Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Boskone Panel: What If Nelson Had Captured Napoleon: Missed Turning Points in Alternate History

No, I haven't given up! This is the second-to-last of them. Disclaimers: I'm feeling slightly under the weather, and a result: this is more telegraphic in style than usual (and I've felt free to triage random comments that didn't lead anywhere), and I may be cranky. Also, this panel swung wildly between specific what-ifs and general discussions of alternate history; I thought about trying to reorganize the comments into two sections based on this division, but I don't think it would work.


In 1798, in the middle of the night, as French ships carried Napoleon and his army to Egypt, Nelson's ships passed within a few miles. What if Nelson had captured Napoleon at sea? The world would be very, very different. This is one of the great turning points in history about which there are no major alternate history novels. The panel looks at other such turning points. Why have they been ignored? What makes a good turning point for an alternate history story?

Beth Bernobich, Michael F. Flynn (M), James D. Macdonald, Paul Park

Macdonald: it's very difficult to get away from the Great Man theory. He personally doesn't believe in it, but when you're doing turning points . . .

Bernobich: she generally agrees, but one turning point that really might be a single individual: what if the Catholic Church had granted Henry VIII his divorce? England stays Catholic, the squeeze gets put on the Protestant Netherlands, Spain might attack Germany, the Reformation might've been crushed, German Protestant refugees might head for the American south, refugees from underground English sects might head for the American north—and then you've got a North-South conflict that's not the American Civil War!

Park: it's a false temptation to think in terms of battles. He disagrees with Macdonald a little bit: people can be responsible for great changes, but they're rarely kings, politicians, generals. One can imagine variations on scientific or cultural careers with enormous ramifications. And when most authors write alternate history, they're not thinking about great people but small changes.

Flynn: two points:

1) "And so-and-so was suddenly run over by a truck": lousy way to end a story, might be a good way to begin. Winston Churchill was in NYC pre-WWII and did absentmindedly step off a curb, but was pulled back. If not = Farthing (well, okay, he didn't say that, but someone did later).

[Audience interjection: what if Castro had been drafted by the Major Leagues? Response: someone wrote that! No, I don't know who, and you'll excuse me for not looking because I really don't care.]

2) In medieval times, Nicolas Oresme [*] came up with the theory of the spinning Earth and the moving Sun [Ed: this is what I wrote down, but it didn't make sense to me even at the time, and the Catholic Encyclopedia suggests what was meant was a spinning Earth moving around the Sun]; what if he'd had a telescope and looked at Venus? There may have been a scientific revolution 300 years earlier.

[*] Google is very smart, it correctly gave that as a suggestion from my phonetic "Aureseme."

Audience member: Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated by accident: car behind him was bombed, he was on the way to the hospital when one of the conspirators saw his car go by outside a restaurant, came out, and shot him with the pistol the conspirator hadn't ditched yet. What if the traffic hadn't caused the Archduke to pass by that restaurant, what if the conspirator had gotten rid of his gun on schedule . . . Flynn: what if the beer had been really good?

Macdonald: yes, but the dominoes were all ready to fall: there would have been a horrible result no matter what. Now, if there had been observers at Gettysburg who'd taken good notes at Pickett's Charge and then went back to say, "Let's not do this . . . "

Park: goes back to turning points based on variations of creative acts, discoveries etc. Audience member: what about the fact that many discoveries thought to be unique turn out to have been discovered by multiple people at about the same time? [Ed: see Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.] Interrupting audience member: Einstein! [Ed: Chateau Steelypips's resident expert on such matters, a.k.a. orzelc, has opined that General Relativity probably would've only come from Einstein, in contrast to Special Relativity.]

Audience member: everything discussed so far is European or American History & post U.S. Civil War. What about Gandhi, the Opium Wars, the fact that AIDS in North America can be traced to one man?

I think various people made noises of acknowledgment here, and maybe of writing about what they know: but the next thing in my notes is, you guessed it, a return to European history:

Park: pre-WWI, the heir to the Austrian throne was very liberal & hated Kaiser Wilhelm, if he hadn't killed himself, might things have changes (Wikipedia)? But, going back to the Henry VIII example, could the Pope had decided any other way?

Bernobich: a Great Man is a symbol of forces. (Something about change that I can't now decipher.) Audience: people decide if someone is Great or not. Bernobich: if the majority of English people hadn't gotten behind Churchill: would his personality have mattered?

Macdonald: problem is that once a writer gets away from one change, it's not (or less) alternate history than generalized fantasy.

