Thursday, January 15, 2009


I recommend an anthology I’m reading called SIDEWAYS IN CRIME, edited by Lou Anders, based on the theme of combining mystery with alternate history. The stories range from wildly counterfactual settings such as 1914 in England of a world where the Roman Empire never fell and Mexico in a world where the Aztec Empire continued to flourish in an America dominated by China and Spain, to a recent-past scenario in which J. Edgar Hoover is murdered during the Johnson administration and Attorney General Robert Kennedy rushes to take possession of Hoover’s potentially explosive secret files. I actually bought the book for “A Murder in Eddsford,” by S. M. Stirling, set in his Change universe (which began with DIES THE FIRE), where all advanced technology ceased to function in the late twentieth century (making it more post-apocalyptic than alternate history; maybe it could be called “alternate near-future”).

Alternate history scenarios inspire speculation as to whether history as we know it is so delicately balanced that the killing of a butterfly, as in the classic Ray Bradbury story, would tip events so far as to alter the long-term course of the world, or so resilient as to be self-correcting to the extent that any attempted change would result in merely reaching the same point by a different route. And then there’s the “great man” philosophy: Would the early death of Napoleon or Hitler have transformed the future of Europe, or does history conform more to the pattern Heinlein expressed as, “When it’s time to railroad, somebody will railroad”? Parallel universes come to mind, too; in Heinlein’s NUMBER OF THE BEAST, every possible sequence of events that could ever occur, including those laid out in works of fiction, HAS occurred in one of the unimaginably vast number of universes that exist. Any attempt to change history simply creates a new parallel timeline.

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