both the Spanish rulers and the English rebels want the rising young playwright William Shakespeare to write a play glorifying their cause.
The Alteration, one of Kingsley Amis’s rare forays into science fiction, is a work clearly inspired by Pavane. In this world, Martin Luther didn’t launch the Protestant Reformation, but instead was made Pope. As a result, modern England has been intellectually, technologically and spiritually frozen in a pseudo-medieval state. What this means, one ten-year-old chorister is about to discover, when the powers that be decide that he should be castrated to preserve his crystal clear voice.
The Creation of America
It may not come close to the Civil War, but the creation (or not) of America gets a lot of attention from sf writers. As we’ve seen, both Silverberg’s The Gate of Worlds and Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, devote a lot of attention to an America without Columbus. Aztec Century by Christopher Evans allows Columbus to reach the Americas, but then has Cortes change sides and help the Aztecs to throw out the conquistadors. As a result, by the late 20th century the Aztec Empire has gone on to conquer most of the globe, including a Britain that is just getting used to the idea of being subject to a foreign power.
But let us assume that North America is indeed settled by Europeans, displacing the Native Americans pretty much the way it happened in our history. The British Empire laid claim to most of the Eastern seaboard (it is, I suspect, no coincidence that the French in Canada and Louisiana, or the Spanish in Florida, Texas and California, play no more than an incidental part, if that, in any of these alternate histories), and most of the inhabitants of this vast territory were happy enough to call themselves British. Until the usual conflicts between colonists and the distant homeland began to emerge late in the 18th century, leading to the familiar story of Paul Revere’s ride and Washington crossing the Delaware and Burgoyne surrendering at Saratoga and so on. Or did it?
In For Want of a Nail by Robert Sobel, Burgoyne didn’t surrender at Saratoga. Instead he held on long enough for reinforcements to arrive and achieves a famous victory, so international support for the American rebels quietly disappears. The British consolidate their hold on what they now call the Confederation of North America, while the rebels flee to Mexico (at the time including Texas) to establish the United States of Mexico. The rebellion is similarly unsuccessful in Harry Harrison’s Tunnel Through the Deeps, and George Washington achieves his place in history as an infamous traitor. Now, in the 1970s, his descendant is trying to restore the honour of the name by heading up the greatest engineering feat of the age, a tunnel below the Atlantic to link Britain and her colonies. Or perhaps the revolution didn’t even happen. The Two Georges by Harry Turtledove and Richard Dreyfuss imagines that George III of Britain and George Washington for the American colonies had signed a peace treaty before any revolution even got off the ground. Now, in the 1990s, a hate group known as the Sons of Liberty are suspected of being behind the theft of a famous painting of that treaty ceremony, and a “Mountie” is given the task of criss-crossing this different but strangely familiar America to track it down.
One of the more persistent themes of modern science fiction is steampunk, a branch of the literature that imagines modern or futuristic devices, from computers to spaceships, being being constructed and powered by steam power and by mechanical rather than electronic means. It is mostly a romantic vision, and it certainly makes for some very good costumes for steampunk fans, but it does have a more solidly science fictional basis. After all, the Victorian era was a period of rapid technological change, from the first steam train to the first powered flight.
Remember, in the middle of the 19th century, Charles Babbage designed first a Difference Engine and then an Analytical Engine. Neither instrument was completed before his death, the Analytical Engine in particular, which was designed to use punched cards and a language devised by Ada Lovelace, is generally recognized as the starting point for digital computing. In The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the Analytical Engine has been perfected, bringing in its wake a host of technological innovations a century ahead of their time. But the discovery of a set of punched cards for the engine that are of unknown origin and purpose leads to the discovery of how much else has changed in this world.
Of course, it is not necessary to rely on known technologies to explore Victorian technological advances. In Anti-Ice, Stephen Baxter begins with the discovery of a cometary fragment composed of anti-ice, a sort of anti-matter that can be harnessed for vast technological power. This immediately gives the British Empire an even more dominant position in the world, especially when anti-ice starts to be used in weapons, first in the Crimea and then in the Franco-Prussian war, it begins to have an immense effect on the political history of the world. Baxter also went of to produce Newton’s Aliens, a collection of three stories, one of which is another anti-ice story and the other two are alternate histories of the alternate history.
The Kennedy Assassination
Stories that explore history-changing events since the Second World War are surprisingly few. There is the occasional novel that imagines a different outcome for the Cuban Missile Crisis (such as The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter), but not so many as you might imagine. The one relatively recent historical event that has attracted the most interest in alternate history terms has been the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This is not really surprising, since the assassination came as a massive shock to the system for a whole generation, particularly coming as it did at a rare moment of political optimism.
Sometimes the survival of Kennedy is almost incidental to the novel, as in Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson, in which the jonbar point is that Elvis Presley was the twin that died and his non-musical brother Jesse is the one who lives. From this there are all sorts of oddities, from the Beatles never making it because rock ‘n’ roll never caught on, to the twin towers reappearing in the Badlands of Dakota on the 20th anniversary of 9/11; so the fact that failed presidential candidate John Kennedy appears at an Andy Warhol party is one of the lesser parts of the novel.
Sometimes, Kennedy’s survival is only the trigger for a bigger change, as in Voyage by Stephen Baxter, in which President Kennedy sets in motion the idea of sending a manned mission to Mars. From that starting point, the novel is mostly concerned with the technical challenges NASA faces in setting up and then running the mission to Mars.
And then there are those stories where the survival of Kennedy is the be-all and end-all of the story, as in 11/22/63 by Stephen King (which also seems to suggest that only people called Stephen write alternate history stories about Kennedy). This is primarily a time travel story in which a Maine school teacher travels back to 1958, and then works himself into a position in which he will be able to prevent the assassination. But when he returns to the present in a world in which Kennedy won a second term, he finds that there have been nuclear wars in Vietnam and between India and Pakistan, that Maine has seceded from the US and joined Canada, and that the world is physically tearing itself apart.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.