Flynn: for forthcoming short story, about a 14th c. scientific revolution, he had to put the point of divergence two centuries earlier, to his surprise.

Audience member: early in Napoleon's career, he volunteered for a South Seas expedition and wasn't picked; the ship went down with all hands.

Flynn: Robert E. Lee had a ridiculously close shave in the Mexico City campaign when scouting, enemy soldiers sitting and talking on the log he was hiding under. What if he'd sneezed?

Audience member: what if the Library of Alexandria never burned? Flynn: there's some historical doubt about who burned it and when; anyway, there were other libraries.

Audience member: what if the 1958 NFL Championship hadn't been a great game and really kick-started the sport? Macdonald: what's the story?

Park: suggestion: alternate history writers select turning points not because that's how they think history works, but because if the writer/reader can identify the point, than the whole premise becomes appreciable. Actual changes are likely to be much subtler (Einstein again) but hard to write a story about.

Flynn: Henri Poincaré wrote E=mc2 much earlier than Einstein, who had much trouble avoiding his name in the landmark paper! (orzelc gave me a really weird look when I relayed this comment; I will link to Wikipedia again as a reference, but I'm too tired right now to try and decipher what it's saying.)

Bernobich: something about a chain of events that I missed while I was mentally boggling at E=mc2. Macdonald, I think in response: how can we tell that any given Regency/Louis L'Amour story isn't an alternate history? Bernobich: they are!

yhlee from audience: what motivates you to write alternate history? What are you trying to illuminate?

Macdonald: much of speculative fiction is already "what if"; this is a tighter constraint, one change.

Bernobich: defining moment: course in American Revolution taught through students play-acting various historical figures. Professor was God and changed things on them. "We had the Revolution early. We didn't mean to." Just fascinating.

Park: in some sense his works are fantasy, in other senses alternate history. They aren't what-ifs, they break the great seminal events in European history and rearrange the pieces. He's not trying to say anything, just take events that resonate for people and play with them for aesthetic effect.

Flynn: why he wrote Eifelheim: found that some things about the Middle Ages were flat-out wrong. There could've been have been a scientific revolution: so why wasn't there? How could we make this happen?

Audience member: I really haven't heard anything about women this whole time. Interrupting audience member: well, people includes women (re: societal changes/pressures). [Ed: this was so manifestly non-responsive that I couldn't even think how to start responding; also, I was deep in "transcribe" mode.]

Flynn: Hildegard von Bingen (what about her, I don't know); Macdonald: invent reliable contraception in 15th c. Europe! Flynn: Islam would've spread a lot sooner (I have no idea whether this was meant seriously or not. Flynn's tone was very hard for me to decipher.)

Park: it's a good question and the answers illustrate the problem: we see history as waves of influences that coalesce around charismatic men, but that's not how history works.

Audience member: history as weather, chaotic system; what are the right tiny inputs?

Bernobich: worked backward, wanted the world to work a certain way (I think this may be the Henry VIII story, but I didn't hear any titles referenced). The tipping points turned out to be so far back and so numerous that she's not sure it's really alternate history.

Flynn: what if China hadn't destroyed its treasure ships—granted, as part of forces integral to society—but what if not? Why not have someone from China discover North America? Park and audience all together: Kim Stanley Robinson did, in The Years of Rice and Salt!

Someone, my notes aren't clear: 1291 voyage of the Vivaldi brothers (I love Wikipedia: start with a year and the knowledge that you're looking for two brothers with a V. last name, and there you go!), looking for India: they never came back, but what if they did?

Audience member: Pilgrim colony happened to land at time when all the tribes but one had been severely weakened by disease; those remaining needed allies and so let them in. What if the strong tribe had unified New England against the Pilgrims? (It was either mentioned at the panel or I wrote it down based on Chad's description: but this is The Years of Rice and Salt again. The history of the American Indians is very tempting to "fix.")

Flynn: anything really off the wall?

Audience member: example from game Chrononauts: economic implications of the human capital/knowledge lost on the Titanic, maybe the Depression would have been avoided? There was a resounding "eh" in response. Macdonald: (I think:) change it to WWI and it would make sense: the opposite of the Great Man theory, lots of people who would've have been noticed but could make decisions.

Concluding thoughts:

Flynn: what didn't happen is always more interesting.

Macdonald: alternate history is essentially fanfic.

And I left with the knowledge that alternate history panels are likely to attract audience members who annoy me. And that random historical bits are interesting enough, but what I really want (or wanted then) was something meatier, which is not the fault of the panelists considering the description they were charged with.

Tags: boskone, boskone 2007, cons

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