Saturday, July 06, 2013

An Alternative History Panel

I'm not going back to CONvergence today, since I have an essay to finish. I think it's due today. (I just checked and can't find the last email from the editor, so will have to go on memory.)

I felt I talked too much on the one panel I did yesterday. I was trying to think something through out loud. This should not be done on panels, which ought to be communal activities. Thinking through should be done somewhere private, by oneself or with one or two (very patient) friends.

The ideas I was trying to think through were difficult (for me, at least) and I didn't have a good grasp on them. What is the nature of time? A huge topic, which I am in no way competent to talk about. And what is the nature of history? Does it follow broad trends, like a river that usually keeps to its bed, or is it highly contingent? Can you change it dramatically with a single action?

The final questions I had were, why do people write alternative histories, and why are alternative histories so popular right now?

I have written a couple of alternative history stories in recent years and a number of time travel stories. I think time travel is related to alternative history. Both ask the question, can one change the past? Which becomes the question, can one change the present and future? A hugely important question. We are at a point in history (I think) when the present does not look especially good and the future looks grim. Is major change possible? How do we achieve it?

In any case, I had a lot of questions, too many for a one-hour panel. I'm going back to the con tomorrow. I have one panel, on how to write heroes. I think I will go in unprepared -- with no questions or ideas.
Sean Murphy made a very good comment at the panel: change depends on the magnitude of the event. A small event does not change history. A large one does. To use the river metaphor, the course of the Mississippi is not easy to change, but it can be done. The river's course was changed by the New Madrid earthquake. It was a big event. More than that, the Army Corps of Engineers is in a constant struggle with the course of the Mississippi. Their dams and levees are not the same size as the Madrid earthquake, but they are big, and there are a lot of them. Sean was talking about strange attractors, and he lost me. But I think I got the basic point.

History is mostly stable, but it can be changed. It is both a river and a tree of contingent events.
Having said that, I begin to think about a story involving time engineers, trying to keep history on a certain course, and time saboteurs, planning to blow up levees.
Alternative history and time travel stories are, it now occurs to me, a direct challenge to Margaret Thatcher's terrible lie, There Is No Alternative. Both say, history can be changed.


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